New Greater San Marcos Partnership leader promotes regional economy

Adriana Cruz has been described as one of the top economic development professionals in the nation.

During the past seven years, Cruz led the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce's efforts to bring high-profile companies such as Apple Inc., Samsung and Facebook to Central Texas, creating an estimated 6,700 jobs and $4 billion in capital investment for the region.

Now she's turning her attention to the San Marcos area. In May, Cruz left the Austin chamber to become president of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, a nonprofit, public-private collaboration that promotes job creation and economic development in Hays and Caldwell counties. Her first day was June 2.

Have you already started to do some of the other aspects of the job, like recruitment?

Yeah. Absolutely. I've called some of my contacts, some of the companies that I've worked with in the past, letting them know that I've changed positions and now am head of economic development for San Marcos, and one of the first questions is: 'Where?' Then I tell them, 'It's the southern half of the Austin [Metropolitan Statistical Area].

'Ohh.'

'It's between Austin and San Antonio.'

'Ohhhh.'

And that starts to get eyebrows raised and wheels spinning, and then they go, 'The outlet mall?' I'm like, 'Yes, but also Texas State University.' 'Ohh, I didn't know.' We talk about the student population; they have no idea. I think San Marcos is a really well-kept secret. I think the region has so many assets that a lot of people and a lot of companies don't know. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to let them know.

Is that strange coming from Austin where there is so much buzz, and everyone and their mom wants to move there?

It is. I have to say, as an Austinite, I've been in Austin 38 years, and I don't know a lot about San Marcos. That's endemic not just of folks in California, but even folks up the road [in Austin]. One of my goals is to bring some people down here and make sure that they understand what all the assets are. Texas State is a huge asset. Tremendous asset. I've watched from afar in Austin and have been so impressed with [President Denise] Trauth and her leadership and what she's done with Texas State in bringing it forward as an emerging research university, and I think the work that's happening there is just tremendous. I'm ready to put a big spotlight on it.

A big part of your job is recruiting businesses that bring jobs. What are you seeing as some of San Marcos' challenges or some things the region needs to focus on to be more attractive?

Looking at San Marcos, there's some work to be done. There's some great assets; it's beautiful in so many ways, but you really have to get people off I-35 to see that. If you're coming up just on I-35, it doesn't show very well. That's something that we're talking to the city about. I have the ability coming in with eyes of an outsider, a different perspective, because we're selling this product. It has a lot of wonderful things. It's got a young, educated workforce, a population that from what I've seen is so—the admiration for this community is so deep. The willingness of people to work; it's just impressed me tremendously.

We have to roll up our sleeves, and there's some work to do on making sure that the city shows well, that the streets are clean, that curbs are repaired, that maintenance is done. There's some beautiful parks here, which is fantastic; the natural environment is a selling point. That needs to be maintained and taken care of because you need that in order to attract people here and companies here. You also need good restaurants. You need entertainment options. You need housing. There are some things that we need to work on, but nothing insurmountable. Nothing that I think the community isn't already aware of and just needs to pull together to move forward. The other parts of the region have differing challenges; some entertainment options, some schools. Overall, it's very positive. The opportunities are tremendous for the entire region.

How do you respond to people who push back against development because they like San Marcos the way it is?

In Austin, just up the road, we saw that a lot. The fact is that you're growing no matter what. We [San Marcos] were ranked as the fastest-growing city in America with a population over 50,000. The Austin metropolitan area doubles in population every 20 years and has since the 1880s. There is a sense of explosion, but it's actually not explosion; it's a growth rate that is fairly steady. San Marcos has outpaced, in the past year, that growth rate at 4.9 percent. It's a good problem to have. It's a far better problem than the opposite, where you have people leaving, a lack of growth. Without that growth, you stagnate and are not successful. It's managing that growth, and it's growing it in a way that is true to your identity and to your brand. The acknowledgement that you're growing—that's going to happen. Let's do it in a way that includes quality jobs, that includes benefits for citizens, that provides opportunities. Austin wrestled with that years ago and has been able to come to terms with it and now has one of the strongest economies in the country. We can learn a lot of lessons from our neighbors to the north and understand that that [growth is] going to happen, but let's do it in a way that is true to who we are and to our values.

San Marcos residents frequently say they want more high-quality jobs. In your role, how will you address that need?

That's our purpose. Our purpose is increased job creation and increased capital investment for the region. That's something that is sorely needed. One of the things that we're doing very systematically and methodically is looking at what our assets are and identifying target industries. Those industries that make sense given our strengths, given the presence of the university, include advanced manufacturing, aviation, automotive manufacturing, medical device manufacturing, biotechnology, clean energy, corporate headquarters and back-office operations—not just headquarters, but the back-office side of it [where tasks dedicated to running the company itself take place].

[We are] really looking at those industries and utilizing the relationships that we have, the contexts that we have. Working with site selectors who are the consultants who work with companies who are making these decisions and getting [the site selectors] educated on what the assets in the region are. Really looking at those jobs that provide equitable wages, that provide advancement opportunities, that will provide an option for our Texas State graduates who graduate and want to be here.

You have a background in global recruitment. Do you think that will play a part in your job here?

Very definitely. I'm very interested in increasing foreign direct investment here, in the countries that make sense given our target industry. We're trying to get the biggest bang for our buck because dollars and resources are limited, so we want to do it in places of the world that make sense for what our target industries are. We already have, I believe, a leg up with Mexico, for instance.

Because of the outlet malls.

Exactly. They know. They have a knowledge and a brand awareness of San Marcos already as a destination. We just need to expand their mind to make sure that they know it's not just a good location for retail. It's a good location for business. We see San Antonio is definitely in their awareness as a location to visit, and we're just right up the road. With the presence of Formula One just north of Caldwell County and the number of Mexican visitors that came to the race, that just allows us to let them know, 'If you're a racing fan or if you own a company, we want you to come to the area and understand what San Marcos is about.' It's more than just the outlet mall.

Why should a business come to San Marcos instead of Austin?

Austin has great attributes, and I've been in Austin working in that market for seven years, but Austin can't be everything to everyone. Austin has its strengths, and for certain companies, Austin is the right fit. For other companies, San Marcos would be better fit. The fact that we're located between Austin and San Antonio is a huge asset. For companies that are either wanting to pull workforce from those two markets or are needing to be in between the [seventh] and [11th] largest cities in the country, that's something that's a benefit to us. That's a selling point. We work closely with the Austin Chamber through Opportunity Austin, the regional economic development program. That's a regional effort. So, a win in San Marcos is a win for the entire region; it's not an 'us against them.' It's very much a partnership. Actually, I would like to see us be a bridge that brings in San Antonio and we become a super-region. Particularly internationally, companies don't see county lines and dividing lines the way that we do. They see a region; they see a larger region. San Antonio has its strengths that we can leverage, as does Austin.

What is the feedback you're getting from Greater San Marcos Partnership board members? What do they want you to focus on?

One thing that I've heard over and over from board members, from investors, from people that I meet on the street is, 'We're ready to work. We're ready. Put me to work. What do we do? What do we need to do? Point us in a direction.' There's such affection for the region. There's such a deep love for the community, and people are just ready to work. I have been so impressed and humbled by their ready-to-go [attitude]. One of the things that the board has said is, 'From your experience, tell us where we need to adjust, where we need to make a course correction. We're headed in this direction, do we need to make an adjustment? Do we need to do some things differently?'

Operationally, we're implementing some changes in how we're reporting our communication with investors and with the community. Economic development is not just about recruiting companies here. It's about growing your own, it's about working with small businesses, it's about educating the locals on the importance of what job creation and investment can bring to the community. It's a multifaceted program. The recruitment of companies is what gets everyone excited and creates lots of headlines, but there's a lot of work on the ground—on workforce excellence, on quality of place, on growing our existing companies and making sure they have the resources they need. We have a business retention program where we go out and survey our existing employers and find out the issues they are having, their situation. We do this on an annual basis so that we can look at trends and report back to our governmental entities and tell them these are the issues we are seeing and hearing.

Economic development corporations put so much emphasis on outside recruitment, but you actually get more value and more sustained benefit from focusing on the existing businesses.

Yep. That's exactly right. We have local companies that are expanding, that we're helping to expand. When a company from outside comes in, that's great. Once they're here, it's not just, 'OK, goodbye. Good luck. You're on your own.' Once they're here, we want to make sure they have the support they need to become successful because if they're not successful, then we're not successful. We want to make sure that once the company gets here, they have what they need and then they're added in this annual survey where we touch base with them. Through our regional partners, also—in Lockhart and Caldwell County—the same thing is happening so that those companies are being acknowledged and worked with. We acknowledge as a regional community that it's not just about the outside coming in but growing what we have.

What would you consider your biggest achievement or proudest moment from your career in economic development?

The Apple Inc. project is one of the biggest job creators for the state. Apple selected Austin as the location of one of their global operation centers. It's a major center outside of global headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., so there are four in the world. Cupertino, one in Asia, one in Europe and one in Austin. Austin's operation center will be responsible for all operations from Canada to South America, so it's America's operation center—3,600 jobs on top of the 3,100 jobs that they already have in Austin.

Did that also involve marketing Austin to Apple, or did Apple come to you already interested?

Apple came interested. It was a competitive situation, but they already had a facility there. In some instances, like Facebook, Facebook doesn't have a presence in Austin, so they need to get to know the university, the workforce, what the cost of living is. That's far more of a sales job. What we do and what we will be doing with the Greater San Marcos Partnership—I'm paid to sell a community. When I'm talking to a company, they listen, but it's like [they say], 'Well, I know that that's your job,' but if I have a community leader with me, if I have a business person sitting across the table saying, 'This is why I'm here, this is what I've seen, this is how easy it is for me to hire people,' that's a far more compelling story than if they hear it from me. I can provide data. I can provide statistics. ... The reputation and integrity that you have in this field is something that's very important, and people know that they can trust you and trust your word. Even so, I know that it's a much bigger impact and a much better story to hear it from a business person than to hear it from me. Utilizing volunteers is something that's very important.

How should taxpayers measure their return on investment in you?

Economic development is a really long sales process. We have projects that take a year, sometimes longer. I think the biggest measure will be the jobs, and that's one of our goals is to be reporting where we are in terms of those metrics. There are distinct goals and metrics associated with what we do that the public at large and our investors need to be kept informed of. It's sometimes not just the wins; sometimes you learn a lot from the losses. 'Why did we lose this project that we were up for?' Having a debriefing on those losses and having an understanding of what happened. Sometimes there are factors beyond our control such that a company makes a decision. Sometimes it's something that we can learn from.

There was a lot of soul-searching last fall when Amazon picked Schertz instead of San Marcos to build a major distribution facility.

That is one of our challenges. We have a lot of land, but it's not shovel-ready. If a company is looking to come to somewhere in Texas or Central Texas and there's a 100-acre tract here that has nothing and a 100-tract here that has all the utilities in place and is ready to go, they're going to go to the one that's ready. So one of the things we're doing is pulling together an inventory of available sites and identifying which ones are more ready than others. Then we are working with those folks and letting them know that, 'Your site is great, there could be great potential for it, but some things need to be done to get it ready for us to be able to submit it,' when a company comes looking. That's one of the things that we're working on right now, trying to get us up to speed on that.

Could you see the Partnership getting involved in the actual funding for the infrastructure or a spec building [a speculative investment by a builder, rather than under contract]?

The Greater San Marcos Partnership is not funded through [a dedicated sales tax]; it's a public-private partnership. We just wouldn't have the funds to be able to do that, but we can find out from different firms what their willingness is. We can find out if some other entities are willing to look at that. One of the other things that we're doing is we're compiling data on projects that we have not been able to respond to because we didn't have the available building. So we can go to the developers or to the city and say, 'Here's what we're missing,' and if someone can take it on and build that facility, we've had X number of [requests for proposals] that we weren't able to respond to because we didn't have that particular type of project. We're getting the data together so we can make that argument and make that case. That's the role that we can play: facilitating, getting the data together, looking at what the trends are and advising on ... what we need.

The other point as far as return on investment is making sure that folks are aware that this is a long sale cycle, and it takes time to get this infrastructure into place, to get the tools together, to get the word out, to get people here looking at the San Marcos area and learning about it, then going out and getting companies interested. We're going to start doing more active outreach. We're going to do trips out of market and start educating companies on what the assets are that we have. We have to get some things organized before we start doing that, but that's something that I think is right around the corner.

What are your qualifications when it comes to rocking out?

Say that again?

You know, rock 'n' roll.

What are my qualifications? Why would you ask that question?

We have a city manager who is an accomplished songwriter —

Yeah, yeah. It's the live music capital of the world. When I came to Austin to go to UT and graduated and never left, one of the reasons to stay was the music. I'm a musician by background and was in a band way back when. That's one of the things that I find really interesting about San Marcos as well, the music. I'm really interested in seeing what's here. [San Marcos City Manager Jim Nuse] has told me wonderful things about the music here, so I take his word.

What kind of music were you into?

I was in a cover band, actually, in high school. That's how I met my husband. He was the guitar player, and I was the lead singer. We still play occasionally.

Might we see you on a stage in San Marcos?

Maybe, maybe. We do rock cover songs and have played in Austin for a long time. We played in different bands. Not cover bands, but did the Sixth Street circuit.

Adriana Cruz's resume

  • Vice president of global corporate recruitment, Austin Chamber of Commerce, 2006–13
  • Marketing project manager, Angelou Economics, 2005–06
  • Marketing director for economic development and tourism, Texas governor's office, 2001–05