San Antonio's International Trade Development Efforts: A Historical Perspective
By Mr. Tom Frost
Senior Chairman, Cullen/Frost Bankers, Inc.
Chairman Emeritus, Free Trade Alliance
San Antonio businesses have been engaged in international trade for over one hundred and fifty years. However, it was not until the mid 1980s that San Antonio's business community began to coordinate its international trade promotion and development efforts. It was through the leadership of the foreign trade committee of the Target 90 community planning organization that San Antonio took its first steps in establishing a community action plan for developing international trade.
In 1984, the foreign trade committee, chaired by Rodolfo Sandoval, Joe Seiterle and Nelson Wolff, developed seven goals for San Antonio in the area of international trade. Those goals were (1) to establish an organization focused on developing international trade in San Antonio, (2) to establish world trade center in San Antonio, (3) to attract and expand international banking institutions in the community, (4) to market and promote San Antonio's foreign trade, investments and tourism, (5) to improve and expand incentives that the City of San Antonio provides to attract foreign trade and investment, (6) to provide educational programs in international business, international finance and foreign trade, and (7) to capitalize on San Antonio's geographic location to promote foreign trade by expanding transportation and warehousing facilities.
In response to the first of these goals, the San Antonio World Trade Association (SAWTA) was formed in cooperation with the city of San Antonio, the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the international business community in San Antonio. SAWTA began in 1985 with three goals generated by the Target 90 initiative: (1) to provide information and education services, (2) to provide marketing opportunities and promotion, and (3) to establish a center for world trade.
During the early years of SAWTA these goals and objectives evolved. Inspired in particular by international business leaders like John Agather, Edwin Einstein, Carla Zainie, Jim Whitehead, Sara Jackson and John McCray, SAWTA began to reinvent itself in the early 1990s. Trade with Mexico was booming and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was introduced by the Bush Administration for approval by the U.S Congress.
SAWTA quickly took the lead in educating the San Antonio community on NAFTA and garnering support for passage of the agreement. In fact, it was a small committee of SAWTA that was instrumental in including a provision in NAFTA that would allow trucks to freely cross the U.S-Mexico border. These visionaries foresaw that San Antonio could benefit from NAFTA and in particular from the business opportunities that would be created in transportation and logistics resulting form the increased flow of trade between the two nations. Despite the delay in implementing this provision, it is still the single most important aspect of NAFTA for the Alamo city.
At the same time SAWTA was garnering support and interest in NAFTA, the City of San Antonio's International Affairs Department embarked on a progressive effort of their own to help San Antonio's business community expand its international business opportunities. In 1991 the city of San Antonio established the Casa San Antonio program in Mexico. Opening its first office in Guadalajara, Jalisco, the Casa San Antonio program was designed to provide assistance to San Antonio businesses of all sizes in exploring new business opportunities in Mexico. Today the Casa San Antonio program also has offices in Monterrey and Mexico City and has become an integral part of San Antonio's effort to develop itself as an international trade center. The city's Casa program further codified our community's interest and commitment to international trade.
In 1984, Target 90 began the process of coordinating San Antonio's international trade efforts. However, by the early 1990s there were still numerous organizations engaged in various activities related to international trade. In 1994, the business and civic leadership of San Antonio determined that it was time to further ally the community's international trade efforts. As a result, in 1994 the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio Economic development Foundation (EDF), the City of San Antonio and SAWTA agreed to pool their resources to form an Alliance dedicated to developing and promoting San Antonio's international trade interests. Thus the Free Trade Alliance San Antonio was born.
Although there were many individuals who were key to the formation of the Alliance, there are several who are deserving of mention. Robert McDermott, Arthur Emerson, Tim Tuggey, Bill Greehey, Michael Beldon, Patricia Stout, Beth Costello, Mario Hernandez, and Joe Krier were each inspirational in securing their respective organizations' commitment to the Alliance. It was through the hard work and dedication of these individuals and many others like them that the vision for the Alliance became a reality.
With the mission of developing and promoting San Antonio as a center for trade in the Americas, the Alliance began work to help the business community reap the benefits of NAFTA. The first accomplishment of the Alliance was to bring the North American Development Bank (NAD Bank) to San Antonio. Created by NAFTA, the NAD Bank was designed to assist communities in addressing environmental needs along the U.S-Mexico border. Through the diligent efforts of the Alliance and its institutional partners, San Antonio was successful in attracting the bank to our community in 1994.
Shortly after the NAD Bank success, the Alliance hired its first President, Jose E. Martinez. Upon the arrival of Mr. Martinez, a small committee consisting of representatives from each of the Alliance's institutional partners and headed by H.T Johnson refined the goals and objectives for the organization. These goals were based on the existing goals of the former SAWTA as well as input from the Alliance's other institutional partners. The three primary goals of the Alliance are to (1) identify, coordinate and enhance the international trade infrastructure in the San Antonio metro area in partnership with the business community and government agencies, to (2) market San Antonio globally as a competitive International Trade Center, and to (3) attract foreign investment to San Antonio and provide local companies with business opportunities in foreign markets.
With these three primary goals as a framework, a set of strategic objectives was established for the new Alliance. These objectives guide the present day initiatives of the Alliance and include the following: to promote San Antonio as an international trade center and multimodal port; to develop a trade processing center; to work with EDF, Port San Antonio the City and County to target and attract key industry leads needed to complement and improve current international logistics and distribution infrastructure; to support the upgrade and modernization of Port San Antonio's infrastructure in coordination with the Metropolitan Planning Organization; to provide international business information to enhance local business acumen and provide business assistance; to host foreign business delegations; to promote development of international business skills at local schools and academic institutions; and to promote and support the NAD Bank as an international institution in San Antonio.
In 1996, the Alliance's leadership determined that the organization's primary focus would be on developing and promoting San Antonio as a multi-modal port. Port San Antonio is a concept which encompasses the transportation, manufacturing, logistics facilities, professional services, and value-added services involved in producing, marketing and moving freight within, into and out of the San Antonio area. Port San Antonio stands out as an ideal site for distribution and logistics facility because it encompasses more than any one particular industrial facility or organization. It is an entire package of goods, services and human resources that make up San Antonio's capacity to serve international trade. The primary focus of Port San Antonio is on the opportunities created by the increased trade with Mexico. San Antonio stands poised to be the platform for distributing products throughout the U.S market that are produced in Mexico. In addition to Mexico, the port concept appeals to companies from Asia, Europe and South America which are also looking to establish a platform for their products entering the North American marketplace.
The Port San Antonio concept became even more important to our community's future economic development with the announcement of the closure of Kelly Air Force Base. As a logistics center for the U.S Air Force, Kelly offers San Antonio a location that could become the "crown jewel" of the Port San Antonio concept. After the Department of Defense decision to close Kelly was announced, the Alliance began to work immediately with the leaders of the base's redevelopment effort. In particular, the Alliance focused on developing the Kelly multimodal distribution facility into a world-class international trade processing center.
Some of the first steps in this effort were taken with the initiation of the North American Trade Automation Prototype (NATAP) test program at Kelly. The NATAP is a trilateral program developed in cooperation with the U.S., Mexican and Canadian Customs designed to automate the processing of all necessary documents and clearances required in shipping products between the three countries. The Alliance signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S Department of Treasury to establish San Antonio as the first non-border city to participate in the NATAP. The NATAP is just one of the many international trade processing services the Alliance hopes to bring to Kelly in cooperation and coordination with the redevelopment efforts of the GKDC.
In addition to the NAD Bank and the NATAP, the Alliance has achieved several other notable accomplishments. Working with its institutional partners, the Alliance was successful in convincing a Mexican paint manufacturer, COMEX, to establish a distribution center in San Antonio. The Alliance has also been successful in bringing several high-profile international conferences to the city. The 1996 U.S-Mexico Border Infrastructure Conference which was sponsored by the U.S and Mexican Departments of Commerce, the 1998 Transporte Internacional, and the 1999 U.S-R.O.C (Taiwan) Joint Business Conference are a few examples of initiatives led by the Alliance which have brought more international recognition to our city as a center for international trade.
Beginning in 1984 with the Target 90 initiative which was the genesis for the SAWTA and continuing with the formation of the Alliance in 1994, San Antonio's international trade efforts have evolved considerably. This evolution has resulted in the creation of an economic development concept, Port San Antonio that capitalizes on San Antonio's unique geographic, historic and infrastructural advantages. The result of a coordinated development effort led by the Alliance and its institutional partners, this concept has already achieved measurable results and will continue to lay the groundwork for many years of future economic development in our community.