U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz drew headlines at the 2016 Texas Tribune Festival as standing room crowds waited in line Saturday afternoon to hear from the Texas Republican who made the reluctant admission that he will vote for Donald Trump in November, yet stopped short of saying he believes Trump is fit to serve as president.
More than 4,000 people attended this year’s three-day program of panels, parties, and informal meetups of legislators, lobbyists, journalists, agency officials, engaged citizens, and students. Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith said attendance was double that of the 2015 festival.
Saturday night featured a sold-out dinner highlighted by Smith’s on-stage interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in which most of the conversation was spent dissecting the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
For San Antonians, far more substantive news came Saturday morning at the keynote panel, “The Remaking of the Alamo” that featured pop icon and Alamo artifact collector Phil Collins, Texas General Land Office (GLO) Commissioner George P. Bush, and State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio). Celebrated Texas writer Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo, served as moderator.
Bush told the large audience that had gathered for the occasion that his Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) for the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature included a “one time exception” request of $75 million for the Alamo Master Plan. If approved, that would be three times the $25 million the GLO received in the 2015-16 budget when it had requested $50 million.
An additional $5 million was allocated in 2015 to address deferred maintenance at the Alamo that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) had been unable to carry out before the State took control of what is now part of San Antonio’s serial World Heritage site. Legislators also continued the biennial $1.5 million operating allocation.
Bush told the audience, “We have asked for $75 million, but it’s going to be a tight budget.” He described the total Alamo redevelopment as a “nine-figure project.” Unofficial estimates of the total cost of the Alamo Master Plan, which is expected to take five years or more to plan and carry out, range from $250-300 million.
If the $75 million is approved by the Legislature it will bring the State’s contribution to more than $100 million. The high profile board of directors of the Alamo Endowment, which Bush chairs, are expected to raise as much as $200 million from private donors. The City of San Antonio is expected to contribute about $20 million in funds from the 2017 bond.
“We have requested $75 million in our LAR, and we hope to have in place the necessary funding for the Alamo Master Plan to be enacted,” said Brittany Eck, Commissioner Bush’s press secretary. “We are going to raise as much money as possible through the Alamo Endowment to make the master plan worthy of the Alamo and its history.”
The state’s initial funding of the Alamo Master Plan in the 2015-16 biennial budget was something of an act of faith since no firm plan for redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza existed. This time, with a draft master plan expected to be released for public and stakeholder comment by late November or early December, legislators will gain a more specific and detailed picture of the eventual transformation of the Alamo Plaza.
Harrigan offered a general overview of the Alamo Master Plan process as he introduced Bush and then Menéndez, and explained their respective roles in the redevelopment project of the most visited historic site in Texas.
He then introduced his third panelist, who really needed no introduction.
“Phil Collins is, you know, he’s Phil Collins,” Harrigan said haltingly, prompting laughter in the AT&T Conference Center on the UT-Austin campus.
Noting that the program described Collins “as a musician and Alamo enthusiast,” Harrigan added, “That’s a rather underwhelming description. Phil is one of the great musical icons of our age, the former lead singer and drummer of Genesis, a solo artist who has sold 200 million records the last time we talked, probably many more by now.
“The reason he’s here – and we know he’s the reason you’re here – but the reason he is here is because he probably and felicitously is the world’s leading collector of Alamo artifacts and documents.”
Collins received sustained applause as Harrigan described the collection and Collins’ decision to gift the collection of more than 3,000 artifacts and documents to the State of Texas for eventual display in a museum. No plans exist for that museum yet, but officials have agreed to have it ready within six years of the date that Collins pledged his gift.
The 300th anniversary of the founding of Mission San Antonio de Valero, which was later deconsecrated and became the Alamo, will take place in 2024.
Harrigan asked Menéndez if growing up as a Mexican-American in San Antonio made the Alamo a “complicated place” for him. Menéndez noted his mother’s heritage as a Mexican immigrant, and said, “it was somewhat difficult.” He added, however, that the Battle of the Alamo’s larger meaning for him was its role in “cementing independence for Texas” as well as honoring the courage displayed by the defenders “who were there by choice.”
Bush, the son of a Mexican mother and Texan father, said his perspective is “a historical one.” He described himself as a student of history and military history.
“The Alamo Master Plan offers us the opportunity to take the story to another level,” Bush said, including “taking on the controversial issues of the past, whether it’s slavery, whether it’s Mexican control of Mexican Texas, the Spanish Crown control … as a student of history I find this intriguing and it draws me into this story.”
Collins traced his passion for the Alamo story to his childhood, eloquently recalling boyhood memories that stirred his imagination and quieting the room as audience members hung on to the Englishman’s every word.
“In England, when I was growing up, five or six years old, with a black and white television in the corner of the room … and one day I turned it on and the The King of the Wild Frontier was on, and there was something about him (Davy Crockett) and his tasseled jacket. I was five or six years old, and he went to this place, which was the Alamo, and the impression I got, the memories I have from that time, was that this group of people were going, and they knew they were going to die, but they went. There was something very noble, very romantic in a way, and it just moved me. From that moment, I was obsessed. I used to … play cowboys and Indians or Mexicans.
“As I got older, I read every book I could and I found out a lot more, that it wasn’t as black and white as portrayed by Hollywood … That’s one of the things in this day and age…that we put into context (that) there were brave men on both sides of the walls. That’s what this Master Plan will do, because there are a lot of prejudices (that) need to be addressed.”
“I remember you telling me the first time you saw the Alamo it was like meeting the Beatles,” Harrigan said. Collins recalled using a day off while touring the U.S. with Genesis in 1973 to travel to San Antonio for the first time to see the Alamo, a journey he has since repeated with regularity, including a visit last week before the Texas Tribune Festival.
Bush also addressed a question from the Rivard Report about the possible inclusion of the recently renovated Hipolito Garcia Federal Building, which now houses some federal and State offices and a small U.S. Post Office.
“The federal post office building is located at the northwest location of where the original walls of the compound were located,” Bush said. “It is regretfully protected by its historic status. There is very little we can do to redevelop that site or repurpose it … It can be utilized for exhibit space, administrative space, all options are on the table right now.
“With the new federal courthouse project in San Antonio, there may be some possibilities that some of those federal tenants can be relocated to the new building,” Bush added.
Asked if the State would consider purchasing the DRT Library to secure its continued location near the Alamo, Bush said, “We are constantly in contact with the DRT to consider all options. We feel confident (that) the collection is in good stead. Now that we are out of litigation we can focus on the bigger issues.”
One audience member asked whether the historical narrative of the Alamo will be altered by the redevelopment.
“Me and my cousins got into a lot of arguments about this,” Menéndez recalled. “I am proud of our history. I am not proud of everything that occurred. There are blemishes on every society, you talk about slavery, that’s one of the big ones.
“The issue for me is to be honest, and I tell my children the same thing. I am proud of my descent, my Mexican family (on his mother’s side), I am proud of my Cuban family (on his father’s side), but the fact of the matter is I am an American, I am a Texan, and and I want to be honest about it. I want to be mature about it and say, ‘Yeah, we lost at the Alamo, but guess what? We got it back at San Jacinto.’”
The reminder of defeat followed by victory brought loud applause.
Another audience member asked Collins if he ever considered using the Alamo as subject matter in his song writing.
“I’ve left writing songs about the Alamo to other people,” Collins said. “There are others who can do it much better than I would, and a lot of them. One of the things that appeals to me, as I mentioned before, is it’s not about winning or losing, or who was right, who was wrong, who were the good guys, who were the bad guys. When I was five or six, I was fed who were the good guys and who were the bad guys by Hollywood.”
He described the emotions he felt wandering the downstairs of his home where his collection was displayed, the feelings he experienced picking up a Bowie knife or the sword Bowie is said to have lost after his death in the Battle of the Alamo that was later recovered from the defeated Mexicans in the Battle of San Jacinto.
“These guys were at this place and at the time they thought they were doing what was right,” Collins said. “The first thing I got was from my wife. It was a receipt for John W. Smith‘s saddle. He was the first Anglo mayor of San Antonio and there are no images of him.”
Smith was the last messenger to leave the Alamo to ride from San Antonio to seek reinforcement that never arrived.
Collins was given the last word Saturday morning.
“It’s going to be great, and people are going to be able to see it (the collection),” Collins said.
Later, Menéndez told the Rivard Report that he will do whatever he can to help secure the full $75 million for the Alamo Master Plan, but he also acknowledged other, more pressing priorities.
“I will be happy to do what I need to do to help my community, but it won’t be my first priority,” Menéndez said in a Sunday interview. “Public education, universal Pre-K, teacher pay, these are my major priorities. The sad thing is the Alamo project, as important as it is, has greater support than investment in education. I’d like to see more investment in human capital.
“If we can spend $800 million on border security, duplicating federal spending down there,” he added, “we can afford to make the necessary investments in education and in human capital.”
Top image: ‘Remaking the Alamo’ panel (from left): Moderator Stephen Harrigan, Sen. José Menéndez, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush, and pop star icon and Alamo artifact collector Phil Collins. Photo by Robert Rivard.