Chamber boss 'Taylor'-made for South Side renaissance
W. Scott Bailey, San Antonio Business Journal
July 8-14, 2005

San Antonio is more than a half-century removed from an era when the North Side was scrub brush and the South Side was the place to be.

But now there is a commotion stirring again in a part of this city that had long ago been written off by developers, business leaders and politicians.

In the middle of it all is a South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce president who moved here from Uvalde in 1990 with no preconceptions, and who has spent the last 15-plus years trying to alter too many misconceptions. Cindy Taylor says it has been a long, challenging journey -- and well worth the blood, sweat and tears lost along the way.

No one needs to tell Taylor, or the people who have made the South Side their home, that it is an area long ago cast aside by outsiders as a quadrant of the city where developers dare not tread.

"There are some who sat at their desks and would look to their left and see the area around Sea World. Then they would look to their right and see SBC Center. When Toyota landed," Taylor contends, "they all got cricks in their necks."

But as impacting as the new Toyota Tundra assembly plant will be once it opens in 2006, South Side leaders say what it will really do is draw attention to years worth of planning and resulting activity unrelated to the $800 million auto factory.

"Would we have been OK without Toyota? You bet," Taylor says. "It was a catalyst. It made others finally take notice of the South Side. But we were going to open some eyes with or without it."

Thumbs up

If Toyota is opening eyes, a continued push for a full-fledged Texas A&M campus for a different part of the South Side is opening minds.

It is creating some controversy, too.

The plan is to place such a university in a portion of City South, a master-planned community set to cover a large swath of real estate in San Antonio's southern sector.

But there are some who are pushing for that proposed campus to be placed on the Southeast Side, at Brooks City-Base, formerly Brooks Air Force Base.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has recommended via the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure program, shuttering military operations at Brooks.

Whether that recommendation is approved or not, work continues on a large-scale mixed-use development on a portion of Brooks City-Base land.

Taylor says it's too late to look at Brooks as a suitable home for an A&M campus.

"That train left the station over a year and a half ago," Taylor says.

On June 22, San Antonio's Hearst Corp.-owned daily newspaper ran an editorial asking the question: "Why is the city buying property and displacing nearly 100 homes and businesses for a Texas A&M University campus on the South Side when property nearby (at Brooks) is available without cost?"

Taylor says editors at the daily newspaper are apparently not that interested in South Side leaders' answers.

She says flood-plain issues and other factors work against an A&M campus at Brooks.

Furthermore, she says placing the campus at Brooks would actually hurt growth opportunities on the South Side, removing an important anchor from the City South area.

"One plus one at Brooks equals one," Taylor contends. "We want one plus one to equal two."

So far, Texas lawmakers have not approved funding for the proposed university.

But Taylor says South Side leaders are hopeful that legislators will come through with some $50 million in tuition revenue bonds during the special session.

"We're very optimistic," Taylor says. "We plan to open our doors in 2009. By 2030, we plan on having 25,000 students at an A&M campus in the City South area, with faculty and staff living, working, shopping, worshipping and dining on the South Side. It's going to be awesome."

Long time coming

The fact that there are now squabbles over which part of the South Side is best suited for a major development indicates that the times are indeed changing.

But why did it take so long for so many to appreciate what is at stake south of Highway 90?

"Perception," Taylor says without hesitation. "This area has been viewed by others as old, illiterate, poor. We know that's not true."

So why is that perception finally being put to rest?

South Side advocates say much of the credit goes to the determination culled from a backbone of strong leadership among neighborhood groups, churches, small businesses and schools.

"It was through the neighborhood groups that I came to understand the power and the passion of the people on the South Side," Taylor notes. "Those people knew what they wanted and what they didn't want. And they never gave up hope, never gave up the fight."

Taylor says credit should also go to some out-of-town homebuilders who took a chance on the South Side when some local builders would not.

"They were willing to roll the dice, to do what others said would not work," Taylor says. "It paid off -- for them and for us."

One builder that has taken a chance on the South Side is Armadillo Homes, which was founded in Laredo in the 1970s.

"We looked all over the city for a nice place to build," explains Jeff Czar, a division president for Armadillo Homes. "We went over there and walked the land and were amazed. This area is such a hidden gem.

"We've been very successful," Czar continues. "It's been great. What we've found is that there are a lot of people who want to get back to this community where they grew up. Coming here was a gut feeling for us. It has paid off."

As a result of that and similar gambles by other builders, new rooftops continue to go up and new businesses continue to enter the area to cater to those new neighborhoods.

"It's an important time in the history of this community," says newly elected City Councilman Roland Gutierrez. "This is not the same South Side anymore."

Growing gracefully

But if there are celebrations and renewed expectations, there are some new challenges, too.

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson has long been one of the most important supporters of South San Antonio.

Taylor says his "passion for the South Side is unreal. Tommy has been my arms, my legs, my heart and a mentor."

Adkisson says leaders need to be careful to ensure that this unprecedented era of growth and revitalization does not turn into an uncontrollable mess like that which has ruined parts of the North Side.

"We need to grow with grace," Adkisson warns.

"It is a great challenge," Taylor admits. "So is sustaining all this growth. But we are determined to get it done. We will get it done. We will continue to grow. And we will do it the right way."

She says the people of the South Side will tolerate nothing less.

"These people have history, passion and a plan," Taylor explains. "They welcome outsiders. But they aren't going to let them tell them what they want or need, or shove another bad plan or idea down their throats anymore. They know what they want and we're not going to stop working until they get it. We're getting a lot closer every day."

As for the future plans of this Uvalde transplant: "I will die south of Highway 90," Taylor promises. "This is my home."

© 2005 American City Business Journals Inc.

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