How investment and zoning can transform America’s underserved communities
Brooks Air Force Base was home to 2,700 military personnel and civilians prior to being placed on the BRAC list in 1995. With the community’s future facing uncertainty, the Brooks Development Authority was formed.
We began working to support the employment, housing and transportation needs of our neighbors. Doing so took creativity — both in pitching potential prospects and in developing deal structures that would be attractive to potential investors. One of the tools made available to assist us was being designated an opportunity zone. Areas designated as an opportunity zone are granted incentives and help kickstart economic development in historically underserved and low-income areas. Nevertheless, in addition to an opportunity zone designation, growing underserved areas necessitates a versatile, dynamic and multifaceted approach.
San Antonio has been able to create success, taking the former Brooks Air Force Base from a shuttered military installation to a growing mixed-use community. But to truly succeed, we need more. To match the growth and meet the demands of our community, a well-thought-out infrastructure plan coupled with opportunity zone designations could be another tool that would add to the success of opportunity zones around the country.
Brooks is proof that on San Antonio’s southside, our opportunity zone designation is positioning us as an economic development engine by creating prosperity for our historically underserved community. Brooks is currently home to more than 2,300 residents living in 1,337 rental units on campus. The influx of residents to the area has spurred additional development in the area and new restaurant and retail options opening monthly.
In addition to those living at Brooks, we have 3,200 employees with more than 2,000 additional jobs anticipated over the next three to five years. Steady and sustained job growth would not be possible — or nearly as effective — without the opportunity zone designation. But along with success came more residents and commuters which put added stress on our local roads and infrastructure. We need the help to add or improve existing streets, sidewalks, access to water and upgrade the sewage systems to continue the success we have started. Brooks can’t do it alone.
The time is now to add another tool to the toolkit to further assist designated opportunity zones; not just Brooks, but opportunity zones around the country.
Our strategy has been successful and gained traction, with interest from major global companies when the Texas governor designated Brooks a federal opportunity zone in 2018 — one of 628 in the state of Texas. The opportunity zone designation enhanced our strategy and allowed us to further incentivize private organizations to invest in projects on and around our campus. Shortly thereafter, we signed a contract with San Antonio-based, DPR Investments for the very first opportunity zone investment in the state of Texas and one of the first in the U.S.
Today, construction is nearing completion on the $16 million climate-controlled self-storage facility and flex space for small businesses — both offerings determined by the popular demand of our community. Another opportunity zone project — a 350,000-square foot light industrial facility — was recently leased by Amazon to serve as a delivery facility, creating more than 500 full- and part-time jobs with additional opportunities for independent delivery contractors and entrepreneurs. Two more opportunity zone projects, including one that promises to bring more than 400 single-family rental homes, are on the horizon.
Brooks’ opportunity zone designation is helping us meet our goals of supporting the housing and employment needs of our surrounding community. We are attracting employers that are creating living-wage jobs and better for our community. But further, infrastructure investment is needed to help attract additional investors and draw more dollars to our historically underserved region.
We believe Brooks is one of the best case studies of proven success by demonstrating the economic benefits of the incentive program through its ability to create high-paying jobs for those residing in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods. Our success can be duplicated around San Antonio, Texas and all around the country. Federal infrastructure dollars should be invested in those areas, if not completely, significantly.
Now is the time for leadership to find ways to direct a significant portion of federal infrastructure investments toward areas that have fallen into disinvestment and areas with lower income indicators such as those designated as opportunity zones.
Leo Gomez is the president and chief executive officer of Brooks in San Antonio, Texas.