City council raises eyebrows over $325,000 economic development plan

SAN ANTONIO — A new economic development plan produced for the city by outside consultants — including a firm led by political heavyweights Leticia Van de Putte and Hope Andrade — has raised concerns among city council members who say he lacks detail and doesn’t get San Antonio any closer to his goals.

Its main recommendations call for strengthening the city’s workforce, helping local businesses, and “place-making.” Some recommendations in the plan, which the city paid $325,000 to produce, mirror previous reports prepared for the cities of Arlington and Fort Worth.

“I saw a lot of generic stuff in there that I probably could have done myself for a lot less money,” said District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry. “You should hire a consultant for their expertise in setting up something, because you don’t have that expertise in-house. And I certainly think we have that expertise and could have produced that level of documentation in-house.

The city’s economic development department last fiscal year had 35 full-time employees and a budget of $10 million. And it has grown to 40 staff and a budget of more than $14 million for this fiscal year — a fact Perry referred to during a board discussion last week. He wonders why the department needed to hire extra help.

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The 77-page “strategic framework” plan was produced in part by Andrade-Van de Putte & Associates, which employs a former chief of staff to Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

It seems light on detail, largely repeating recommendations that consultants have given to other cities in similar reports or that have been made in similar economic plans such as the Region Council of Governments Strategy. Alamo or the SA Tomorrow plan.

Despite these reservations, board members unanimously approved the “strategic framework” plan on Thursday.

Overall, council members and city staff defended the document, saying it will help guide the city in developing its economic development strategy in more detail.

“Sometimes we hire outside experts, and the consultants in this case have gone through a competitive process and are experts in their field,” City Manager Erik Walsh said. “We contracted for a roadmap, and I have a roadmap.”

District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry (right) speaks during the city council meeting to discuss and vote on the city’s new annual budget, totaling $3.4 billion, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Key highlights included the city’s property tax relief; significant wage increases for city employees to stem the tide of departures and fill vacancies; police resources; and what to do with the additional $50 million to $75 million in revenue the city gets from CPS Energy.

San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer Kin Man Hui

“Describes key objectives”

In a statement, the Department for Economic Development said the plan is a “guiding document that sets out the role of the Department for Economic Development in moving towards a more resilient economy, providing guidance on competing with national peers and global”.

“The framework outlines key objectives for building on existing strengths, mitigating challenges and building on the momentum of existing initiatives,” the city said in an email response to questions.

The document consists of publicly available data on San Antonio’s economy and sets broad goals regarding retaining businesses and attracting new employers, strengthening the local workforce, and facilitating new developments. real estate.

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But it doesn’t include specific goals, and Walsh conceded that benchmarking and being able to measure outcomes of the report’s recommendations “needs work” — a fact board members noted at the meeting. of last week.

“The city manager said it was a roadmap. But every time I look at a roadmap it tries to tell me where I want to be at the end of the road,” said John Courage, district councilor 9. “I don’t think what we’ve presented here particularly tells us where we expect to end up.”

But city leaders said the document is a first step and that the city council will examine in more detail in the coming months the economic policies that the city can change, such as its incentive program – public gifts for businesses moving to San Antonio. . The city is also likely to change its policies on tax increase reinvestment zones, which use property tax increases to reimburse developers for public improvements they make to property.

“Where we’re headed doesn’t have to be defined — in fact, it shouldn’t be defined — by the consultants,” Nirenberg said.

More detailed conversations about economic planning are “coming up,” he said.

The advisers

The city hired Austin-based TIP Strategies in February, choosing the company over another bidder. TIP has done economic development planning work for dozens of cities across the country. Last year, he produced a similar document for the city of Arlington — which has a population about a third the size of San Antonio — for $110,000. He produced a plan for Fort Worth in January.

TIP brought in two contractors to help develop San Antonio’s planning document: Austin-based The Retail Coach and Andrade-Van of Putte & Associates, a consulting firm owned by the former US senator. State Leticia Van de Putte and Hope Andrade, co-founder of the GO RIO River Walk cruise company and former president of VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Among the consultants who worked on the report was Ivalis Meza Gonzalez, Nirenberg’s former chief of staff who left office to run an unsuccessful run in the Democratic primary for Bexar County judge this year.

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The city said TIP chose Andrade-Van of Putte & Associates and The Retail Coach as contractors to “bring insights aligned with their respective areas of expertise.”

Andrade-Van de Putte & Associates worked solely with TIP on the San Antonio strategic framework document. Neither consulting firm responded to requests for comment.

The framework compiled by TIP and its contractors includes some policy recommendations, such as the creation of community land trusts that seek to preserve housing affordability in an area by acquiring land and providing affordable long-term leases to residents. .

The document also urges San Antonio to use community benefits agreements, with TIP pointing to Atlanta, where real estate developers have agreed to provide certain benefits to an area in exchange for community support for a new stadium for the team. Atlanta Falcons football.

In its planning document prepared for the city of Arlington, TIP verbatim included the example of Atlanta.

TIP also prepared an updated strategic plan for the city of Fort Worth this year, which calls for city leaders to develop 1 million square feet of downtown office space over the next five years. TIP made an identical recommendation in the report for San Antonio.

And the TIP made similar recommendations urging policy makers in the three cities to establish land bank programs in which the city government acquires real estate parcels.

The city said hiring a consultant enabled it to create the strategic framework — the first after the COVID pandemic — quickly this year.

Nirenberg said the framework will help create a new economic plan that focuses more on residents’ well-being than on economic indicators such as the unemployment rate. In the past, the mayor has pointed out that many people who regularly seek help from the San Antonio Food Bank are employed.

“Before the master plan,” Nirenberg said, “all we did was count the jobs, count the tax revenue,” Nirenberg said. “But why?”

“We realign the things we do to make sure we get to where we want to go,” he said.

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