Keep San Antonio lame? Not if Pabst President and CEO Matt Bruhn has his say. Bruhn confirmed Saturday that Pabst will create a 1.5-acre culture park downtown that will feature a spacious art gallery, a speakeasy-style bar, a BMX bike track, an indoor skate park, a retail shop, and eventually a rooftop movie theater and concert venue.
Having recently relocated the headquarters of his 176-year-old brewing company to the city, Bruhn intends to mount a campaign to show the rest of the country that San Antonio is cool. The new, as-yet-unnamed art center on the corner of Avenue B and 6th Street will help achieve that goal, while giving support to the musicians, artists, and skateboarders that helped revive the once near-defunct Pabst brand.
“It was very much that creative class, that kind of urban-dwelling, poor, cool, hip crowd that picked the brand up, so it became a symbol of that kind of movement,” Bruhn said. “So ever since then, because that’s who rebirthed the brand, we’ve been supporting the community.”
Bruhn put the project on a six-month timeline, with three months of planning and three months of building. The existing 25,000-square foot warehouse building on the site will be redesigned by the Lake Flato architectural firm.
“It’s going to be a pretty organic build,” he said. “It’ll be very DIY cool. It’s not going to be super ritzy.”
Real estate developer David Adelman, who owns the property that will be leased to Pabst, expressed excitement about the project.
“We are super fired up about their plans. It will add some serious activation to River North. … I can see the future of the neighborhood becoming our best mixed-use neighborhood in the city. The confluence of historic assets, the river, and new residences, retail and office will be amazing,” Adelman said.
The project is not Pabst’s first foray into the art world. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Pabst ran an art gallery called 98 Orchard on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and joined with Los Angeles gallery 1700 Naud to create opportunities for artists affected by the shutdown of the venues they depend on for their livelihoods.
“What we’re realistically trying to do is create a creative space to allow cool San Antonians to demonstrate just how cool the city is. And give a platform to the community to amplify its voice,” Bruhn said. “We want to create canvases and spaces for the existing talented people to be revealed.”
Bruhn portrayed the goal of the new arts complex as twofold: supporting the arts and culture of the city, and helping the company attract workers to San Antonio.
“The better the city is perceived, the more successful we’ll be as a company recruiting people to come to the city to work,” he said. “So for us it’s about brand positioning, demonstrating that [Pabst Blue Ribbon] is cool. … But also from our Pabst company perspective, it’s about making sure the image of the city is attractive to someone who’s deciding between living in New York or LA” or San Francisco.
“You’ve got to help build San Antonio as a lighthouse of creativity.”
As several comments on the San Antonio Report’s initial story about Pabst’s move to the city show, not everyone is enthusiastic about revealing San Antonio to the world.
“Glad Pabst is here,” wrote one commenter, “but please don’t broadcast SA’s coolness to anyone. The people who didn’t just move to town would like to be able to afford to keep living here.”
Another wrote that the city should resist cultural appropriation and the corporatization of events, citing the Austin City Limits music festival as one example of being “killed by ‘progress’.”
When glassmaker Aaron Forland and a group of friends came up with the “Keep San Antonio Lame” campaign in 2004, they intentionally recalled the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign of the 2000s. Both were grassroots efforts at preserving what community members felt were the authentic qualities of their respective cities against the forces of gentrification and the high rents that cause many smaller, neighborhood-based cultural venues to move or shut down.
The word “lame” was meant ironically, Forland said, as a means of avoiding saying that something is “cool,” which can compromise the very qualities that have earned that designation. The campaign existed mostly in the form of stickers, some still visible around the city, and a Facebook page that documented the punk music and DIY art scenes.
“I saw enormous potential here. I saw how many creative, brilliant people were not getting opportunities,” Forland said, and like Bruhn’s stated goals, the intent was to raise awareness of San Antonio’s unique culture.
“We’re not New York, we’re not Austin, we’re not San Francisco or Chicago, but we have all this culture that they don’t have,” Forland said. He said he feels the city has outgrown his campaign, having changed significantly over two decades. Still, “it’s never a bad thing to remind people that you can overgrow what makes you special.”
Bruhn said he understands that San Antonians value what their city has that other cities don’t, but building prosperity is important. “Everyone doesn’t want to be Austin, but everyone wants the economic prosperity of Austin,” he said. “If I can employ 150 today, and 300 tomorrow, and keep growing our business, we’re bringing economic wealth and prosperity to the city.”
Forland said he was never against growth and in fact promoted it, but with an eye on balance. “I wanted to see the creative community grow and thrive and obviously, that’s only possible with a healthy economy. … It’s trying to find balance, I think. And if there is resistance, I think it’s because people do feel protective of that special lameness that we have – whatever that is, however you define it – of being a unique city, a confluence of multiple cultures.”
Asked about striking the right balance between preserving culture and economic growth, Bruhn said, “That’s the challenge of everything, right?” Bruhn asked, turning philosophical in comparing the growth of cities to personal growth.
“When you grow do you stay the same, do you become a better version of that person you’ve always been, or do you become a new person? And that’s the challenge of humankind, period. … How does San Antonio become the best version of itself, not the worst version of Austin? Nobody wants that. … I don’t want to change the city. This city’s cool. I just want to reveal why it’s cool.”