This story has been updated.

Alcohol sales at the Squeezebox, a bar on the St. Mary’s Strip, plummeted 60% this August compared to previous years, state data shows, representing about $50,000 in lost sales.

The bar’s owner, Aaron Peña, says street construction is the cause.

For over a year, road crews have torn up pavement and closed off roadways along the St. Mary’s Strip, a bustling hub of nightlife near Trinity University and San Antonio College. The work has also interrupted utilities in the area. Last Saturday four bars, including the Squeezebox, had to abruptly shut down after a water main broke outside the project area.

But even when work goes smoothly, it chokes the traffic of pedestrians and cars alike. Patrons often park blocks away and navigate shifting construction blockades to get to the bars — or they don’t come at all.

“It’s a maze to get around down here, and it’s not getting any better,” Peña said. 

The San Antonio Report’s analysis of data from the Texas Comptroller’s Office shows that falling alcohol sales have been widespread across the Strip’s 15 or so bars this summer. In August, about 2 in 3 bars saw sales drop compared to the same month in 2019. The average decline was by about a third.

Aaron Peña speaks during a town hall regarding the proposed ban of overnight parking on the St. Mary’s Strip on Saturday.
Bar owner Aaron Peña speaks during a town hall Saturday regarding the proposed residential parking program in the nearby Tobin Hill neighborhood. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

This week, concern over the issue rose to the highest levels at City Hall. 

On Tuesday, City Manager Erik Walsh and City Engineer Razi Hosseini huddled with the project’s contractor, SpawGlass, to discuss ways to get the outstanding construction wrapped up as quickly as possible. Their meeting came days after residents and business owners sparred over parking issues at a meeting hosted by Councilman Mario Bravo (D1).

“There’s a lot of other issues in that area, but they all kind of spine off of the construction,” Walsh told the San Antonio Report Thursday. “The sooner the contractor gets that completed, the easier it is to deal with some of the larger issues,” like parking and conflicts between the residents and bar patrons. 

Project delays

The $15 million project, largely funded by the 2017 bond, aims to improve sidewalk connectivity and intersections. Construction began in May 2021 and is estimated to be completed in December 2023, according to Hosseini. He expects parts of the road to again support two-way traffic by mid-October. 

Interviews with Walsh, Hosseini and other public works staff detailed delays caused by contractors, soil issues and general pandemic-related problems.

During the initial sewer work, Hosseini said the contractor realized the project would be too much for its subcontractor Cruz Tec Inc., and the company was dismissed from the project. In June, the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones added funding to the project for more landscaping, lighting and streetscape improvements, according to Walsh, further extending the project’s timeline.

“Of course, as with any other project in the last few years, because of COVID and supply chain effects, our contractor has had challenges on this project,” Hosseini said. In addition to those normal delays, he added, “we had some unforeseen conditions — the ground was much more unstable than we anticipated [and] we ended up closing the road.”

Roughly six weeks ago, SpawGlass extended the length of the work days for the project and upped the work week from five days to six, at no cost to the city, according to the Public Works Department. Walsh said the city will also begin meeting weekly with the contractor and surrounding businesses to keep stakeholders updated on the progress.

“After talking to the contractor directly this week … they know exactly what they need to do. There isn’t anything outstanding from them, we just need to do a better job communicating with the public,” Walsh said.

Back to business

The last two years have been whiplash for bar owners. 

In 2020, alcohol sales plummeted to near zero for much of the year because of lockdowns and public concern over the pandemic. But in 2021, many bars sold exceptional amounts of alcohol that owners attributed to an uncorking of pent-up demand for nightlife.  

That boom in 2021 is why so many of the bars on the strip are ineligible for the city’s recently approved grant program for businesses impacted by construction projects. The grants are tucked inside a larger COVID-19 relief program, funded by federal money, that is reserved for businesses that saw a certain level of income declines in both 2020 and 2021.

Chad Carey, president of the North St Mary’s Business Owners Association and the owner of Paper Tiger and Midnight Swim among other businesses, doubts many are eligible on the Strip.

“It was poorly written by council,” he said. “The thought that what happened in 2020 was obviated by what happened in 2021 is nuts.”

Bar owners have also responded with skepticism to efforts by Bravo to secure additional relief. Bravo recently pushed to include $400,000 in the city budget for resources to support small businesses affected by construction projects. The details of the program are still being determined, but the money will not be direct financial assistance.

As the city looks ahead to the $1.2 billion bond voters approved earlier this year, Walsh said they’re learning to bring businesses into the conversation sooner on major construction projects. 

City Manager Erik Walsh during City Council's B-Session on Wednesday, September 28, 2022.
City Manager Erik Walsh during City Council’s session on Wednesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“There are very few projects of this magnitude in the 2017 bond program where you have this many businesses impacted by a construction project,” said Walsh. 

But “we’re probably going to have to do a better job of this,” he added, “We have North New Braunfels coming up [and] that’s got a lot of businesses on it.”

With solutions still on the distant horizon, anger at the city continues to simmer among bar owners.

Joey Villareal, the owner of Joey’s, where front parking has been blocked for months, hesitated to call the upheaval a product of mismanagement, but he was certain the city had taken on more than it could responsibly handle. 

But in either case, he said, “somebody should run for mayor on this sort of thing.”

An earlier version of this story said crews broke a water main; the city asserts it broke outside the project area.

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.