Outgoing President and CEO Bruce Miller outlined the past and future of Port San Antonio before an audience of more than 120 business and community members gathered for the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce's first ever luncheon on Wednesday.
The State of the Port 2014 was Miller's last annual address as he and the Board prepare to announce the hiring of a new CEO on Friday, according to sources. Miller said the Port's future is rooted in attracting young employees and continuing to enhance the growing U.S. military presence on the former base.
"Kelly, you’ve come a long way, baby, but Port SA you have a long way to go,” Miller told the audience.
Miller pointed to the sheer physical space that has yet to be developed at Port SA as one of the biggest opportunities to find the land's "highest and best use," an evolving concept as the communities and the city around it changes.
Only 900 acres on the 1,900-acre former Air Force logistics base have been developed, Miller said.
Existing structures range from historic to Class A facilities. "It's got a lot of development room ... this is going to be a multigenerational project."
Port SA is in the early stages of outlining a deal with the Air Force to expand its office space. Four years ago, the Air Force invested $80 million to remodel Building 171 into headquarters for six commands, including the 24th Air Force Cyber Command.
"The (military) functions at Port SA need to expand, but they don't have the space," Miller said of the project after his speech. "We're a development company, property management, construction management – we're a full service real-estate company ... so we'll be seeking out ways to accommodate their needs."
New facilities will be funded by private investors, contracted by Port SA, and leased to the Air Force. More development could eventually lead to the addition of hotels, restaurants, and new housing. Port SA, while technically the largest "mixed-use" property in San Antonio, still looks and feels more like a former military based turned industrial complex. The transformation of former officer's quarters into the Billy Mitchell Apartments, that came on the market in 2011, and the addition of townhomes has brought more employees and their families to live at the Port, but it has yet to achieve the live/work/play mix that communities strive to achieve, aiming especially to attract Millennial workers.
Part of ensuring the long-term sustainability of Port SA is continuing to develop a highly trained local workforce. Alamo College's Southwest Campus and Workforce Center of Excellence are located at the Port's East Kelly Railport, which opened in 2001 and 2012 respectively, and have been preparing young men and women for careers in aerospace technology, advanced manufacturing and customized "just-in-time" training for growing industries.
During his 12 years with the Port, Miller led the redevelopment of Kelly Air Force Base, which was officially closed in 2001 by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, into the one of the nation's fastest-growing aerospace industry hubs. In 2010, Port SA was named Base Redevelopment of the Year by the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Defense Communities. According to the Texas State Historical Association, at its height in 1989, Kelly Air Force employed 25,000 military and civilian employees. Its payroll exceeded $721 million.
The news that the base was closing "landed like a nuclear bomb,” said District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, who even as a young boy in 1995 could feel the shock waves of the closure.
Even in 2011 as he was knocking on doors, campaigning for election, residents "would reflect back ... 'Oh I remember the good ol' days,'" he said. "The main thrust or the thesis of a lot of their conversations really centered around the place of employment for them and their neighbors and previous generations which was Kelly Air Force Base.
"You could throw a rock and hit somebody who put food on the table with a check from Kelly Air Force Base."
Saldaña praised Miller for his leadership during a time of significant transition in San Antonio. For two generations, Kelly was a stepping stone into the middle class for Mexican-Americans. Under Miller, Port SA grew into one of the city's most important job generators and a whole new generation of workers have found good paying jobs there.
"It's one thing to give someone the title of leader when times are good,"Saldaña said of Miller's start at Port SA in 2002. "It takes on a new dynamic when you give someone the title of leader in bad times."
Today, about 12,000 San Antonians work at Port San Antonio for more than 80 different private and public sector organizations, in aerospace, military logistics, manufacturing, railway, and other industries. New figures indicate that Port SA generates more than $4.4 billion in annual regional economic activity.
Port SA's "success (is measured) by opportunities you can give to folks," Saldaña said. "We're not talking about employment for the sake of a stable income or stability in the sense that we know it. It's more than that at Port San Antonio and it was more than that at Kelly Air Force Base. It was about a sense of dignity that those folks who were employed there felt."
As a start to his presentation, Miller played a video produced by Port SA's public relations/communications team. It's dramatic, to say the least, with a soundtrack reminiscent of an epic Batman movie.
"I'm done," he joked after the video.
Miller spoke candidly about the future.
"We've got over 12,000 people working today, but we've had higher numbers," Miller said. "There has been some changes because of what has happened with sequestration in the Air Force and the natural change from military work to commercial work in the aerospace community."
He's optimistic about the future of the Port SA because of its land resources and the Port's ability to evolve and respond to economic opportunity.
"Things do not change, we change,” Miller said during his closing remarks, quoting Henry David Thoreau. "We're in a process of change right now. You can’t know no how happy I am to finally be able to retire – it's kinda a family joke.
"I turned 70 this year … for me that was a milestone," he continued. "I think we’ve got a good person here (to replace me) and Kelly will continue to grow and change."
*Featured/top image: An Aerial view of Port San Antonio looking east toward downtown San Antonio. Photo courtesy of Port SA.