THE SAY-TOWN LOWDOWN 

Cities are forever comparing themselves to others, trying to see how they rank and stack up. San Antonio is no exception. Our political and business leadership loves to tout the fact that we’re the nation’s seventh-largest city. But when it came to County Judge Nelson Wolff’s aborted effort to land the Florida Marlins, Major League Baseball knew that “big city” label didn’t matter. What did matter was our rank as a media market — which placed us in the upper 30s.

Fortune magazine ranked us among the top places for real-estate investment. Forbes recently listed us as the 11th best city to find a job. Perhaps more realistically, San Antonio keeps turning up at or near the top on the list of fattest cities. And an in-depth analysis by Procter and Gamble a few years ago named us the nation’s “sweatiest city.”

Booming, fat, or sweaty, there is a real need to see how we rank as a community. San Antonio, after all, necessarily competes for job opportunities, new private investment, and economic advantage against a host of other communities around the nation and the globe. That competition is exemplified by where we stand relative to our smaller counterpart to the north — Austin. While we tout the arrival of Toyota’s Tundra pickup plant and the continuing spread of urban development north and northwest, Austin deals with major new private investment in computer-chip plants by Samsung and Advanced Micro Devices and software firms like Borland and CSC. Forbes may well have ranked us 11th in their recent “best cities for jobs in 2008” list. But Austin ranked number 3, Fort Worth came in fifth, and Houston placed seventh.

A much more realistic and systematic picture of where we rank as a community can be found in a publication titled “City Vitals,” published by the organization CEOs for Cities. In it, economist Joe Cortright describes a number of critical dimensions of city success and performance, including the “talented city,” the “innovative city,” and the “connected city.” Each dimension uses a number of measures to rank the 50 largest cities and their metropolitan areas.

The “talented city,” for example, is a place that attracts and retains smart people — the critical competitive element in today’s knowledge-based economy. Measured by the proportion of metro-area adults with a college degree or higher education, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, Washington D.C.-Baltimore, Austin, and Boston top the list. San Antonio ranks 48th of 50.

We don’t fare much better when Cortright considers the fraction of the local workforce employed as creative professionals, such as scientists, artists, architects, and designers. San Francisco-San Jose, Raleigh-Durham, and Austin top the list. We come in 44th. The same set of cities tops the list of urban areas with well-educated workers outside local education, government, and health care. And San Antonio just noses out Las Vegas at the bottom, ranking 49th.

If we’re not that talented, maybe we make it up in imagination. How do we do on the “innovative city” rankings? Measured by the number of patents per 1,000 residents, San Antonio ranks 40th. For venture capital raised relative to population, we come in at 30. And in the number of small businesses, we place 39th.

How about the “connected city” ranking, which considers such factors as volunteerism, foreign travel, and economic integration? Our volunteerism rank isn’t too bad, at 23, but for foreign travel we rank 29th, on par with Detroit.

But when it comes to economic integration — the extent to which high- and low-income people live near each other — San Antonio is a standout at 48, with about the greatest level of economic segregation among all major metropolitan areas.

Where we really do poorly, though, is in terms of the “City Vitals” measures of “core vitality,” which essentially measures the income and education of neighborhoods close to downtown. On the index of absolute vitality, we place a dismal 48th. The lively, vibrant cities we often hope to emulate, like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, top the list. But even on the measure of core vitality, where New York City, Seattle, and Chicago lead the pack, we rank 42nd, about even with Milwaukee and Oklahoma City.

The “City Vitals” figures tell us a striking story that doesn’t often appear in the headlines along with fattest and best real-estate investment rankings. But for our competitive future, we need to talk about where we really stand, and more importantly, what our public and private leaders must do to change it.

Major League Baseball and the National Football League somehow both concluded that San Antonio wasn’t a place to do business, despite the entreaties of local politicos. Maybe they know something. And isn’t it about time to shape our investments around talent, innovation, connections, and inclusion? •


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