With the end of the Cold War came a reassessment of the nation's military capabilities, including a hard look at the number of military bases in operation. When the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission put Kelly Air Force Base on the closure list, city leaders tackled the question of how to make use of the storied site.
In 1995, San Antonio’s City Council established a redevelopment authority, and six years later, on July 13, 2001, the Air Force officially closed Kelly.
In 2006, the Greater Kelly Development Authority was reorganized into the Port Authority of San Antonio, or as it is known today, Port San Antonio. Led by a board of directors appointed by City Council, the Port’s strategic growth and operations are managed by President and CEO Roland Mower.
Juan F. Solis III is a current Port San Antonio board member who was integral to the conversion of the former base into the development authority it is today. He was the District 5 Council member at the time of Kelly's closure and one of three members in the tri-chair commission that oversaw the original transition and development plan.
"We looked to reinforce what Kelly Air Force Base represented for San Antonio – the source of good middle-class jobs for our residents," Solis told the Rivard Report. "We learned about the hard lessons in Philadelphia and what happened after the sudden shutdown of their naval base [the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard], and we worked hard to avoid that here.
"We also had to convince then-President Clinton to give us time for the transition. When the base closed, there were about 12,600 jobs, and today at the Port we're at about 12,700 jobs. This transition has allowed San Antonio to diversify its economy and not be so dependent on defense dollars for its jobs."
Solis' views on San Antonio's future path embodies pride and determination.
"I feel proud to be one of the people who helped create the vision," Solis said. "I can both see the progress that has been accomplished and the progress yet to be achieved."
The Way Ahead for Port San Antonio
The inherent advantages at Kelly Air Force Base – logistics infrastructure, manufacturing capabilities, and aeronautical buildings and airfield capacity – have enabled Port San Antonio to emerge as a dynamic aerospace platform that continues to provide good jobs to thousands of local workers. Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Booz Allen Hamilton are among the private-sector employers at the Port, while the U.S. Air Force maintains a presence.
"The anniversary in 2017 gives us an extraordinary opportunity to go back and think about the legacy of Kelly Air Force Base and what it now means to the economy and community of San Antonio," Mower told the Rivard Report. "Kelly was the pathway to middle class for so many families in San Antonio with its aviation and manufacturing opportunities.
"The history and legacy of Kelly Field is the basis for the future development of Port San Antonio. The past plays a really strong role in developing our future."
Over 1 million sq. ft. of new construction has taken place at the site, including state-of-the-art office, logistics, and aerospace facilities. Numerous former Air Force facilities have been upgraded over the past 20 years to accommodate a growing number of targeted industries, which include cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing.
At the same time, history is being preserved on the 1,900-acre campus.
Most of the buildings in the Kelly Field Historic District were constructed between 1940 and 1943 to provide training, administrative, repair, supply, and residential facilities for recruits, instructional and maintenance personnel, and military officers. The Duncan Field bungalow colony within the historic district is comprised of several buildings dating to the 1920s that served as officer and servant quarters, as well as an infirmary.
Port San Antonio is currently working with community stakeholders on near-term upgrades to the two larger units at the entrance of the colony that were homes of former base commanders.
"When people first see the bungalows, they find it hard to believe that these were once part of an Air Force base," said Ray Flores, vice president of real estate development for Port San Antonio.
As San Antonio continues to grow, the Port wants to preserve a sense of place by restoring these buildings and also provide the community with new spaces.
"We're doing additional work on the bungalows, preserving that important piece of history so we can then use them in a way to tie the past rich historical legacy to the future of the port, and in the process, redevelop a sense of place here in San Antonio," Mower said.
"We expect an increase in demand for unique spaces like this by small professional firms that have a particular appreciation for these types of [historic] spaces," Flores said. "That’s why we’re completing the redevelopment plan for the bungalows in partnership with Councilman Rey Saldaña and the City’s Office of Historic Preservation. It’s an opportunity to further diversify the types of jobs being created here."
The array of events scheduled to celebrate Kelly's 100th anniversary are intended to bring together all groups with ties to the base, from former workers to historians, aviation buffs to retired military personnel.
"The events are designed to bring a celebration to the depth and breadth of people tied to Kelly Field in the past," Mower said. "There will be many opportunities for [people connected to the] past, present, and future [of Port San Antonio] to mingle at many of the celebratory events planned for this year."
Common Themes Across Past, Present, and Future
David Marquez, who came to work at Kelly in 1985 as a machinist, credits his employers at the base with setting him on the path to success. After the base closed, he attended what was then Southwest Texas State University, enrolling in a customized program that awarded credits based on work skills he had gained at Kelly.
"I received so much valuable mentorship from many high-level managers and executives at Kelly who took an interest in me to help me grow and take advantage of this path to career development," Marquez said. "They were role models who believed in the notion that Kelly represented a way for people in San Antonio to reach the middle class by actively mentoring and helping them reach their potential.
"I'm living proof that this is true, and I'm sure many others at Kelly can tell the same story."
Marquez is now Bexar County's executive director for economic development.
"Kelly's story is not over – it's still valid today," he said. "The job is there and for anybody who has the skills and wants to leverage that work into a developed career path, that opportunity exists today at Port San Antonio."