San Antonio proudly waves the banner of Military City USA. In fact, the City of San Antonio recently secured a registered trademark for the Military City USA moniker and unveiled an accompanying logo that’s appropriately red, white and blue.
The city’s relationship with the military spans nearly 300 years. Today, Joint Base San Antonio — comprising Camp Bullis, Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base — supports about 283,000 jobs in Texas and wields a statewide economic impact of $48.7 billion.
The military presence used to be more robust in San Antonio, though. The city was dealt twin economic blows when Kelly Air Force Base shut down in 2001 and Brooks Air Force Base (later renamed Brooks City-Base) shut down 10 years later.
But rather than let those two assets sit dormant, government, community and business leaders plotted conversions that would create two economic hubs in San Antonio. Attendees at the 2017 ULI Texas Forum got a chance to check out progress at what now are known as Port San Antonio (Kelly Air Force Base) and Brooks (Brooks Air Force Base).
While both Port San Antonio and Brooks share deep military roots, they serve different purposes.
Port San Antonio is a 1,900-acre site that hosts more than 70 employers in industries such as aerospace, cybersecurity, manufacturing, defense and global logistics. In all, the port has about 10 million square feet of space. Among the property’s highlights are an industrial airport and a railport. Businesses and organizations at Port San Antonio — including Boeing, Booz Allen, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force — employ about 12,000 people and generate more than $5.2 billion a year in economic activity.
One of the additions underway at Port San Antonio is Project Tech, a 90,000-square-foot building that will be occupied by cybersecurity ventures. The $20 million project is scheduled for completion in early 2018.
City officials say efforts like Project Tech could help San Antonio earn the title of “Cyber City USA.”
In an announcement about Project Tech, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said: “When Kelly closed nearly 20 years ago, it would have been unimaginable that the former Air Force base would find new life, and create thousands of new jobs across such a wide spectrum of industries.”
Port San Antonio aims to add 5,000 new jobs by 2020. “Jobs, jobs, jobs is our mission,” Ray Flores, the port’s vice president of real estate development, told ULI Texas Forum attendees.
Flores said one of the reasons employers are attracted to Port San Antonio is the presence of St. Philip’s College, a two-year school that offers workforce training programs. “We’re trying to develop the [workforce] pipeline so that we don’t find any employers having a reason not to be in San Antonio because they can’t find their workforce,” he said.
While Port San Antonio is predominantly a commercial and industrial complex — it lacks retail establishments and has only about 375 apartments — Brooks is a true mixed-use development. The 1,300-acre project features offices, health care providers, retail shops, apartments, light industrial space and academic space. The more than 30 businesses at Brooks employ around 3,000 people earning an average salary of $50,000 a year.
Some of the current fixtures at Brooks are Mission Trail Baptist Hospital, the development’s largest employer; the new Embassy Suites by Hilton San Antonio Brooks Hotel & Spa, complete with a salt cave; Hangar 9, an event space housed in an old Air Force hangar; a handful of apartment projects; and the new University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, which opened in July 2017.
Among the new elements in the works or on tap at Brooks are traditional and medical office buildings, a transit center, an industrial building, a retail center, single-family homes and more parks.
“Really what we’re about at the end of the day is to create economic development for the city,” Connie Gonzalez, director of public relations for Brooks, told ULI Texas Forum attendees.
Gonzalez said Brooks seeks “marquee employers” that are going to have at least 100 workers whose average pay is $50,000 a year or more. If an employer meets those standards, “we will roll out the red carpet and give them the best deal because we definitely want them here at Brooks,” she said.
In light of the “marquee employers” policy, Brooks can’t necessarily grant requests to add retailers like Academy Sports + Outdoors, Costco and Hobby Lobby, she said.
“Our strategy to attract those [marquee] employers is to create this mixed-use community so those employees will be able to live here, work here and play here,” Gonzalez said.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a municipal airport and a golf course are in the neighborhood, as is Mission San Juan Capistrano, established in 1731 in San Antonio on the east bank of the San Antonio River.
Capitalizing on its varied amenities, Brooks strives to live up to its marketing slogan: “San Antonio’s up-and-coming community with a vision as big as Texas.”
Interestingly, both Brooks and Port San Antonio are roughly halfway to build-out. However, they approach development in different ways: Port San Antonio owns all of the land there, while Brooks sells land to developers, according to Flores. Brooks is owned and managed by the Brooks Development Authority, governed by a board whose 11 members are appointed by the San Antonio City Council. A separate 11-member board whose members also are appointed by the City Council oversees Port San Antonio.
Worth noting is that Brooks and Port San Antonio are not head-to-head competitors. Rather, as then-City Councilman Ray Lopez noted in 2015, the two former military installations are “complementary assets” — assets that the city continues to value and revitalize in the wake of what could have been devastating base closures.