Boom With A View

The peril and promise of being one of the fastest-growing cities in Texas.

In a state full of legendary boomtowns, the city of San Antonio has long been the odd man out. While Houston, Dallas, and Austin all experienced multiple economic explosions in the past quarter century, San Antonio held fast to its old identity—a drowsy, largely poor, peacefully irrelevant tourist and military town where you could get a good chalupa, wander through the Alamo, and take a sun-dappled stroll along the river. The city remained, charmingly, the Land That Time Forgot.

No more. In case you haven’t been stuck in one of its newfangled traffic jams, San Antonio is now riding the crest of a broad, diversified boom that is unlike anything Texas has ever seen. Corporate campuses of granite and travertine blossom like bluebonnets on the city’s undeveloped outer edges. Vast residential subdivisions bearing names like Redbird Ranch march north and west across parts of the Hill Country that until recently housed only rock quarries and raccoons. Roads are being torn up and rebuilt, pipelines and power lines laid, limestone ridges blasted with dynamite and sculpted by Caterpillar tractors. It is hog heaven for builders, boosters, and developers and a slowly gathering nightmare for environmentalists, residents of old core neighborhoods left behind by the skyrocketing growth, and a lot of folks who liked San Antonio as it was. Either way, there is no stopping it—at least not yet—and there is no going back.

Though the local economy was beginning to change by the late nineties, most people date the San Antonio boom from 2003, when Toyota and 21 of its suppliers made the stunning announcement that they would be building a pickup truck plant with 4,700 jobs in what was previously considered the middle of nowhere—a stretch of sparsely populated ranch land about ten miles south of downtown. Since then, the city has seen the sort of growth most places in America can only dream about. From 2003 to 2007, 22,060 jobs were created when 97 companies opened new local operations—a list that includes, in addition to Toyota (which opened its plant in 2006), Microsoft, Washington Mutual, Accenture, American Funds, Caterpillar, Wachovia, and the National Security Agency. All were aggressively pursued by San Antonio, which is highly organized and deadly serious in its hunt for new jobs. In spite of the closing of two large Air Force bases—Kelly and Brooks—San Antonio has emerged as a net gainer of military jobs, as two other bases, Fort Sam Houston and Lackland, have both undergone dramatic increases in personnel. These are in addition to the city’s existing success stories: AT&T, which moved to the city in 1992; homegrown companies like Clear Channel, Valero, and USAA, respectively the nation’s largest radio company, its largest refiner, and one of its largest insurers; and a mushrooming multihospital biomedical industry that now employs 108,000 people. The new San Antonio campus of Texas A&M, to be located not far from the Toyota plant, will begin construction in 2010 and eventually enroll 25,000 students.

All this has attracted a good deal of the right sort of media attention, particularly since the population in the metropolitan area is 53 percent Hispanic and much of it has traditionally been poor. In May, ranked San Antonio third on its list of “The Best U.S. Housing Markets”; Fast Company had already ranked it as one of the “15 Hot Cities for Creative Types.” It has made Inc. and Entrepreneur magazines’ lists of best cities to do business in, and the AARP recently named it one of the nation’s top fifteen “retirement dream towns.”

The city is simply taking off, and taking off in very specific directions—thus far mostly to the north and the west. To fully grasp what is happening, take a drive along what was once the lonely, undeveloped, outer-outer rim of the city—Texas Loop 1604, which used to be the back way to Sea World. West of U.S. 281, you can see how much the land is filling in, how many malls and strip malls and mall-ettes and office buildings and access roads and apartment complexes and residential subdivisions now crowd in where there used to be only live oaks and prickly pear. As you head west, counterclockwise around the city, you pass Texas Highway 16, the modest four-lane road to Helotes that is jammed with new Hill Country residents at rush hour. Farther down is Texas 151, which leads to a gigantic, 3,500-acre mixed-use development called Westover Hills—perhaps the single best example of the sort of economic development that is going on. There you can see the site of Microsoft’s billion-dollar data center, rising on steel girders and circled by power lines. Everywhere there is new construction, much of it high-tech (data centers, back office operations), and everywhere there are recognizable names ( JPMorgan Chase, Scientific Games, Capital Group, Lowe’s, Hartford Insurance).

Why now, you might ask, after such a long and peaceful metropolitan slumber? Though there are many factors, including the enormous ripple effect of the Toyota move, the development here is also clearly a product of overdevelopment elsewhere. “Other cities that were ahead of us—like Houston, Dallas, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles—to some degree logically topped out,” says former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, the city’s first public official to strongly advocate diversified economic growth. Cisneros now chairs BioMed SA, a nonprofit group that promotes San Antonio’s health care and medical research sectors. “Their land prices got high, the congestion was heavy, the distances to work were long, and workforce availability began to get tighter. Suddenly, the development community discovers a place that not only had the infrastructure and the political will but also wasn’t oversold, overbuilt, overcrowded.”

And it wasn’t expensive.

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