SAN ANTONIO – If you’ve driven on Highway 90 in San Antonio, you’ve likely seen the signs directing you to exit at General Hudnell Drive and Port San Antonio.
The majority of people pass the exit and never look back, but in this story, we didn’t.
“There’s a misconception that this is some sort of strange, off-the-grid federal enclave that operates under a different law, which isn’t true,” says Port SA CEO Jim Perschbach.
What is true is the name “Port San Antonio” does not necessarily reflect what happens on the campus nowadays.
The term “port” leads you to believe it’s a trade hub, which, in this KSAT Explains, we learn is only partly accurate.
Roots of Kelly Air Force Base
In the early 1900s, San Antonio rapidly grew its roots as Military City, USA.
It was military aviation that brought the majority of today’s military bases to the area.
“San Antonio was in excess of everything that the Air Force became,” said Gary Boyd, director of Air Education and Training Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
In 1910, Lt. Benjamin Foulois came to San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston with the U.S. Army’s only airplane.
The pieces were packed in crates, and the instructions on putting them together were sent to Foulois by mail. He taught himself to fly through trial and error with a small band of young military officers.
One of those people was Lt. George M. Kelly, whom Kelly Airforce Base is named after.
Kelly was flying on Fort Sam when he crashed while trying to avoid an encampment area.
“They said, ‘No more flying here.’ This is not really -- the base isn’t set up for that,” Boyd said.
It was this tragedy that forced the small team of dedicated pilots to find a new space for their airplanes.
After years of searching for the perfect area, Foulois found himself on an empty plot of land southwest of San Antonio.
In November 1916, Kelly Air Force Base was established. It would soon become a busy hub for training military pilots.
The base would assist through nearly every war the U.S. engaged in, including both World Wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam.
In later years, Kelly Air Force Base transformed into the nation’s largest hub for the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of military aircraft.
In the 1990s, Kelly was the largest employer in San Antonio.
“At one point there were about 28,000 civil servants and contractors working there,” Boyd said.
Decades and generations of training for MRO on military planes was the heartbeat of San Antonio.
Kelly Air Force Base Closes
It all came to a halt in 1995. The U.S. Department of Defense announced a base realignment and closure or “BRAC” for Kelly Air Force Base.
“Some really forward-looking people said, ‘Let’s not close it. Let’s just change the way that we think of it,’” Perschbach said.
The Greater Kelly Development Corporation took charge of the land, renaming it “Kelly USA.”
The new mission was to operate as a landlord while keeping San Antonio’s highly trained military workforce.
Hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly found their paychecks coming from Boeing or other large aerospace companies.
Many local families may still remember that time in their lives.
The area became an inland port, using the avenues of transportation to bring in plane parts. Those operations still exist in a way today.
“There is the ability to do rail logistics. We actually own a short-line railroad over there. There is a little bit of air cargo that flies in and out of here on a daily basis,” Perschbach said.
Port San Antonio Forms
In 2007, the name of the facility was changed to Port San Antonio to reflect the cargo that was being brought in and out.
In 2018, new leadership had a new vision. The mission of Port SA became more about transporting ideas than cargo.
“We are the center of gravity for cybersecurity, information, technology, and aviation, as well as critical infrastructure, not just in San Antonio but quite possibly in Texas,” Perschbach said.
Port San Antonio kept its role as a landlord and MRO hub, but it had a new emphasis on technology and education.
“About four or four and a half years ago, we decided we wanted to do an experiment. And the experiment was if we can bring a bunch of people together -- if we can create an environment that focuses on investing in people, and that’s more than just a buzzword -- we’ve done that. We’ve spent a lot of money on educational programs, on workforce programs, built a lot of partnerships with universities, academic institutions, research institutions,” Perschbach said.
The Port operates as a political subdivision of the state and is publicly owned.
“What we do is we borrow against the assets that we own. We make our money through operations, profit and loss, through services that we sell,” Perschbach said.
Today, more than 80 different companies call Port San Antonio home and are in the private and public sectors.
According to the Texas State Comptroller’s Office, Port SA generated over $5.6 billion for the state of Texas in 2018.
Why Port SA?
With more than 80 companies housed at Port SA, we wondered “What is it that attracts these businesses to this area of San Antonio?”
Boeing operates its largest MRO in the world out of Port SA.
“It’s a combination of having access to the facilities we need, the runway we need, but it’s really about being tied in with the community,” says Dominic Papagni, deputy site leader at Boeing San Antonio.
The facilities include the world’s largest free-standing hanger and a military-sized runway that’s shared with Lackland AFB.
“We have about 1.6 million square-feet on this site. We have access to a 12,000-foot runway, so we can fly in any aircraft,” Papagni said.
But it’s not just the infrastructure that brings companies here. It’s also the connections that are able to be made.
“Today, as opposed to 100 years ago, those airplanes are really big flying computers. And so what used to be about purely engine blades and rotors now requires microchips and computer processors and big data,” said Will Garrett, vice president of Talent and Technology Development and Integration at Port San Antonio.
That new technology is created by some of the companies there at Port SA.
“There is this nexus of technology and logistics, but also the ability to grow as quickly as we wanted,” says Paul Hvass, co-founder of Plus One Robotics, a San Antonio-based startup focused on logistics.
Plus One Robotics creates vision software for logistics robots that gives them the hand-eye coordination needed to pick and place objects inside warehouses and distribution centers.
The robots are operated by humans remotely, which means Plus One needs access to cybersecurity.
“So we are the blend of cybersecurity and logistics, and that’s the exact same mix of people that are here,” Hvass said.
Over a dozen cybersecurity companies are on the Port SA campus. That interconnection is a big goal for the new era of Port SA.
Future minds are also part of Port SA’s new focus.
“We’ve had kids, and we take no credit for their brains, come in and go on to MIT, go on to A&M, go on to Alamo Colleges, go on to Palo Alto. And that’s what it’s about,” Perschbach said.
The Tech Port Arena, which opened last year, is home to the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology. (SAMSAT)
This free museum allows anyone to come in and be inspired by the very technology and innovation that is being developed on Port SA’s campus.
There’s also the WEX Foundation, a space exploration program that involves middle schoolers.
One idea that came out of these student-based programs is lunar habitats.
The idea is to grind up moon rock and 3D print it into pods that humans can live in on the moon.
It’s not just a theory anymore. The idea is being brought to life by a San Antonio Company called Astroport and a partnership with NASA.
There are also plans to build more structures on the Port SA campus.
One structure would be a biodome, where researchers can simulate an environment, such as the moon, to study.
There’s also a vertiport, a verticle landing and takeoff airport where electric aircraft will take off like helicopters but have the speed of jets.
These projects are expected to break ground in the coming years.
For a more in-depth look at all Port San Antonio has to offer, click here.