When Carlos Contreras stepped in to direct San Antonio’s yearlong 300th anniversary commemoration after CEO Edward Benavides resigned amid controversy, less than seven weeks remained before the New Year’s Eve festivities that were to kick off the celebratory year.
“Carlos deserves enormous credit for getting the Tricentennial on track and providing the professionalism and steadiness that was required to execute on the goal,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.
Other City leaders echoed Nirenberg’s plaudits, but Contreras diverts a lot of the credit for the Tricentennial’s economic and cultural successes to City staff, the community, and sponsors. He said he did not have to start from scratch, despite taking over at the 11th hour.
“The current board and the prior board deserve a lot of credit. … Edward deserves a lot of credit for what they did throughout the year,” Contreras said. “We did not come up with the concepts, the initiatives, the guiding principles. … The Tricentennial was conceived of in a way that was very thoughtful.”
One year, about 500 partners, 700 officially events (more than 100 unique for the Tricentennial year), and more than $21 million later, the Tricentennial Commission will conclude the year by partnering with the SA Parks Foundation for a special year wrap-up video and fireworks at the Tower of the Americas on New Year’s Eve.
“It could have been a total disaster,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who criticized how ill-informed City Council and the community was about the Tricentennial Commission’s early struggles.
“You can air-drop Carlos into any department in the City and he’s going to be successful,” Brockhouse said.
A stumbling start
The City launched the Tricentennial Commission in late 2015, with fundraising efforts starting in earnest in late 2016. City leaders, including Benavides, commented at the time that perhaps the groundwork should have started sooner.
“It was a miss from a standpoint of what could have been done,” Brockhouse said. “But the product we ended up having was great.”
“I remember bugging Mayor [Julián] Castro about getting started about Tricentennial year planning,” said Nirenberg, who was the District 8 Council representative at the time. “Three hundred years from now, I would advise that mayor to get started a few years in advance.”
The timing of municipal elections also proved a challenge, with a 2016 mayoral race that went to a runoff and resulted in incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor’s loss. As Nirenberg took office, City Council also had six new members.
“Failure was not an option,” Nirenberg added. “… I and my [Council] colleagues put many other things aside to ensure that we would have the funds raised to execute the effort. … Thanks to great cooperation within the private sector we were able to overcome that obstacle.”
Concerns about fundraising efforts for the Tricentennial were highlighted in August 2017 during the first meeting of the Council’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee. The five Council members on the committee posed questions about finances that Benavides and a fundraising consultant could not fully answer.
Even before that, Benavides had said funding could not be raised in time for the Tricentennial to secure a $1.2 million contract for a music festival. Then he faced more questions about the handling of an exclusive media contract and the functionality of the Tricentennial website and calendar. He resigned as the commission’s CEO on Nov. 13, 2017, about five months after the resignation of Asia Ciaravino, the commission’s chief operating officer.
“There was not enough supervision [of the Tricentennial Commission] in terms of the city’s direct involvement [at first],” Nirenberg said. “That’s the primary reason I set up the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee.”
The committee served as a direct link to City Council to receive updates on progress and set benchmarks, he said.
The Contreras turnaround
The first thing Contreras noticed when he took over the Tricentennial Commission was what he called a “stark” lack of communication. “That ended quickly,” he said.
The Commission started posting notices of its meetings on the City’s website, including those of the executive committee and the full commission of approximately 20 members, and making presentations to Council and Bexar County Commissioners Court, Contreras said. He sent Commission members to talk to neighborhood groups, chambers of commerce, and nonprofits – “anybody who would listen to us” – to show what the Tricentennial was all about.
Contreras also evaluated staff and contract workers. After letting some contracts expire, he brought in City staff and local experts to help.
“One of the key things I’ll take credit for was convincing Vanessa [Lacoss] Hurd to be part of the team,” Contreras said. Hurd, the former DoSeum CEO, joined the Commission as deputy director.
Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, was named Commission president in December 2017. She previously served as the original District 4 representative on the commission.
“There was a real reset in the beginning,” Matson said, after Contreras took over. “We really went back to the core of the guiding principles to focus on what it was going to take to get the work done.”
The original plan was to hire a more permanent executive director, but the commission’s leaders instead voted to simply remove the “interim” from Contreras’ title in January. He retained some of his responsibilities as assistant city manager, including oversight of the Aviation and Convention and Sports Facilities departments, while directing the Tricentennial Commission.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley was not only a key fundraiser for the Tricentennial effort, she also helped the organization thrive after its restructure, Contreras said, “by giving me good counsel and [allowing] the City staff to come and be there.”
Those City employees who worked on the Tricentennial received help from their colleagues to cover the gaps in their “normal” jobs.
By retooling some events, getting clearer cost estimates, and restructuring staff and workload, the Commission was able to reduce the total budget by $1.3 million – from $22.5 million to $21.2 million.
“But none of [the events] were compromised with what we did to the budget,” Contreras said. For instance, instead of putting on a Founders Day ball “we turned that into a gala and made it a fundraiser.”
The proceeds, about $800,000, will go towards a “beautification project along the missions,” he said, the specifics of which will be determined by a public process.
The Commission will have nearly $240,000 left to cover any lingering costs, but Contreras said he doesn’t expect many such costs.
A two-year audit of the commission turned up nearly clean, according to the independent auditor’s report, but it did note three “significant deficiencies.” One involved the valuation of an in-kind donation from Bexar County, the second was problem with the timing of financial reporting, and the third was that the Commission’s board was not given copies of financial statements throughout the year.
“We took corrective action,” Contreras said, and those mistakes “did not result in anything that effected the execution of the Tricentennial year.”
The efforts of the commission, staff, Council, sponsors, and others were critical, Nirenberg said, in “articulating more clearly for our city to understand that the Tricentennial was in fact the best opportunity to showcase San Antonio’s past, present, and future of the world.”
Other cities that are contemplating their own major celebrations have seen or heard of San Antonio’s Tricentennial, Contreras said, and they ask, “How’d you do that?” For example, San Diego will celebrate its 250th birthday in 2019.
His key advice? Establish guiding principles that reflect the community, he said.
“What’s important to your city? Understand that. If you don’t, you’re not going to connect,” he said. “We couldn’t have showcased culture without embracing diversity.”
Second, Contreras said, “it’s never about a party – although we do party great.”
“Make it about understanding. … If you have complex relationships within the community, don’t hide them. Address it, move on, and learn from it.”