City staff will recommend to City Council that Chicago-based entertainment cruise company San Antonio River Cruises be awarded a multi-million dollar contract to operate the city’s new river barges along the River Walk.

The Chicago firm ranked second on a 100-point scale of criteria comparing the five finalists. City staff was slated to recommend San Antonio River Cruises for the contract in February, but Mayor Ivy Taylor called for a re-do of the selection process, citing concerns that lobbying efforts made the process unfair.

The Council is scheduled to vote next week on awarding the 10-year contract. Both San Antonio River Cruises and Go Rio San Antonio, a local firm, will make presentations to the Council.

After the bidding process was re-started, Go Rio San Antonio came out a single point ahead of San Antonio River Cruises on the scoring scale, so City staff’s decision to recommend the Chicago operator may raise questions. Go Rio San Antonio is a partnership among Landry’s Inc., businesswoman Hope Andrade, and restaurateur Lisa Wong.

“After substantive discussion, the evaluation committee ranked San Antonio River Cruises Inc. as the top firm and clearly articulated that [it] was their strong preference when evaluating Experience and Quality of Proposal,” stated a memo from city staff. “Once the points were assigned for Economic Terms, Local and Veterans Preference, and SBDA [small business economic development advocacy], San Antonio River Cruises Inc. ranked the top firm.”

Due to the high-profile nature of the contract, the economic impact on the local community, and the fast-approaching Tricentennial celebrations in 2018, the memo continued, staff recommended that the top two-ranked teams present their proposals to Council.

“We are surprised how city staff is recommending the team that finished second, who is not a part of our City and who offers hundreds of thousands of dollars less to San Antonio than Go Rio,” Go Rio said in a news release. “… Our group lives and works in San Antonio, gives back to our community, creates jobs, pays taxes and helped stimulate the economy for decades. Together, the Go Rio partners collectively employ thousands of our citizens and have made over $60 million in investments in San Antonio over the last decade.”

In an email to the Rivard Report, Taylor said city staff guidance is important, but City Council will ultimately make a decision in the best interest of the community.

“My first question will be, ‘Was the vetting process fair and transparent?’ That’s been my primary concern all along. My second question will be, ‘Why are you recommending the second-place firm over the first?’” Taylor stated. “… The process also points to the need for further discussion of our bidding procedures for City contracts.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district includes downtown, told the Rivard Report on Thursday that he hasn’t had a chance to view the scoring matrix.

“All I can say is that the process includes City Council members and the mayor talking about and reviewing all aspects of the scoring matrix and the process in which city staff came up with the recommendation,” he said. “That’s our role: to ask questions about the process and how it went and why. Regarding the one-point difference, I think it’s important to get a better understanding of that recommendation.”

Taylor issued a new Request for Proposals (RFP) after she learned former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who represents the Chicago firm, was allowed to address the 11-member citizen selection committee as part of the company’s bidding process. Lobbyists typically are not allowed in such presentations.

Hardberger told the Rivard Report in February that he was not functioning as a lobbyist but that he made a two-minute presentation as a core member of the application team.

“Maybe his presence wasn’t inappropriate,” Taylor said, “but the role of the attorneys should have been to answer questions or clarify positions of clients.”

San Antonio River Cruises, a world-class operator of river and lake cruises, provides dining cruises, yacht charters, and sightseeing tours in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Norfolk, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., according to its website.  The company operates more than 10,000 cruises and serves more than 1.5 million guests each year.

The current river barges are owned by Rio San Antonio Cruises, which has operated them for more than 10 years. Rio San Antonio Cruises came in fourth place on City’s staff’s most current scoring matrix. (Click image below to enlarge.)

River Barge Concession Scoring Matrix. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Due to the delay in awarding a contract, Rio San Antonio Cruises’ contract has been extended until Council decides on a new operator. District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who will face Taylor in the mayoral runoff election on June 10, accused Taylor of “rigging the process for a big supporter,” referring to local attorney Bill Kaufman, who is working with the local company.

“I plan to support the strongest company with the strongest bid,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “… Hopefully we can do it properly and ethically this time around without political interference.”

In 2014, the City set the wheels in motion to develop a new contract for the operator and purchase new, state-of-the-art barges to replace the old fleet design. The City will own the new fleet of barges that will be operated by the firm that wins the contract.

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Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...