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Brooks City-Base 50 Years After JFK's Final Address

On Nov. 21, 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 10,000 people at Brooks Air Force Base. It would be one of his last presidential acts.

"I have come to Texas today to salute an outstanding group of pioneers," he said, speaking of the compression chambers and training abilities for Air Force, space and other programs. "It is fitting that San Antonio should be the site of this center and this school [Brooks Air Force Base School of Aerospace Medicine and the Aerospace Medical Center]."

History changed one day later in Dallas, when JFK was shot and killed. Experts, analysts, and everyday people believed Kennedy had only begun to introduce new ideas and new ways of doing things, but life went on and the country rebounded the best it knew how.

The history of Brooks itself has changed dramatically as well. After the Air Force base closed, idea makers, politicians and developers reformed the area into one of the most diverse shopping, residential and retail centers in the city.

Brooks City-Base today

Today there's a new vibe along Southeast Military Drive as the sound of vehicles back and forth is the sound of business headed toward places like The Wash Tub, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, H-E-B, and James Avery.

It's the sound of money from the South Side staying on the South Side.

"It is in a part of town that, quite frankly, has lacked a focus on developing such a community and yet it is there, and it is there within incredible opportunities for development for the private investor," said Leo Gomez, president of the Brooks Development Authority.

The authority oversees what is now known as Brooks City-Base, the Southside center for businesses, residential space and shopping opportunities.

More than 10 years ago, the old Brooks Air Force base was included in a round of shut downs as part of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and it joined more than 300 installations across the country in ceasing military operations.

But, as Gomez explained, the area did not sit idly by.

"Today, without a single Air Force tenant, we have over 2,500 private-sector employees on the campus itself," Gomez said. "Today, in the immediate region of Brooks City-Base, we have over 6,000 employees. So one could argue that we have more private sector jobs there today than when the Air Force was there full steam ahead."

Good old fashioned observation

Business is now booming and developer Mark Granados said he saw an opportunity that no one else was taking.

"That shopper in South San Antonio was already shopping Best Buy and Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks, they were simply driving to Loop 410 to do it," Granados said.

To get a feel for shoppers' needs, Granados did some simple observational research, looking at the type of houses people had and what type of cars they were driving.

"We sat in parking lots," Granados said frankly. "We saw the number of people going in and out of stores. We saw the number of people going in and out of stores that were actually taking bags where they bought stuff. We just came to the conclusion that the market was there. We actually opened at about 93 percent occupancy, which is phenomenal in our business."

Granados credits local leadership for acting fast to give the Southside the resources they felt it needed. Now residents like Jennifer Martinez can stay close to home and still get what they need.

"We have everything here," she said. "We have Target. Like I said, we always had to go all the way to the North Side before, and now we just shop around here. We have everything that we need."

Martinez admitted she'd like a few more sit-down restaurants. But as for stores like the nearby jewelry craftsman James Avery, there are plenty of retail opportunities.

Credit Urban Land Institute
Entrance to Brooks City-Base.

Southside stores are top performers

Granados said the Southside James Avery location is one of the company's most popular. Company leaders say they are pleased with business, adding that residents living nearby contribute to its success.

Also in that area is Best Buy, which has earned top recognition.

General Manager Kevin Fite said out of 1,200 stores nationwide, his store ranks 17 in performance when considering sales, customer satisfaction and employee experience. He said people on the Southside are deeply connected and his workers are building long-lasting relationships with them, relationships that go beyond the gadgets.

"That's one piece of it," Fite said, "but for us, we're really focused in on how do we continue to grow our relationships with our customers and spend more of our time as a team here in the community?"

Even more room to grow

With a new logo and vision and mission statements, the Brooks Development Authority is pushing for expansion.

BDA president Leo Gomez said new roads are connecting more people to business and employers, but there is still quite a bit of land that makes parts of City-Base still feel like the original military institution.

"Well, there's still a lot of stuff on there that looks like an Air Force facility that no one has walked into for 10 years and we understand that," said Gomez. "We've got an aggressive demolition schedule on track and so we're going to be doing that. But let me tell you, we've got 800 acres of raw land available for development."

As the nation commemorates the legacy of JFK and marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination, the history of Brooks will always remain.

San Antonio is helping preserve it. New city guidelines aim to help Brooks maintain its historical integrity while ushering the center into a new era of prosperity, the kind Kennedy often spoke of.