Thursday,
April 24

 
BUSINESS

For a change: good news from the borders

Looking back over my regular commentaries on border affairs, I’m afraid that from time to time I’ve given readers the impression that things are all doom and gloom on the border – from lines that are too long to infrastructure that is too old and budgets that are too tight, you might think that our borders with Canada and Mexico are just giant parking lots of trucks and cars going nowhere.

But you know what? There are a lot of good things happening on the border.

Let’s start with the fact that all of the concern over staff and facilities and sequestration furloughs is a result of strong trade levels with our NAFTA partners. Consider that since 1994, the year of NAFTA’s implementation, U.S. exports to Mexico have nearly tripled, meaning job growth here at home, which in turns leads to buying power that has caused U.S. imports to rise more than threefold in that same period. 

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Connecting Silicon Hills

Just as SXSW Interactive wraps up with its awards ceremony Tuesday evening, 80 miles south at Geekdom, members of San Antonio’s growing tech community will be sitting down to hear Brad Feld discuss his new book, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. In addition to being a serial entrepreneur, Feld is a founder of TechStars, a startup accelerator that is integral to Geekdom’s (and Rackspace’s) strategy for turning San Antonio into the “cloud computing capital of the world.”

Geekdom’s star is rising, and the hype is starting to spread beyond Loop 1604. The Atlantic Cities blog this week published a post entitled “Can San Antonio Displace Austin as Texas’s Tech Hub?” The piece focuses, of course, on Rackspace and Geekdom, but also mentions that the Air Force’s cyber-warfare division is located in San Antonio. (USAA’s huge IT staff and Microsoft’s West Side data center went unmentioned.)

The title is apparently just a hook to get page views, and the article doesn’t delve into the differences between San Antonio’s and Austin’s tech communities or their prospects. But the biggest problem with the title is the idea that Austin and San Antonio should be competing for the tech hub crown. On the contrary, the cities should be trying to bridge their creative communities.

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Will sequestration inspire innovation on the border?

We’re only days away from sequestration, the automatic across-the-board spending cuts that were supposed to have been so awful, so distasteful to lawmakers and the president that there was no chance we’d ever reach this point. And yet here we are.

Don’t get me wrong: I won’t defend a dysfunctional federal budget that is bleeding red ink as Congress and the administration avoid the tough choices over entitlement program reforms and fails to engage in a real debate over the size and scope of government.

But as other commentators and even the President have noted, sequestration takes a meat cleaver to core government services where a scalpel is what is needed.

Most of the press coverage of sequestration has focused on its effect on the defense sector, and rightly so. After all, defending our country against foreign threats is a constitutionally mandated duty, not some experimental program in an obscure government agency. The Department of Defense is preparing plans to furlough 800,000 civilian workers, which is a hit to our economy as we claw our way out of the Great Recession.

But less publicized has been sequestration’s effect on our border agencies: Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol.

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Mexico: Open for more business

I recently had the opportunity to visit with officials from Mexico’s new administration for some extremely insightful talks on border trade and security. I walked away impressed. Our neighbors to the south are open for business. But not just that, they are open for suggestions!

Since the election of Mexico’s new president, I have continued to work with the transitional teams and our meetings have been met with openness and professionalism from day one.

The tone of these meetings was no different; frank and direct with a clear spirit of cooperation, not combativeness. This is an administration that fully understands that, as Asia’s position as a desirable manufacturing location begins to slip due to rising labor and transportation costs, Mexico is primed to seize an opportunity for real job growth and help elevate the economies of its NAFTA partners, Canada and the United States.

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The suburbs v. the aquifer

Artwork by San Antonio's own Gary Sweeney. Courtesy of the artist.Portland, Oregon, has become famous for its dense, walkable urban environment, and is often treated as a model for smart growth among mid-size American cities. One key to Portland’s successful development model is a regulation that aimed not to improve the urban core but to protect the farmland just beyond it. The city’s Urban Growth Boundary was enacted in 1976 as part of a state law to defend farmers against the encroachment of suburban growth (Randy Bear touched on this last June in a column on Portland).

I thought about this as I read the news that San Antonio had purchased 461 acres just outside highway 1604, northwest of the city, which will be incorporated into Government Canyon State Natural Area. This deal, and many others like it, was funded by a dedicated sales tax which since 2000 has provided about $225 million to purchase and preserve land over the Edwards Aquifer. Just as Portland strengthened its urban core by protecting farmers, could the City of San Antonio do so by protecting its only significant supply of water?

If it was up to the people of San Antonio, there’s a good chance it could.

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