No one in public office is more comfortable with big ambitious ideas than Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a reflection, perhaps, of how long he has served as state legislator, city councilman, mayor and now county judge.
That’s why it was no surprise when he took to the Pearl Stable stage at the Tech Bloc anniversary rally Thursday evening and announced a BiblioTech, the county’s digital library network, for CAST Tech, the new downtown tech school the San Antonio Independent School District will open in the 2017-2018 academic year.
H-E-B and its Chairman and CEO Charles Butt are priming the SAISD in-district charter school with a $3.6 million lead gift, sufficient to recruit a talented leadership team and help pay for the conversion of one of the historic buildings in the emerging downtown Tech District along East Houston Street.
Tech Bloc, which celebrated its first anniversary one month late with a crowd of 1,000 or more at the Pearl, has evolved in a very short time period from a protest group hurriedly formed amid the departure of rideshare companies Uber and Lyft into an activist organization engaging local government in a range of urban issues that go beyond tech and are more about place making and city building. Tech Bloc entering its second year is serving more as a partner than adversary to local government, although it does have disruption in its DNA.
“TechBloc could change this city,” Wolff said in a conversation the morning after the rally. “They are on to something, and the way they are working to influence the direction we are taking in San Antonio could prove to be something really transformative.”
Wolff’s political instincts have always been keen, so the county’s offer to add a digital library inside an SAISD high school is no accident. For Superintendent Pedro Martinez, such an offer will make it that much easier to open the school without having to reallocate funds from other campuses, which he has guaranteed not to do.
“H-E-B and Charles are proud to make this $3.6 million contribution, but we are going to need others to come forward and join us,” said Kate Rogers, H-E-B’s Vice President for Corporate Communications and Health Promotion. Her message was unmistakable: others in the business and tech community with the means to contribute need to support the project financially.
Last week, in fact, was a reminder that no business has done more for public education in San Antonio and Texas than H-E-B, and no philanthropist has been more generous than Butt. Together they set a high standard for other business leaders who want to leave a larger mark on the city by doing more to give children a path out of poverty.
Such investments make good business sense. There is a growing consensus among the city’s public and private sector leaders that the health and vitality of San Antonio’s urban core depends as much on the quality of its public schools as downtown residential growth, the growth and quality of the culinary scene, or other place making steps forward.
To create more smart jobs, San Antonio needs to create more smart workers. CAST Tech and the coming network of other Centers for Applied Science and Technology can meet that need. In order to work, the model needs district school boards open to taking risks, private sector partners who can help plan and fund the efforts, and city and county government partners who embrace innovation and use their political standing to galvanize public support.
With Mayor Ivy Taylor, Wolff and others on stage with H-E-B’s Rogers, Tech Bloc’s Lew Moorman and David Heard, and Martinez, that unity was on display Thursday night at the Pearl Stable.
Not so long from now, high school students will be seen on sidewalks with tech workers, bankers, local government employees, hospitality workers and others along an increasingly vibrant East Houston and East Commerce streets. Their presence will add youth to an already young Tech District, and one that is way more Latino than many who do not work there might think. SAISD’s Martinez, among others, understands the power of turning inner city students on to technology learning as a path out of poverty and into a larger life filled with choices.
By the end of that first school year, Phase One of the county’s San Pedro Creek Improvement Project will be completed, and San Antonio will be deep into its 300th anniversary celebrations. Fast forward a few more years, and the redevelopment of Hemisfair will have reached the southern edge of the park, the new Frost Bank Tower and federal courthouse will be open, hundreds of new residences will be constructed, extending the Tech District to San Pedro Creek and eventually north to the former Fox Tech High School campus if the district is successful in developing new central offices there.
San Antonio will be a different city by 2020.
This downtown growth and transformation is still largely driven by government: federal, city an county. But there also is the insistent pushing of a brain trust that includes Rackspace Co-Founder and Chairman Graham Weston and his real estate development company Weston Urban and its CEO Randy Smith; Lew Moorman, the long time president of Rackspace turned tech investor and the godfather of Tech Bloc; David Heard, a marketing executive with SecureLogix who also serves as TechBloc’s CEO; and Lorenzo Gomez, CEO of Geekdom.
They would be the first to throw a lot of other names into the mix, but they are the leaders of the movement and all are in a hurry to make San Antonio a better place to live, work and play. All of them share an operating mindset of what Toyota would call Kaizen or “continuous improvement.” Put another way, they are never satisfied with the status quo. It’s always, “what’s next?”
That’s why Thursday’s celebration at the Pearl Stable, which was all about the CAST Tech announcement, ended with Heard teasing the crowd about a new cybersecurity initiative at Geekdom that is expected to draw Mayor Ivy Taylor and others for an announcement next Thursday.
What Tech Bloc’s leadership knows and Moorman said from the stage is this: San Antonio is on a roll, but it’s also behind, playing catch up to other cities in Texas and beyond. Still, the last year has been a good one, for San Antonio and for Tech Bloc, and the next year can be even better. Ask Judge Wolff.
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