Where's the recession?; Economic skies bright deep in heart of Texas

What recession? As clouds drift over the nation's economic landscape, the prospects of growth are bright and clear here, deep in the heart of Texas.

San Antonio has picked a conspicuous time to shake its image as a sleepy, tourist-oriented city, known best as the home of the Alamo. Situated so far to the south, this city watched the Sunbelt boom of the 1970s mostly from the sidelines. It did not enjoy the geographical advantage of proximity to major US markets that made Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix hot spots of economic growth.

Now, as many areas of the United States struggle to climb from the recession, the steady migration of people and business to the US South and Southwest in recent years is having a ripple effect. Some of the more moderate-sized Sunbelt communities are enjoying business boomlets.

For San Antonio at least, economic opportunity seems clearly to have arrived in 1980. And the city has taken an electric view of growth, drawing from the experiences of other Sunbelt "boom towns." San Antonio is insisting on a careful balance between its new-found prosperity, the social needs of the population, and the culture and traditions that residents hold dear.

"San Antonio is growing rapidly, but it is still the country town I remember, " says one native resident.

Actually, this is the nation's 10th largest city with a metropolitan population over 1 million. And the metropolitan area grew by about 19 percent from 1970 to 1980, according to preliminary census estimates. The city is now adding jobs and industry to support the burgeoning population.

However, the San Antonio skyline has not been transformed by towers of steel and glass, its freeways are not choked with traffic, and its urban core is busier than ever.

This is because economic development in San Antonio is not viewed here as strictly a business pursuit. Growth has become a rallying point for segments of the community that have often been at odds over development issues, as well as the overall future direction of San Antonio. Together, these various elements now painstakingly monitor growth to be sure the city's "quality of life" remains high.

During the 1970s, frustration in the Hispanic community, which represents a 53 percent majority of the population, surfaced in a conflict with the business community. Hispanic leaders charged the Economic Development Foundation, created in 1974 to promote the city as a business location, was selling the city as a low-wage haven. Foundation officials deny the charge.

Meanwhile, there was political upheaval as the city implemented a new system of electing city council members by district. Development became a political issue, and in some respects a symbol of racial dissonance.

"In the past, different sectors wanted the city to be different things," said Mayor Lila Cockrell in an interview. But in recent years, "There was areal waking up in the business and public sectors to the need for us to gird up for economic development. We realized we had to have it to offer opportunity to our citizens," she added.

Per capita income in San Antonio remains well below the US average, according to 1977 statistics from the US Bureau of the Census.But from 1969 to 1977 the city gained in income considerably faster than the nation as a whole.

Oddly enough, San Antonio's business community is often identified as having been an obstacle to growth before the 1970s. The charge cannot be substantiated , but the notion today is widespread that the traditional ranching and oil interests that once dominated the local economy derived much of their wealth from areas outside the city, and so had little interest in charging up the urban economy.

That is clearly not the case today. The Economic Development Foundation has garnered membership support of over $2.2 million.

The organization takes credit for creating since 1974 over 8,500 new jobs with an annual payroll worth approximately $100 million. Importantly, the recruitment drive has resulted in about 5,000 new jobs in the manufacturing sector, which has long been a weak link in the local economy. Manufacturing only accounts for about 13 percent of the jobs in San Antonio, compared with 24 percent in the US economy.

The basic objective is to lessen San Antonio's dependence on government jobs and tourism and to increase the manufacturing sector. To some extent this is happening.

Five military bases -- Lackland Air Force Base, Kelly Air Force Base, Randolph Air Force Base, Brooks Air Force Base, and Fort Sam Houston -- have long been a mainstay of the economy. But growth of other sectors has lessened the city's dependence on government jobs, which just 10 years ago dominated with about 30 percent of local employment.

Today, though total government employment is growing, it provides a smaller 25 percent of the jobs. Wholesale and retail trade has by some estimates become the No. 1 employer with just over 25 percent of the local work force.

Military spending has been very beneficial to San Antonio over the years. "It's a very stable, recessionproof industry," says Ken Little, president of the Economic Development Foundation. There's a bonus too: Retired military personnel provide a skilled labor pool and have taken important jobs in many other sectors of the local economy.

Still, Mr. Little says the military sector in San Antonio has not been growing even on par with the rate of inflation, and he believes the city must diversify more. "If one-quarter of the economy is not moving, it can dull the growth of the city," he says.

However, the share of workers employed in manufacturing has not changed much over the 1970s, a trend nearly everyone in San Antonio agrees must be reversed.

Unemployment here typically parallels the US rate, but exceeds the statewide average. Manufacturing is considered the key to providing the needed jobs for the large numbers of medium-skilled and unskilled workers.

"San Antonio has severe inner city problems and there is a need to bring jobs into the urban community," says Carmen Badillo, president of Communities Organized for Public Service, an organization representing Hispanic neighborhood groups in San Antonio.

Mrs. Badillo would like to see city officials pay less attention to expanding tourism and more attention to increasing inner-city jobs that pay higher wages. She applauds plans for a 135-acre urban renewal project west of downtown, in a poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood. It will create hundreds of permanent new jobs and new housing.Control Data Corporation will be the major tenant in the project, and is already turning out electronic circuit boards at a temporary facility.

"We've tilted too much to hotels and tourism. While this is all good for the city, I don't want San Antonio to be principally a tourist town," agreed Henry Cisneros, a city councilman.

Mr. Cisneros sees plenty of reasons why San Antonio can expand its economic base. While in recent decades the city was not in a particularly good location to serve the older industrial sectors of the country, he believes the growing importance of the Sunbelt region puts San Antonio into a favorable position to serve that market. He also sees the city ideally situated to handle increased commerce between the United States and Mexico.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Cisneros detects an eagerness on the part of the local population to accommodate sizable economic expansion. "There is an inherent faith in progress and growth and what benefits can trickle down," he said. "The trick will be to make sure they do trickle down to everyone."

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