Amid the finger-pointing and reviews over the city’s Tricentennial Commission’s practices and programming following last week’s sudden departure of CEO Edward Benavides, it should not be forgotten that San Antonio has a great story to tell the world.

A leadership change at this late juncture – less than 45 days before the New Year’s Eve fireworks – is a serious setback. The commission’s insider sponsorship deal with KSAT-TV first reported by the San Antonio Express-News is a problem unlikely to go away, and the musical acts signed up for the big New Year’s Eve party have been met with yawns.

The eleventh-hour crisis, however, is an opportunity for Mayor Ron Nirenberg to direct an overdue course correction, reinvigorate the Tricentennial Commission leadership, and use his position to build confidence with citizens and with business, cultural, and community leaders.

Hopefully, the compelling narrative blending San Antonio’s past, present, and future will regain its footing over the inevitable continuing media coverage of commission activities under Benavides’ watch.

San Antonio is one of two unique American cities, the other being New Orleans, that will celebrate 300 years of existence in 2018. The two cities ought to be selling package deals.

An aerial view of New Orleans.
An aerial view of New Orleans. Credit: Courtesy / NewOrleansOnline.com

San Antonio is, remarkably, one of only three UNESCO World Heritage cities in the U.S., along with Philadelphia and New York. The 15-year $384 million transformation of the San Antonio River has brought the city global acclaim with the Thiess International Riverprize this year. People might not appreciate the enormity of this recognition. San Pedro Creek’s downtown reach and Confluence Park on the Mission Reach both open next year.

Call it a slogan, but we are a city on the rise. Three years from now, as former Mayor Julián Castro’s Decade of Downtown comes to a close, we will have realized an ambitious transformation of much of San Antonio’s urban core, from Broadway to the Zona Cultural and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, teeming with thousands of new residents and downtown workers where vacancy and blight once held sway. The Frost Bank Tower, the first new office tower on the downtown skyline in decades, will be a gleaming reality by then.

As city leaders hit the reset button, they would be wise to study New Orleans and its approach to the Tricentennial.

Start with the respective websites: New Orleans puts the focus on substance and city building. San Antonio’s digital presentation with its oddly pink-hued design, fails to capture much interest. You might not care about the two websites, but ask yourself what cultural travelers will think as they look at the New Orleans site and then the San Antonio site as they weigh their options. What city would you visit?

But it isn’t just websites. Look at the way New Orleans touts infrastructure projects underway and its Next 300 Challenge Award to area nonprofits and community groups. The San Antonio site is about partying.

Both cities offer generous servings of history, cuisine, ambience, and good memories. Both know how to throw a party and put on a parade, although we are more of a PG-13 family-friendly city while New Orleans veers toward an R rating. Both cities have their share of social and economic challenges. New Orleans seems to be using its Tricentennial to move forward, while San Antonio seems to be overly focused on fiesta.

Everyone loves a great New Year’s Eve party, but the Tricentennial should not be about the party. It should be about San Antonio building on an already sturdy and enduring foundation, using a year-long celebration of the city’s first 300 years to set an ambitious agenda for now and the coming years.

Mayor Nirenberg said as much recently when we spoke about his plans to lead the Tricentennial in a more transparent and focused direction. His vision represents a more mature and forward-leaning viewpoint of the Tricentennial.

For Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, a credible leader who will serve as acting CEO of the Tricentennial, the mayor’s pivot will be no small challenge given the timeline. He may have the hardest job in city government, but he will find a lot of people supporting a change in the Tricentennial’s direction.

“This is our one moment in a lifetime to have our city, its past, its present, and most importantly, its future, on center stage, demonstrating to the world why people should invest their time, energy and resources in San Antonio,” Nirenberg said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg
Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We have to admit there have been lapses in judgment and bad decisions made, but we are not going to win any games by playing Monday morning quarterback,” Nirenberg said. “I have committed to making sure we have the necessary funds for the Tricentennial, and I am more than optimistic we will get there. But we have to improve our communications, act with transparency, and get past the narrative that it’s all about a party.”

Nirenberg said the Tricentennial should be a vehicle for exploring opportunities and concrete gains on multiple fronts, including transportation, public education, public health, public safety, workforce development, and smart jobs growth. He shared a recent conversation he had with Marta Peláez, the pioneering director of Family Violence Prevention Services, about the city’s domestic violence rate, one of the worst in the nation.

“I want all of us to pay attention to challenges like that one,” Nirenberg said. “If we can coalesce around a vision to get ourselves off that list next year, it will be one of the most significant accomplishments of the Tricentennial. We should look at everything that way. Let’s ask ourselves: Who are we and where do we want to go?”

Nirenberg shared another anecdote this one about a Donna, Texas native who now owns her own business in San Antonio and recalls her childhood in the Rio Grande Valley when the family would make a weekly visit to the local post office to pick up a Sunday newspaper from San Antonio.

“She told me they would read about this great modern metropolis preparing for Hemisfair ’68, and after it finally opened, the family drove to San Antonio,” Nirenberg said. “As they stepped out of the car, her mother invited her to look around and experience a real city. It was a moment that helped shape her future here. That’s what we want to do again now with the Tricentennial, inspire new generations of people to come here to find their opportunity and their future.”

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.