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Cityscrapes: A new six-point program

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Promotion of interest in San Antonio as the logical headquarters for the oil fraternity operating in South Texas…

  • Trade extension and industrial development
  • Highway development
  • Promotion of public works
  • Expansion of tourist trade
  • Development of San Antonio as the convention city of the South

Have a familiar ring?

Does this “Six-point Program for Progress” sound exactly like what San Antonio has been doing in recent years, from seeking to capitalize on the fracking boom in South Texas to building highways and chasing conventions and tourists?

It’s actually the “Six-point Program” the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce spelled out in October 1935—almost 80 years ago. Yet the six points bear a remarkable similarity to the “program” of development and growth the City and County continue to pursue today. Mayors, council members and city managers have come and gone over this lengthy period. And yet the essential focus of local policies and, more importantly, capital investment has continued to be on just these six points. Even today, as we pursue a major expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center—the city’s largest single capital project to date at some $325 million—the construction of new toll roads, the widening of existing highways and the investment in a downtown streetcar system, the program of 1935 seems to dictate our public priorities. For decades, some folks have neatly defined “progress” as building highways and convention facilities.

Yet today we also have an unusual opportunity to revisit our actual priorities and perhaps consider a larger set of community needs, a different statement of “six points,” and an alternative view of “progress.” With the imminent departure of Mayor Julián Castro and the prospect of an open mayor’s seat that likely will be sought by a number of candidates, we have the chance to focus on public issues and community needs, rather than just on personalities, and on what the City’s real priorities will be, rather than a broad array of diffuse goals.

Some might argue that we’ve already had that opportunity and conversation, with the SA2020 effort initiated by Mayor Castro. But SA2020 illustrates precisely the problem with the kind of broad goal-setting effort begun by Henry Cisneros with his Target ’90 process. The beautifully illustrated and produced SA2020 final report runs 135 pages, covering 11 “vision areas” from Arts & Culture to Transportation. For each there is a “vision,” accompanied by a set of targets and indicators. Yet nowhere in the report is there any indication of priorities or relative importance. Everything appears equally valued, equally subject to measurement and accomplishment. And nowhere is there any real sense of how and on what the City (or other local governments) should be spending our money.

Take the case of the proposed downtown streetcar. The word “streetcar” doesn’t appear in the SA2020 report at all. The term “light rail” shows up just once, as part of the “action steps” an interested person might take: “Engage in a dialogue around light rail or ‘complete streets’ initiatives.” But that doesn’t mean anyone in authority has to listen.

It’s much the same with the convention center expansion, and indeed the entire tourism thrust. There is no mention of the expansion project in the SA2020 report, and “tourism” only appears briefly as part of a possible indicator of downtown activity. There is absolutely no mention of how we spend our hotel tax dollars, how we have historically supported hotel development and whether we should consider some alternative direction for the future of Downtown. Finally, when the report discusses transportation, it makes mention of our “congested roadways” as “challenges [that] remain.” But nowhere does the report mention toll roads, or more highway financing, or the tradeoffs between competing projects and priorities.

In the coming weeks and months, this column will try to examine the many challenges that really face this community, as well as the need to consider real alternatives and make informed, strategic choices—defining a new “Six-point Program.” I invite you to join in.

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