Wednesday, October 24, 2012

San Antonio Boom

Like Pittsburgh, San Antonio is benefiting from its proximity to the shale energy revolution sweeping the country. The actual drilling is in the city's near abroad, counties to its south. The projected employment spillover:

San Antonio and Corpus Christi don't sit in the Eagle Ford Shale play, but you wouldn't know it based on the jobs numbers.

The two cities are in line to see some of the biggest jobs gains due to increasing oil and gas production in South Texas.

The shale play supported 4,290 jobs in Bexar County in last year, and that number should grow to 11,627 jobs by 2021, according to a [report] released Tuesday by the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Check out the map below:

The drilling itself is a short term boom. Many communities are familiar with the cyclical nature of an extraction economy. The gains in San Antonio are much more sustainable. As the play matures and infrastructure to move the resources around is put into place, there is a demand for white collar talent to provide the necessary support services. Also, Bexar County escapes the negative externality costs that stem from the rush.

The Eagle Ford Shale is just the cherry on top of an already surging regional economy. I'm fresh off a business trip to San Antonio, my first visit to the city. Over the last few months, I've been looking over the migration numbers and noticed an ironic bump in college educated residents. The trend is encouraging, but I needed to see physical evidence. A bunch of neighborhoods, especially King William and Lavaca (Southtown), are rapidly gentrifying. I conducted a focus group of recent transplants (e.g. return migrants) and they confirmed that the shift and palpable energy are recent. It reminded me of Austin before the Slackers took over. I make the comparison reluctantly. San Antonio is one of the most unique cities I've experienced. I'm still trying to figure out how it has stayed off the mental maps of hipsters for so long.

The architecture is wonderful and bizarrely eclectic. As Colin Woodward ("American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America") might remark, the cultural streams of Greater Appalachia and the Deep South collide with El Norte in Bexar County. The mash-up is visually arresting and creatively stimulating.

The rub is that the metro is as parochially atomized as Pittsburgh is. Focus group participants talked about bubbles and vortexes. You get lost in one world and have no idea what is going on in the rest of San Antonio. The downtown is for tourists, not residents. The massive sprawl makes for a long journey to the core with little apparent payoff for your troubles. The recent influx of people with college degrees gets lost in the wash. They aren't connecting with each other. There's a buzz, but you can't quite put your finger on the critical mass. Where do you go to plug into all this energy? That's unclear.

As a geographer, San Antonio is difficult to get to know. It's a black box. Moving around the metro is intimidating and disorienting. I struggled to locate the pulse. Yet the allure was undeniable. I've put off travelling to San Antonio because I didn't think there was anything worth seeing. I was wrong. It's a gem, in league with New Orleans, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. I like it much better than Austin. I'm glad I was able to see the city before the inevitable influx.

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