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The City of San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas Public Radio, La Familia Cortez, and a host of community partners hope to turn the long-vacant Alameda Theater into a new venue for cultural programming and new headquarters for the nonprofit radio station by 2020.
The renovation and construction project will cost $26.4 million, according to preliminary estimates presented to City Council on Wednesday afternoon. Final details regarding building design, organizational structure, and budget will be finalized over the next months and years.
Two floors will be added to the non-historic backstage structure for TPR’s headquarters, and at least one broadcast booth will be visible from the adjacent San Pedro Creek, which is undergoing a $175 million renovation project of its own.
The City hired a team of consultants to perform a feasibility study for the mixed-use venue to find out if such a venture would be sustainable. According to Michael Kaiser, who led the team from DeVos Institute of Arts Management, the short answer is yes.
Council members were enthusiastic, but cautiously optimistic that the latest plan to rejuvenate the 1949 Mexican-American theater would yield actual results. It’s been vacant for 30 years despite several previous plans and monetary investments from the City and County.
“We’re not the first to try this,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who was part of the negotiation process. “[The] Alameda is finding itself [with] just the right kind of timing to make this work. … It’s a theater that is really going to be programmed by the community.”
But by keeping the initial programming and budget modest, establishing a strong nonprofit board, and hiring the right staff, Kaiser said the Alameda has a chance to become “the leading Latino theater in America.”
Kaiser is the former president and CEO of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and widely credited with financially rescuing the performing arts venue in the early 2000s. He recommended to Council that a nonprofit should be formed to curate, rather than create, programming for the space in partnership with cultural institutions such as National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, ARTS San Antonio, Instituto Cultural de México, Centro de Artes, TPR, and other organizations that play a role in promoting Mexican-American culture and history.
“We believe we have a negotiated conclusion that satisfies all our goals,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said of the multi-year process that was initiated when TPR approached the City about moving downtown from its location at 8401 Datapoint Dr. near the Medical Center.
TPR has committed to raise $5 million toward the project, about $5 million could be gleaned from state and federal historic renovation tax credits, and the remaining $16.4 million could come from the City and County tax reinvestment zone on Houston Street, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told Council. The not-yet-formed nonprofit board will manage the theater, which will be set up by private partners, would also seek philanthropic dollars.
“We also engaged La Familia Cortez to help us with this project because we wanted to make sure that we really maintain the historic theater, we honor its mission and its history, and we allow the theater to continue as a standalone theater,” Houston said. “[The theater] and TPR could co-exist and do programing to enhance each other.”
TPR is looking to expand its reach into the community as well as its workforce, Houston said, adding that the station plans on almost doubling its positions. TPR will also host coverage and information about events at the Alameda on its website, a win-win for each entity to engage new digital audiences.
A small 160-seat theater on TPR’s side could host panels, town halls, and other engagement events in a more visible, central location. The renovation plan would add a movable wall between the Alameda and the smaller black box theater for larger stages when needed by either side.
The Alameda’s 2,000-seat theater will be reduced to 1,000-1,500 to accommodate a larger stage and more modern uses.
Programming for the Alameda is far from set in stone, Kaiser and Houston emphasized. One of the key differences between this plan and previous efforts will be “far more community engagement,” Kaiser said.
Community input meetings will be held throughout April and May. A master lease and funding agreement is expected to come before City Council for a vote in June. The design process is expected to take about a year and a groundbreaking is slated for summer 2018.
“There have been other efforts to restore the Alameda that didn’t work quite as well as we hoped they would,” said Councilman Joe Krier who questioned the financial sustainability of the project.
Kaiser recommended the nonprofit start with a “modest” annual budget of $2 million with one-third coming from three revenue streams: ticket sales, private events, and philanthropy. That budget can “grow gradually over time only as we show success,” he said.
Now that the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is self-sufficient, arts donors wouldn’t have to choose between the Tobin and the Alameda, he noted.
“If we can create the Alameda as we’re describing,” Kaiser said, “there are opportunities for funding from national [public grants and private foundations] that we’ve never had the opportunity to ask for money from before.”
However, the City and County would each likely have to contribute $300,000 each in the first few years to get the organization off its feet, Houston said, but those numbers are still being worked out.
The presentation about the Alameda project took place right after another major project broke ground just one block away: The 23-story Frost Bank Tower is part of a historic public-private partnership and also situated along the San Pedro Creek.
City staff and most of City Council agreed that the timing for the Alameda seems perfect.
“[This is our] best shot at really making this historically and culturally significant facility a relevant and active part of downtown,” Sculley said.
And it’s about time for cities across the nation to start making such investments, Kaiser said. “This country has underinvested substantially in Latino culture. There is no cultural institution in America that is Latino-based that has a budget of more than $7 million. And that is both outrageous and embarrassing.”
This story was originally published on March 29.