Tucson v. San Antonio: A Tale of Two Cities

Tucson [Photo courtesy of City of Tucson]

It is difficult to find a better comparison of two cities than to compare my present home of Tucson to my former home of San Antonio.

Both are landlocked, both are near the border with Mexico, both have large Latino populations, both have a state capital up the interstate that is more prosperous then they are (Phoenix in Tucson’s case, and Austin in San Antonio’s case), both have had a predominately Democrat city government for decades, both are in right-to-work and Republican-controlled states, both have a sunny and warm climate, both have major universities, and both have large military/defense installations, although San Antonio has more.

Tucson has one advantage over San Antonio: It is geographically closer to California and should be a first stop for companies exiting the Golden State.

So why is San Antonio doing better economically than Tucson, and why has it done a much better job of reducing poverty?

Before answering these questions, let’s look at some top-line numbers.

Tucson’s poverty rate is 24.1%, and San Antonio’s is 18.6%, or nearly one-fourth lower, but still above the national average of 12.7%. Naturally, this tracks with median household income, which is $39,617 in Tucson, $49,711 in San Antonio, and $52,080 nationally.

Surprisingly, Tucson has a higher percentage of residents age 25 years and older who have a college degree: 26.6% versus 25.7%.

Tucson is in Pima County, which has a poverty rate of 16.6% and a median household income of $48,676. San Antonio is in Bexar County, which has a poverty rate of 15.6% and a median household income of $53,999.

Tucson deserves credit for landing a Caterpillar facility that will bring several hundred jobs. It’s a good start. San Antonio deserves credit for landing a Toyota assembly plant (from California) a few years ago and transforming the former Kelly Air Force Base into a successful technology/innovation center, thus adding thousands of high-wage jobs, which are in addition to the thousands of jobs at companies that are headquartered in San Antonio, such as Valero Energy and USAA Insurance.

Fifty years ago, San Antonio was an economic backwater with poor prospects, as I saw firsthand.

You see, in the late 1960s and early 1970s (yes, I’m that old), I lived in San Antonio, and specifically, in the barrio, where my Mustang was stolen one time, my mag wheels were stolen another time, gunfire would sometimes awaken me in the middle of the night, gangbangers shot at me once and missed, and my neighbor in the adjoining duplex was a stripper and kindhearted woman whose stage name was Candy Kisses.

Among other jobs, I worked as a bartender in downtown San Antonio, in a hip place on the hip River Walk. I am no longer hip but am maybe a tad wiser.

As with other young residents of San Antonio back then, I left for better opportunities, moving to Chicago, metro New York City and Phoenix—just as many young Tucsonans move elsewhere now for better opportunities.

Today, my wife and I are retired and living in Tucson, which, like San Antonio a half-century ago, is seen as a backwater with poor prospects—although, thankfully, there are some stirrings of economic revival.

To return to the earlier question, why has San Antonio surpassed Tucson economically?

A doctoral thesis in economics, political science or sociology could be written on this question, but this layman has two answers, based on talking with local experts and researching archival studies and newspaper articles.

First, in the 1970s, the Tucson business and political establishment became anti-growth and anti-industry, while the San Antonio establishment was pro-growth. The mindset in Tucson became very hard to change because the city’s charter and corresponding election system tended to lock in the party in power instead of furthering political diversity and competing ideas.

The difference in mindset between the two cities can be seen in the fact that San Antonio built its first loop freeway system (Loop 410) in the sixties, while Tucson still doesn’t have a freeway network. And to make the situation worse, both Tucson and the surrounding county have deferred road maintenance and construction for so long that arterial roads, collector roads, and neighborhood streets are in terrible condition.

A side note: Tucson voters have approved a tax increase for road improvements, and a regional transportation authority also has levied a tax for road improvements; but Pima County voters refuse to give the county more money for roads, primarily because they don’t trust county executives.

The second reason that San Antonio has surpassed Tucson is annexation. San Antonio has grown considerably by annexing unincorporated parts of Bexar County, including wealthier parts. This has facilitated regional planning, achieved economies of scale, furthered political diversity, and increased the number of people who have a stake in the success of the larger metropolis. By contrast, residents of unincorporated Pima County do not want to be annexed by Tucson, because they fear that annexation would be a subterfuge by the historically mismanaged and poor city to pillage and plunder the wealthier suburbs. Annexation is also more difficult in Arizona than in Texas.

Incorporation as a separate municipality would be another option, but county residents have been snookered by county executives into believing that this would result in significantly higher taxes.

As a result, a large percentage of metro Tucson (36%) is unincorporated county instead of an incorporated municipality. This puts the county in a role that a county of over 9,000 sq. miles can’t perform well; that is, the role of a municipality—a role that county executives relish, because it gives them more power with little accountability for results. In the process, residents of the unincorporated county are left with high property taxes, substandard services and amenities, and not enough political leverage to change things.

There are other reasons for San Antonio surpassing Tucson, but the above are the top two.

On second thought, maybe San Antonio is doing better because I left there; and maybe Tucson is doing worse because I moved here.

A former business executive, activist and author, Mr. Cantoni is a co-founder of the nonpartisan Tucson Advisory Group, which has the goal of reducing poverty by improving prosperity.

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