Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The list that doomed an Air Force base to closure in 2005 now seems like a distant memory given the decommissioned development is now on four lists, this time the kind intended to promote growth and propel an entire community forward. What’s more, it appears to be the only area its size in San Antonio with all four of these designations.
With the selection of Brooks as a federal Opportunity Zone last year, the former base now claims four overlapping designations, including being named a city-initiated Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), a Smart SA Innovation zone, and an SA Tomorrow regional center.
The designations are tools in a “development toolbox” that has turned the historic military installation into a thriving 1,200-acre community home to more than 40 businesses with 3,300 employees. By 2021, the Brooks city-within-a-city is expected to support more than 17,000 jobs.
“It all goes back to what our vision and mission is as an organization,” Gomez said. “Our vision is to develop a vibrant mixed-use community that has an international presence and doing it through a mission, through a strategy, that develops that mixed-use community to attract what we call ‘marquee employers.’ These various designations help us leverage the 1,308 acres that used to be the Air Force base.”
The designations were deliberately sought, Gomez added.
“We worked at them, we intended for them to overlap on our campus, and this is the result,” he said. “And that intention has led to multiple tools in the toolbox. We’re not relying on just one or the other.”
And it’s been worth the effort so far. The Brooks TIRZ covers a total of 2,500 acres that in 2004 had an appraised value of $36.8 million. Last year’s appraisal came in at $618 million, Gomez said, an improved valuation of over 20 percent per year.
“You can imagine what that does to generate additional taxes out of this area,” he said. “That’s property taxes. That’s not to mention the enhanced sales taxes, the enhanced hotel-motel tax collection for the City, the County, the hospital district, the school districts, etc.
“I think that number alone tells a story better than anything else we could say as to what has occurred here since 2004.”
Then there were the nearly continuous series of announcements from Brooks and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation introducing new employers, educational institutions, restaurants, and retailers opening at Brooks. A $7.5 million VIA Transit Center is also set to open there this summer. Funded by a Texas Department of Transportation grant to the County, the transit center will provide express service from Brooks to downtown and beyond, fulfilling VIA’s vision to connect San Antonio’s large regional centers.
“Gomez has a good vision for what he sees happening in that area, and appreciates what VIA and public transportation can do for that area,” said VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt. VIA partnered with Brooks leadership to position the transit center at Sidney Brooks and South New Braunfels Ave in the heart of the campus.
For decades, a chain-link fence and security gates divided the Brooks campus from the surrounding area. Now that the physical barriers are gone, Brooks constitutes an entire community – not just the original campus – with the four designations extending its reach past I-35, and as far as Mission Road, East Southcross Boulevard, and Loop 410.
In 2007, the development authority even acquired additional land outside the campus – 55 acres near the San Antonio State Hospital – and recently announced plans for a mixed-residential development there.
“At the end of the day, we are not interested in waking up 20 years from now, having created an island of prosperity on the Southside,” Gomez said. “My board has made it clear that our vision and our mission is to develop these 1,300 acres in a way that creates prosperity and opportunity in the region around us.”
Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone
In 2001, the City of San Antonio created the Brooks Development Authority to take ownership and transition the Air Force base into a business and technology park. The City established the Brooks TIRZ in 2004. As a city-initiated TIRZ, it allows the City to deposit additional property taxes that are collected, over the established base value, into a TIRZ fund that can be used for public infrastructure and other improvements.
Since its inception, the Brooks TIRZ has collected $14.5 million and paid off $12.1 million in debt issued to fund public improvements. Those include the New Braunfels Avenue infrastructure project; Challenger Drive Inner Circle; Dave Erwin Drive; and sidewalks, streets, draining, and water improvements.
Such projects eased the way for private-sector development including DPT Laboratories (2008), Mission Trail Baptist Hospital (2011), the Embassy Suites by Hilton (2016), and many other residential and retail projects. Before the Hilton was built, there was no full-service hotel between downtown and the southernmost edge of the city.
“It’s hard to have economic development without assistance with utilities, with stormwater and drainage, all the basics of land development,” Gomez said. “We could be the goody-two-shoes, economic development-minded organization all day long. And if we don’t have resources for investing in our infrastructure … then we’re not a development organization. And Brooks, at the end of the day, is a land developer, with the public interest in mind.”
In San Antonio, there are 24 areas eligible for the federal government’s community development tax incentive program known as Opportunity Zones. The program establishes tax incentives to encourage private individuals to invest unrealized capital gains in projects located within high-poverty communities.
Of the two-dozen zones in San Antonio, Brooks secured the first actual investment under that program when DPR Investments purchased land on the eastern portion of the Brooks campus to develop a climate-controlled self-storage facility and flex space for small businesses.
Gomez said at least two more Opportunity Zone investments will be announced at Brooks before the end of September.
“Why have initial investors focused on Brooks? Well, because Brooks is already showing that it will generate a return on investment,” Gomez said. “So the Brooks Opportunity Zone investors are not only realizing the tax benefits but are actually in a position of greater confidence for a real return on their investment as well.”
Brooks was the first regional center named under the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan, the City’s guidebook for growth and development adopted in 2016. SA Tomorrow covers land use, economic development, housing, environmental protection, preservation, and transportation.
“There’s good leadership [at Brooks] and that’s what you really need to make a regional center successful – willing partners and good leadership,” said Rudy Niño, assistant director of the City’s planning department. “You see that in the Medical Center with [San Antonio Medical Foundation president] Jim Reed as well. You need that so you know implementation has a chance to occur out there.”
Brooks was chosen as a regional center because by the year 2040, it is projected to have over 15,000 jobs in the area, and “because of the momentum that was already happening out there,” Niño said. “And we want to make sure it’s all done in a very holistic manner.”
So the City is now working with the development authority and local residents on 10 years’ worth of projects to make sure the area can accommodate future jobs, provide housing and amenities for a workforce, and connect the area to other parts of the city.
Implementation will begin with a zoning assessment, both to prepare for development and protect existing neighborhoods and to evaluate needed infrastructure improvements and make policy recommendations. It will be up to the City’s transportation and capital improvements department to conduct studies of what is needed and request budget dollars for those studies and improvements.
“Brooks definitely is a unique geography given the fact there are a number of tools to support private development out there,” Niño said. “I think the fact there are so many willing partners, and so many partners focused on development that can support future projected growth … that’s always a good mix for something good happening.”
SA Innovation District
San Antonio’s first three innovation districts were chosen in February from among the 13 regional centers identified in the SA Tomorrow plan. They are downtown, the Medical Center, and Brooks.
Innovation districts are like target pilot-project areas for the City where challenges are identified, and new ideas are tried in real-world settings.
“What’s the benefit to us? We get to be on the leading edge of what might work,” Gomez said. “I also joke with people that means we’re also going to be on the leading edge of what might not work.
“But what makes us a good [innovation] zone for the City of San Antonio is that we’re basically a little city in the making.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she led the work with the mayor and City Council to ensure Brooks became an Innovation Zone and had a TIRZ expansion. The Brooks area was not included in the first phase of SA Tomorrow’s rollout, she said.
“But I fought to make sure Brooks was included, and now it will be the first plan to be completed,” Viagran said. “The momentum was building in the Brooks area, and I wanted to ensure that we lay a good foundation for development.”