By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
For the first time in 29 years, going on two generations, the people of San Marcos searched outside their own ranks for a city manager. They might as well have searched on another planet.
Midland isn’t exactly Mars, but it’s something like Venus, which is hot, dry, treeless and plain. The planet is over-heated by a greenhouse effect. Earthlings fear such an effect on their own planet from excessive burning of fossil fuel – which happens to be Midland’s leading industry.
San Marcos is the green city, lush and leafy, loaded with ecological treasures and environmental activism. Before there was Al Gore, there was San Marcos. And the largest employer in San Marcos isn’t a big-hatted oil company, but a tweed-jacket university. San Marcos is a college town, a very long way from an oil town.
As of the 2000 census, San Marcos showed a median household income of $25,809. The median household in Midland earned $39,320. San Marcos weighed in with 41.9 percent of its people aged 18-24 and another 24.8 percent aged 25-44. Midland showed only 37.2 percent of its population aged 18-44, with a mere nine percent in the 18-24 group. That same census put Midland’s population at 94,996, compared with 34,733 for San Marcos.
Adjusting for the likely changes since the 2000 census, Midland is twice as large, twice as old, four times as wealthy, and unlike San Marcos in any physical respect. On a scale of analogy, Midland and San Marcos are as different as Venus and Mars.
So, what’s Rick Menchaca doing here?
Menchaca arrives in San Marcos to become the ultimate insider, the city manager. Yet, along with his seven years as Midland’s city manager, it is his definitive qualification that he is an outsider. And not just an outsider, but a far outsider, an outsider from something like another planet.
The citizens told city officials that they wanted an experienced, certified city manager from a larger city. San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz wanted a strong presence who could bring a new perspective. The search process among councilmembers revealed no meaningful opposition to the outsider from Midland.
Apparently, everyone got what they wanted. What did they get?
The first conversation with Mencheca tells you they hired a sensible man who looks at San Marcos from afar and sees the obvious, which many looking from up close all these years either forgot or never knew: a town with a large state university is at an enormous economic and cultural advantage. Texas State is the path to the next development in San Marcos.
“In Austin, about 1980, the mayor and (the University of Texas) got together and said, ‘We need to talk about a new economy for this town,'” Menchaca said. “We need to have that kind of discussion here with Texas State.”
Over and over, Menchaca mentions Texas State. He mentions Texas State when he says intellectual capital is the future of the economy. He mentions Texas State as a draw for the so-called “creative class,” identified by social and economic theorist Richard Florida in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. He mentions Texas State as the key player in San Marcos’ next bold economic move.
What is that move? That largely depends on Texas State.
“It’s going to take time to research,” Menchaca said. “Everyone says they want biomedicine. I don’t know how much that’s emphasized at Texas State, and I need to learn more about what they offer, because Texas State is the key. We’ve got a great university, the fastest growing university in the state. I saw a report that said Texas State has a billion-dollar impact on the local economy. We have to work with them for the benefit of everyone.”
Compared with other college cities, the town and gown tension in San Marcos is so much more intense in degree that it’s almost different in kind. The city and university have clashed often and famously at the administrative and street levels. The idea that San Marcos and Texas State would partner to develop the local economy arrives from Venus.
But the city and the university are starting to try. The public reception for city manager candidates took place at the home of Texas State University President Denise Trauth. It’s a formality, but a meaningful formality.
When deeply ingrained hostilities come to call, though, whether they’re between the university and community, the business community and environmentalists, the young and old, or the rich and poor, what can formalities mean? Traditionally, the answer in San Marcos is gridlock. The basic services are delivered, but progress is not. Uneasy agreements keep conflicts alive in a muted voice.
At some point, perhaps, the outsider will break the ice. He’ll step on toes and hurt feelings. He’ll make enemies, which is part of the job description for any city manager, but especially for an outsider who doesn’t know the folkways of finesse that have kept San Marcos so pleasant and inert. San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz recalled the desire of one citizen, who said, “I want a city manager with a spine.”
Narvaiz came to San Marcos in 1995 and won election as something of an outsider in 2004. She said the outsider’s first job is to listen, which is on Menchaca’s agenda for the first few months as he meets with citizens and stakeholders. Narvaiz is very high on Menchaca’s background as the basis for talking with all kinds of people across the community.
But not very long after listening, the outsider will have to talk. What he says might not set the city’s strategic plan, but it will certainly guide the execution while setting in motion the wheels of opposition. And that’s where the outsider with a spine will bring a new dynamic to San Marcos.
“It means challenging us to think differently,” Narvaiz said.
As Narvaiz put it, “We’ve had our head down for a decade or more.” Meanwhile, the action moved up the street to Kyle, which aggressively pursues a high-wage economy while it rips up its britches with residential growth. But it remains, said Narvaiz, that San Marcos is ready to go, if the outsider can shake the earth a bit and get the town moving.
“I applaud Kyle for what they’re doing,” Narvaiz said. “They’re trying so hard not to be a bedroom community. But we’re further along in our history and we’re better positioned. We have our water reserves. We’re not building our streets. We’re maintaining them. We’re not a bedroom. We’re a home. We’re in a position where we can say, ‘Do we want this?’ rather than “Do we need this?’ “
By hiring Menchaca, the city decided it wants – and needs – an outsider. And the outsider likes what he sees on the inside, particularly San Marcos’ raw, natural beauty, the absence of which imposed limits on Midland’s prosperity. Does environmentalism go hand-in-hand with economic development? To hear Menchaca, it’s not that big of a stretch.
“The last three years in Midland, we had 2,000 unfilled jobs,” Menchaca said. “People will want to come and live and work here, because of the natural environment to go along with the opportunities.”
With that, perhaps, the outsider has spoken the insider’s greatest fear. It won’t be the last time.