San Antonio Partnerships Create ‘Culture of Business’
This post is excerpted from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Enterprising Cities report. The report highlights seven cities with policies and practices that will help strengthen our free enterprise system.
While municipalities across the nation have struggled to regain momentum lost during the Great Recession, the cities of Texas are a notable outlier, continually leading the nation in economic growth. Among the Lone Star State’s many stories of success is San Antonio, which has made major steps forward—economically and demographically. Now the seventh largest city in the nation, San Antonio is paving the road to success by building strong partnerships between the public and private sectors to build a business-friendly, pro-growth environment.
Building a Culture of Business
San Antonio has structured its economic development efforts with a goal of creating a culture of business, friendly to growth and economic expansion. These efforts appear to be paying off. During the past year, the city added over 20,000 jobs, and was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. By working together, leaders from all sectors have created a pro-growth environment, working in partnership to ensure that San Antonio’s main strength will be found in the collaboration between all the agencies and groups.
A strong emphasis on business retention and expansion lies at the heart of San Antonio’s economic growth agenda. San Antonio’s Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) leads these efforts, which bring together multiple public and private sector partners, including the city of San Antonio, Bexar County, and local energy and water utility service providers. Local government leaders have embraced a philosophy of pro-business governance, and are engaged as active partners in supporting regional partnerships to expand industry and create jobs.
While SAEDF plays a lead role in building these partnerships, the city’s chamber plays a key support role, focusing on building a positive environment for existing businesses to grow and thrive. The City of San Antonio’s Economic Development Department and Bexar County Economic Development are also important partners, taking part in business expansion and retention efforts, supporting small business development, and connecting companies to state and local resources.
The SAEDF and city work to promote the region’s low cost of living to attract new residents, helping spur growth and support growing companies by providing access to talented employees. By leveraging this and other competitive advantages (including low taxes and regulatory burdens) and focusing on bringing business, government, and other key economic stakeholders together in effective partnerships, San Antonio has laid the foundation to continue its pattern of strong growth.
Sound Government Fosters Citizen Commitment
San Antonio’s political leadership is committed to fiscal prudence, and has received an AAA bond rating from all three major rating agencies. Among the nation’s 10 largest cities, San Antonio is the only one to have received the top rating from all three. By keeping the city’s fiscal house in order, city leaders are able to issue bonds at less cost to taxpayers, giving the city more flexibility in financing needed infrastructure upgrades. According to Mayor Julian Castro, the city’s strong fiscal position is a signal to the private sector that San Antonio is “well managed and one of the best places in America to do business.” Unchallenged by many of the budgetary strains facing cities around the nation, San Antonio is able to hold the line on taxes, maintain services, and focus on investments needed to maintain continued economic growth.
Citizens in San Antonio have shown a commitment to community investment in infrastructure needed to keep the city competitive and enable growth. In 2012, voters in the community approved the largest bonding program in the city’s history. The new, 2012–2017 Bond Program, managed by the city’s Capital Improvements Management Services department, will invest nearly $600 million in a variety of infrastructure upgrades and expansions designed to improve quality of life, upgrade transportation infrastructure, and support city growth. The city’s strong fiscal position allows it to make such investments without raising property taxes. Due to the public’s support of infrastructure investment, San Antonio has also been able to finance upgrades to the city’s airport, modernizing and expanding a vital piece of economic infrastructure.
Getting Results: An Export Boom
Beginning over 25 years ago with an intensive globalization campaign, San Antonio has made building export activity a strong part of its economic development activities. The city boasts a network of groups and agencies, involving both the public and private sectors, focused on enhancing regional industry’s ability to access foreign markets. In 1994, business and community leaders came together to create a Free Trade Alliance, hoping to strengthen the city’s trade position in the wake of NAFTA. In addition to advocating for pro-trade policies, and working to build networks of trade-interested groups, the alliance supports the San Antonio Export Leaders Program. Working in partnership with city government and other allies, the program offers small and medium-sized San Antonio companies access to a four-month training program designed to help them “develop their sales abroad.”
Among the Lone Star State’s many stories of success is San Antonio, which has made major steps forward economically and demographically.
San Antonio’s trade promotion activities have also focused on attracting international companies and foreign direct investment to the city. Support for these efforts is provided through the city’s International Business Development Center. Administered by the city’s Free Trade Alliance, the center serves as a business incubator, offering foreign companies looking to establish a presence in San Antonio assistance in establishing U.S. operations and access to sales, research, and marketing support services. In addition to creating more jobs, bringing foreign companies to San Antonio allows the city to build new, valuable ties to international markets, helping spur more trade.
Manufacturing remains a strong and diverse part of San Antonio’s economy, with local economic stakeholders working to provide the sector with the tools it needs to grow. Local community colleges, working in partnership with industry partners through the regional Workforce Solutions Alamo program, offer local manufacturers workforce training support through their “Just In Time” program. The initiative is tailored to ensure that San Antonio manufacturing has access to a steady supply of well-trained technicians, enabling continued production and expansion.
Local government and industry partners, working through the SAEDF, are also focused on manufacturing expansion and retention. The region is committed to retaining all existing manufacturing businesses, but when businesses in trouble are identified, the SAEDF’s Rapid Response Team is able to step in to mitigate losses. By maintaining a stable manufacturing base, the region is able to produce the products needed to increase San Antonio’s clout as a center for global trade.
The city’s drive to support manufacturing, increase trade, and build ties with international markets has paid off. International exports from the San Antonio metro area soared by 33% between 2011 and 2012, hitting a record of $14 billion. Since 2008, exports by San Antonio businesses have increased nearly 180%, supporting economic growth in the region, and placing the city in the top 10 metros for export growth.
Looking to the Future, Measuring Progress
In order to improve San Antonio’s efforts to build a stronger community and enhance economic opportunity, Mayor Castro and other community leaders launched the SA2020 initiative in 2010. SA2020 brought together citizens from throughout the community to set goals for community improvement. Participants and program leaders have identified 11 key “causes,” and have set “specific, measurable data indicators with set targets for the next decade” to measure progress in each focus area. SA2020 is designed to build partnerships around these issue areas, bringing together the efforts of the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to work toward common goals.
One of the key causes identified for community action was economic competiveness. The SAEDF has signed on as the “lead partner” for this cause area, which involves tracking data regarding several measurable items, including job growth by industry sector, per capita income, entrepreneurial activity, percent of STEM jobs and graduates, and post-secondary credentials earned in pipeline. To increase public engagement and maintain accountability, SA2020 maintains the innovative and well-designed “This Is Progress” website, which allows the public easy access to graphics listing the program’s goals, and data showing what progress has been made to date.
San Antonio has made improving local education and workforce development systems a key part of its efforts to build a strong economic future. In 2011, Mayor Castro and leaders from business and education came together to launch a “Brainpower Initiative.” After a year of studying best practices and evaluating local educational resources, the initiative recommended, and voters approved, a 1/8-cent sales tax to be invested in pre-kindergarten education through 2020. By increasing access to early childhood education, the city plans to enhance local educational achievement and improve college attainment later in life—providing the skilled workforce that regional industry needs to thrive.
The region’s 15 colleges and universities, with more than 150,000 students, have been key players in supporting workforce development in San Antonio. Local higher education leaders are working together with industry to address targeted workforce needs. Looking to meet the demand for trained workers in the region’s expanding Eagle Ford Shale oil industry, local community colleges are providing training for oilfield workers through an “Eagle Ford Boot Camp” program. Other colleges and universities in the region also provide training and degree programs in oil and gas related professions, providing talent to support a regional growth engine.
Collaboration Yields Success
By bringing together government, business, nonprofit, and educational leaders in support of a culture of business, San Antonio has been able to sustain growth and prosperity. With unemployment rates under the national average, and strong job growth, city leaders have been able to chart a course toward long-term success, providing jobs and opportunity for new and existing residents. By working together, government, businesses, and the citizens of San Antonio have all benefited from relative prosperity during a time of economic unrest. This future-oriented leadership culture is most notably shown by San Antonio residents voting to invest in infrastructure and early childhood education. While the city acknowledges there is still progress to be made, and is setting goals for improvement through its SA2020 initiative, its history of building collaboration and public-private cooperation bodes well for continued growth and success.