Quintana and Mission San Jose hybrid civic engagement pilot project

The challenges facing the future of San Antonio are significant. Bearing “the responsibility of being the future,” the Urban Future Lab, in collaboration with Southside First Economic Development Council, is undertaking a pilot program with the aim to serve the disenfranchised future of the Mission San Jose and Quintana Road communities. Through this partnership, we will develop a community-based strategy outlining critical components of the Mission San Jose and Quintana Road pilot projects and how to identify problems, develop objectives, and chart a path that translates collective ambitions and visions into values, responsibilities, duties, and collective aspirations to catalyze new inquires, perspectives, and tools to develop the mechanisms and metrics necessary to lead into a future trajectory. Based on the social, cultural, economic, and political climate on San Antonio’s Southside, we argue, it seems as if we have accepted that there is no difference between a problem and solutions we mostly don’t understand, on one hand, and on the other, how “mystery” and assumptions keep informing the decisions we are making. The last ten years have not shown much progress in addressing issues of inequity with most families in Southside communities still living below the poverty line. With this collaboration, we aim to establish solid underpinnings to distinguish between solvable problems, myth, and how the symbiosis between the two translates into actionable objectives to further economic revitalization and community development. A hybrid civic engagement approach is central to our efforts, as we aim to integrate the physical and digital realms to gather increasingly personalized data from residents of the pilot communities to address issues of digital, human, and geographic (in)equity.

Please see below recent coverage of our work by W. Scott Bailey of the San Antonio Business Journal. Photos by San Antonio Business Journal.

South San Antonio seeking fair share of new investment

A San Antonio economic development group looks at what is holding neighborhoods back from greater prosperity.

South San Antonio, defined by a rich history and cultural heritage, has been held back in its economic growth by misconceptionshave limited its appeal to outside investors. Despite that part of town being home to four of five centuries-old missions — now designated World Heritage Sites — and a significant stretch of the city’s namesake river, developers have been slow to migrate south of Highway 90.

That decades-long struggle for economic equality has prompted institutional stakeholders to take a deeper look into an area where misconceptions about widespread educational and financial deficiencies, among other inflated shortcomings, have impeded development. Lacking data to the contrary, a mindset persists that there is no money to be made in South San Antonio — in residential or retail development or other investment.

Now, those doing the soul-searching hope to better identify the area’s assets and challenges, and to help chart a course toward greater economic prosperity.

The Southside First Economic Development Council, launched last year by the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to help promote a sector of the city with about 300,000 residents, is spearheading the initiative. It’s enlisted multiple institutions, including the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Future Lab and Trinity University, which noted in a report conducted for the council that southward growth has been hampered by a “willful ignorance” of the area’s “potential and its strengths.”

The feedback has catalyzed a deeper look at neighborhoods still waiting to capitalize on significant economic assets. Southside First and the Urban Future Lab are especially focused on the Quintana and San Jose communities, which are home to Port San Antonio and Mission San Jose, respectively.

“UTSA’S Future Lab offered a different perspective on how we understand the neighborhoods’ relationship to major economic assets,” Southside First Executive Director Andrew Anguiano said.

Antonio Petrov, who heads Urban Future Lab, said some South Side residents have “learned to accept” the misconceptions. But he believes stakeholders can use new data to better distinguish between solvable problems and myths and then use that knowledge to devise ways for advancing “economic revitalization and community development.”

Understanding the port and poverty

South San Antonio counts among its larger assets Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Palo Alto College and Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas Inc., a massive truck manufacturing plant that makes Tacoma and Tundra pickups.

Port San Antonio, another of those assets, is especially important because of its scale. The former Air Force base, which spans some 1,900 acres, is an aviation and technology hub that counts Boeing Co. and Standard Aero among its prominent tenants. Its annual economic impact has been pegged at more than $5 billion.

Yet for its large size and robust activity, Port San Antonio’s economic impact seems to have bypassed neighboring Southwest Side communities. The average household income in the Quintana area, for example, is less than $26,000, according to data provided by the Urban Future Lab. More than a third of the residents fall below the federal poverty line.

The council’s concern was that South Side assets that have contributed to San Antonio’s overall economy for years “were not providing the economic stimulus to the adjacent neighborhoods,” Anguiano said. “We just wanted to understand why and maybe ask different questions.”

Dolores Mendez is among those who could use some answers. She’s owned a Mexican cafe on Quintana Road for 32 years and has spent much of that time waiting for better roads, drainage and sidewalks. Private-sector investment in the area seems further out of reach.

Dolores Mendez and her staff at work in her restaurant in the Quintana neighborhood. Photo by San Antonio Business Journal.

Mendez said there is a demand for new homes and businesses on the South Side, the low household incomes in the Quintana community notwithstanding. However, she believes the city needs to funnel more money to that area to incentivize development.

Such money, she said, has been “very slow in coming.”

Such frustrations spurred Mendez and her husband to help launch the Quintana Community Neighborhood Association.

“People needed to be informed. We needed to speak out,” Mendez said. “We will stay at it as long as we can.”

The mural at Dolores Mendez’ restaurant on Quintana Road shows the neighborhood’s vision of itself as connected to the historic missions. Photo by San Antonio Business Journal.

Port San Antonio’s new interim CEO, Jim Perschbach, is seeking to forge deeper bonds with area neighborhoods. He’s also trying to get more private investment on the port’s land, including a new restaurant.

“The types of industries we want to attract are based on human talent. That talent can go anywhere,” he told me. “So we need to make sure this is an environment where people want to come work.”

Petrov said the analysis of Quintana and San Jose will help determine next steps.

“We want to expand our understanding of economic activity in the pilot communities and tap into an already-existing entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

Banking on bigger buy in

In Southeast San Antonio, a separate shuttered Air Force Base has been transformed into Brooks, a mixed-use development that features restaurant, retail and residential space, as well as the University of the Incarnate Word’s recently established school of osteopathic medicine.

There has been some spillover of new development outside Brooks’ footprint. Yet, there is plenty of room for more economic growth in the area, Brooks CEO Leo Gomez said. Achieving that potential, he said, will require more attention from developers, investors and bankers who must look beyond South San Antonio stereotypes.

A Quintana neighborhood event venue, often rented for weddings and quinceañera, is getting a renovation. Photo by San Antonio Business Journal.

“They need to rethink the South Side or they will miss out on opportunities,” Gomez said. “You can’t develop without developers. And you can’t build things without a construction loan or capital.”

The 2,500-acre Brooks tax increment reinvestment zone has appreciated from just over $36 million in 2004 to more than $609 million, Gomez said.

“There is something going on here,” he said.

Yet there is still “retail leakage” on the South Side, Anguiano said, referring to residents who go elsewhere to buy goods, services and entertainment. Untracked, that can feed into the misconceptions about a lack of demand.

Meanwhile, too few employment opportunities on the South Side has forced many area residents to commute to other parts of the city for work. Those commutes counter efforts to create more sustainable, live-work-and-play communities.

“It’s a crazy cycle,” Petrov said. “We have to look at this holistically and build on what is already there.”

Antonio Petrov said stakeholders can use new data to better distinguish between solvable problems and myths and then use that knowledge to devise ways for advancing “economic revitalization and community development.” Photo by San Antonio Business Journal.

Pursuing a new narrative

Better understanding South San Antonio has proven challenging at times, Petrov said, as some of the data has conflicted with reality.

“We saw huge gaps from what we are seeing in data and what is out there,” Petrov said. “I would almost say it’s as radicalized a difference as you can find anywhere.”

City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, whose district covers much of Southeast San Antonio, said economic equity is imperative. She believes there is a real opportunity to attack “economic segregation” with a greater commitment to educational attainment, expanded workforce development and with leadership more focused on underserved areas.

Like others with a vested interest in South San Antonio, Viagran sees some light at the end of the tunnel.

“The narrative is changing,” she said.

Petrov said an economic shift could benefit all of San Antonio, with new investment and entrepreneurial opportunities unique to the city’s southern sector.

“We as a city have to strive for new definitions of the future,” Petrov said. “While we work on these imminent issues, we formulate new questions based on collective aspirations to identify mechanisms that work for all.”

For Anguiano, it’s no longer about pointing fingers.

“It’s about finding solutions,” he said. “Now, at least there is somebody looking. Something is happening. The energy is changing.”

— W. Scott Bailey, Senior Reporter, San Antonio Business Journal

Read “South San Antonio seeking fair share of new investment” on the San Antonio Business Journal’s website.