Booming San Antonio seen as the `Atlanta of the '80s'. Surge helps Hispanics, who increasingly lead city

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``Hyperbole'' is a word that comes to mind when a mayor speaks of his city as verging on greatness. But when the mayor in question is Henry Cisneros, one can rest assured that people are going to listen. Mr. Cisneros, mayor of San Antonio since 1981, past president of the National League of Cities, and a rising national star in the Democratic Party, says that every few years a ``critical mass'' of talent, determination, momentum, and interest develops to thrust a city onto the national scene. With the certitude of a general, Henry Cisneros has dubbed 1988 as San Antonio's ``year of emergence.''

Surveying next month's opening here of Sea World of Texas, the world's largest aquatic entertainment park; downtown's recently opened Rivercenter shopping complex; progress on the city's 1,500-acre research park; and negotiations between business and education leaders to bolster the city's schools, Cisneros says, ``We've got our engines fired.''

The Hispanic mayor of the ninth-largest city in the US likens San Antonio's arrival on the national stage to the ``burst of interest'' in Atlanta in the 1960s, when that city was anointed the capital of a new South. He also notes that special attention was paid to the role blacks were playing in Atlanta's bloom.

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Today Cisneros sees his city's ``emergence'' as equally important to Hispanics, who make up just under 55 percent of San Antonio's population of 920,000. ``There is a minority participation in the economic momentum and a stake in the decisionmaking process in this city that in a sense is as important to Hispanics as the progress and growth of Atlanta was to blacks two decades ago,'' he says.

San Antonio is represented by two Hispanic congressmen, and five of 11 City Council members belong to minorities, as do many prominent business, education, and religious leaders. Although the city's per capita income remains below national levels, average increases in recent years have outstripped national gains.

There is a recognition throughout this city and beyond that San Antonio is fortunate to have an internationally recognized spokesman like Cisneros.

``In a city where everyone's pulling together, he's the single most important element,'' says developer Martin Winder, who is credited with opening up the northwest section of the city to Sea World, a huge VLSI Technology microchip plant, and the Texas Research Park. Adds Ernesto Cortes, a nationally recognized community organizer based in Austin, ``He's certainly been one of the more effective mayors, extremely successful in projecting San Antonio as a desirable place to live and do business.''

But there is some disagreement with what Mr. Cortes calls Cisneros's emphasis on ``big-ticket items.''

The most recent example of that is the mayor's incessant bargaining for a downtown ``Alamodome'' that Cisneros says would bring increased national exposure to San Antonio through larger conventions, entertainment programs, and perhaps a National Football League franchise by the time the stadium opened in 1991.

``Before the stadium, the mayor was looking more at the areas that will produce good jobs for the citizens of San Antonio,'' says Patricia Ozuna, one of five co-chairs of the city's influential COPS, or Communities Organized for Public Service, a grass-roots organization representing the city's sizable poor and working-class populations.

``I don't believe he's forgotten, but it would be good if he got back to jobs that support families,'' Ms. Ozuna says.

``When you have scarce resources, you have to make choices,'' adds Mr. Cortes. ``And if you do the stadium, I'm afraid you give up the next best alternative, which to me is increasing the productivity of the labor force through such things as job training, early childhood education, literacy programs, and other educational infrastructure for developing basic skills.''

Yet Cisneros, whose master's dissertation at Harvard's Kennedy School was on Boston's modern economic development, says there is a specific and deliberate order in his plan for San Antonio's progress.

``We first had to gain the confidence of the business community that it would be possible for San Antonio to continue to grow even as the minority community became more significant,'' he says. That meant creating a ``politics of inclusion'' that made all segments of the city a party to and beneficiaries of the city's progress.

``And a precondition to creating that progress,'' he says, ``was a growing economy. There's no way, no government program, that gets you around that fact.''

Cisneros notes that from just after World War II until the mid-'70s, when the growth rate in the nation's economy fluctuated around 4 percent annually, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line fell from 33 percent in 1947 to 11 percent.

But by 1980, yearly growth in the economy had fallen to 2 percent, he points out, and the poverty population had grown to 13 percent. With growth in the economy remaining at 2 percent by 1985, the portion of Americans living in poverty had grown to 15 percent.

``Without economic growth,'' he says, ``it would have been impossible to have any improvement in the minority community.'' His strategy for that growth has been to build on the city's strengths - the strong military presence and tourism - and then to branch out from there to areas with the best potential for new growth.

Already the city is a center of the military's medical and biological research, and it has laid the groundwork for becoming a focal point of the biosciences.

``It's a one-two, short-term long-term economic strategy,'' says Stephanie Coleman, president of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

``San Antonio has the ambience of a tourist city, and in the short term that will provide us with many opportunities,'' Ms. Coleman adds. ``We have to recognize that we have a lot of people who need jobs right now but who are not well educated or who lack any kind of experience.''

Some reports suggest that the city could develop more than 100,000 jobs in the biosciences over the next three decades, she says.

``But look at the Research Triangle [in North Carolina], that took more than a decade to put together. These things don't happen overnight.''

Cisneros says he believes that San Antonio has developed the ``critical mass'' of short- and long-term development, and that it can now focus more intently on ``harnessing the economic development for the good of all the people in the city.''

A first step in that direction, he says, will be to develop a business-education partnership, along the lines of the Boston Compact or Baltimore's Commonwealth Agreement, whereby businesses and universities agree to provide jobs, tuition, and other incentives in exchange for better student performance. Another step is improvement in the delivery of health services.

``There's a strong forward momentum in San Antonio,'' says the mayor, ``and it's something everyone should be able to take part in.''

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