In the race for mayor, incumbent Ron Nirenberg and challenger Greg Brockhouse have completely different ideas about how to solve the certainly central theme of the campaign: How to rebuild the city's economy and get the residents back to work.
The COVID-19 pandemic devastated much of the San Antonio economy, particularly the city's restaurant and hospitality industries, initially wiping out more than 120,000 local jobs. Although the region regained tens of thousands of jobs by the end of last year, many businesses and low-wage workers are still struggling.
To kick off his campaign, Brockhouse released a number of high-profile ideas – including building a brand new airport and increasing the involvement of the city's lobbyists in legalizing marijuana and gambling at the state level. The former city council believes these efforts will help the city get out of its plight.
"Our city needs a mayor who is solely focused on protecting and creating jobs for our citizens, and tirelessly looking for employment for every San Antonian," Brockhouse said.
Nirenberg has at least a couple of economic hits in his corner to prove he's the mayor for "Jobs".
Voters kicked off the mayor's $ 154 million sales tax initiative in November to pay tens of thousands of residents for vocational training and college degrees over the next four years. This led to the biggest election victory in Nirenberg's career and marked it as his signature economic achievement.
Nirenberg has also touted more than $ 1 billion in key manufacturing investments announced over the past two years – Toyota's planned $ 391 million expansion of its South Side plant, the $ 250 million truck plant of Navistar International Corp. and the $ 400 million factory of Japanese gear manufacturer Aisin neighboring Cibolo.
"Jobs has been the unique focus of our work on the path to recovery," said Nirenberg. "We have made some incredible strides without placing undue burdens on our taxpayers and residents." This type of work will continue when we recover from this pandemic. "
However, in 2018 Nirenberg promised to create 70,000 jobs within two years and "create more jobs than any mayor's office in the history of San Antonio".
Nirenberg sees it differently.
"I set a job creation target number to inspire our community to continue to drive job creation," said Nirenberg. "We have completed some major economic development projects during this time and will continue our work to provide employment opportunities for the residents of San Antonio."
Even without COVID-19, Nirenberg probably would not have achieved this goal. The San Antonio metropolitan area has created 39,200 jobs after the mayor made that pledge in a speech from April 2018 to January 2020, before the pandemic started seriously in the US. This is shown by employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Keith Phillips, chief economist at the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, said this had resulted in some "historically tight labor markets" in San Antonio and across the country in the years leading up to the coronavirus outbreak. The city's unemployment rate averaged 3.2 percent from February 2018 to February 2020, a historic low, but also a "factor that is holding back employment growth," he said.
Others say mayors who can set at least some economic policy measures, such as business tax incentives, development regulations, and property taxes, have little impact on general economic conditions and are largely at the mercy of the market.
"I really wouldn't blame him for not getting to 70,000," said David Macpherson, chairman of Trinity University's economics department. "I wouldn't do him credit for getting there."
For Brockhouse, Nirenberg didn't take an ambitious approach to job growth, COVID-19 or not. The city under Nirenberg's response to the immediate economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has focused too much on long-term recovery such as workforce development and not enough on immediate relief for small businesses – a view that the mayor has often denied.
"He'd rather train her to do something else," said Brockhouse. "I call him a 'job snob'. He thinks these jobs are below him."
Many of the jobs lost in the pandemic will take years to come back, if they come back at all, Nirenberg said. That's why it's important to train people for vacancies, he said.
"We are trying to fill this gap so that people who were unemployed or underemployed as a result of the pandemic can get back on the career ladder," said Nirenberg.
Since the pandemic started, the city has spent more than $ 37 million helping small businesses stay afloat, whether through grants or by helping mom and pop stores get protective gear like hand sanitizer and masks on their hands to get their doors open safely.
For Brockhouse, that's not enough.
Brockhouse is looking to plunge into the city's reserves, which total more than $ 200 million to pay $ 50 million in loans to small businesses to expand and hire.
"For me it is criminal that families have problems, companies have problems and we are sitting on this money," said Brockhouse.
City officials have repeatedly warned during the pandemic that a raid on the reserves would have dire consequences for the city's finances. Doing so would affect the city's creditworthiness and borrowing needed to raise debt for road construction and capital improvements, officials have argued. It would also leave the city in a worse position to cover expenses like police and fire safety in the event of a sudden, catastrophic blow on their coffers.
"It's the last resource we would have if we really had trouble doing things like debt servicing or just keeping our basic operations going," said Ben Gorzell, the city's chief financial officer. "Here we would access it."
"If a dam breaks, if we cannot keep our fire brigade or police running, this fund will be used, an option of last resort," said Nirenberg.
It's unclear whether there is still a need for city guides to look for money in their own coffers to help small businesses, said Macpherson, the Trinity professor.
Congress pumped $ 325 billion into small business support in December as part of a larger federal stimulus package. That included $ 284 billion for another round of the paycheck protection program that provides the company with forgivable credit for paying employees and utility bills. The new Democratic majority Congress is more open to passing robust stimulus programs and weighs an additional $ 50 billion for small businesses.
"You have to be faster than the government," Macpherson said of the city guides. "And the government has a head start."
But the reserves aren't the only place Brockhouse wants to dive into to fund his small business loan program – he's also eyeing Nirenberg's valuable human resource development program.
Brockhouse turned down the plan when it was elected in November, arguing that it wouldn't do much to help unemployed residents in the short term. But after the voters overwhelmingly support the measure, he doesn't want it to be dismantled.
Still, he sees potential fat in the program that could be used for credit instead. According to a plan presented by city officials in December, the city would hire 63 new city workers to fill a new agency that enrolls participants in vocational training and college programs and ensures they don't drop out. The city has conducted a nationwide search for an executive director.
"That's his job creation: city bureaucracy," Brockhouse said.
Brockhouse wants to see the money being paid for the business loan agency.
However, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the city council will approve the 63-person plan. The idea was quickly criticized by local grassroots advocacy group COPS / Metro, which supported Nirenberg's election initiative and got voters to adopt it.
The council members "do not allow a top-heavy program," said the mayor.
"Based on the suggestions of the employees, I think that we can run the program with far fewer city employees so that these funds are used by the partners involved for the implementation of the program," said Nirenberg.
Another idea Brockhouse needs to have in order to promote economic growth: buy land and build a new airport there.
The idea is not new. Business leaders and policy makers have complained for years that the San Antonio International Airport is affecting the city's ability to attract new employers and talent. More than a decade after AT&T moved its headquarters to Dallas, they're still following CEO Randall Stephenson's parting – the airport is out of date and has too few non-stop routes.
Brockhouse believes that a new airport would not only provide new airfield space for expansion, but would also stimulate growth in the neighboring area if placed on the west or south side.
"In any case, we will outgrow this airport in due course," said Brockhouse.
A committee appointed by Nirenberg to study the city's need for air services and what to do with the airport has ruled out the construction of an entirely new airport.
They found that it would cost billions and billions of dollars in land and construction costs and, depending on the location, could potentially bring even more travelers to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Instead, the panel decided that the city can redesign the airport at its current location on the north side of the city to meet the forecasted flight needs. The plan now calls for demolishing and replacing one terminal, renovating another, and building a third terminal – at a cost of at least $ 2 billion. The city council is expected to hear the plan in March.
Nirenberg said the route can meet the city's need for air services "while saving tax money. As a result, in the heart of the United States' seventh largest city, SAT is a strategic competitive advantage for the future of air service in San Antonio. "
"There are several aspects to this vision of SAT's long-term future," said Nirenberg. "But the question of where it goes, where it fits, has already been answered."
Brockhouse has no precise details on building a new airport – especially payment. But he wants residents to reconsider the idea.
"I put this in there because I wanted people to say," What the hell is this guy talking about? It's ridiculous and expensive, and we can't do that right now, ”Brockhouse said. "You're absolutely right: we can't do it now. But if we don't start and don't make it in 10 years, this city is so upside down."
Some of the more recent ideas Brockhouse is helping to revitalize the economy include possible legalizing marijuana and gambling in the state capital to create new sources of income for the city.
Brockhouse – a staunch police union ally – believes the decriminalization of marijuana and gambling in Texas is inevitable, even if state lawmakers have been slow to implement these measures overall, or in the case of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick decidedly reject them.
San Antonio should seek to prepare for the potential expansion of the marijuana market, whether through "zoning and development strategies" or by directing Austin city lobbyists to weigh up such issues, Brockhouse said.
"This is that foresight as we think about what to be prepared for because the name of the game is restoring the city, getting the cities back to work and getting the cities to generate income," said Brockhouse .