Only about a dozen cities in the United States can claim to be as old or older than San Antonio. In 2018, City officials grabbed hold of that standing and used it as an opportunity to not only mark the milestone, but also use it to promote the city far and wide.

The anniversary of San Antonio’s founding isn’t over yet, but leaders of both the Tricentennial Commission and Visit San Antonio claim that boosts to tourism and the economy are just two of several wins from the multimillion-dollar celebrations for San Antonio’s 300th. How that impact was felt in terms of dollars and data won’t be known until the completion of follow-up studies in 2019.

Tricentennial Commission Interim Executive Director Carlos Contreras
Carlos Contreras was appointed to lead the Tricentennial Commission in November 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“This was an opportunity to look at what the 300 years have meant to our community. What are the lessons we’re learning? What does it mean for our identity, the community, and our future,” said Carlos Contreras, who took over as the Commission’s executive director in January after Edward Benavides stepped down amid controversy in late 2017. “I believe it was a great investment by the City for the entire year.”

The Tricentennial Commission’s original budget was $22.5 million and included $9.7 million of in-kind support from the City and the County as well as a projected operating budget of $12.9 million that would come from the City, County, and private sector. In December 2017, the Commission adopted a revised budget of $21.2 million, which reduced the operating budget to $11.5 million.

Commission spokesperson Laura Mayes said that at the end of this year, the operating budget and projected expenses are at $10.4 million. As a result, the Commission was tasked with raising just $7.9 million in private contributions. To date, it has raised $8.1 million, or about $200,000 more than was needed. Those funds will be turned over to the City, Mayes said.

“Our goal was to put on a year of memorable programming that left a lasting legacy, so we felt we were responsible in what we collected and what we needed, and we felt we were in good shape,” Mayes said in response to whether the budget was adequate.

Besides fundraising, the job of the Tricentennial Commission was to develop initiatives centered around history, education, culture, and community service that celebrated the Tricentennial. The year kicked off with a grand New Year’s Eve celebration attended by 80,000 people; then Commemorative Week, May 1-6; followed by a series of smaller activities and events through the remainder of the year.

As the 300th year winds down, the only “featured event” in December on the Commission’s calendar is Destino, an exhibit of the Briscoe Museum’s collection of stereographs of San Antonio, dating from the 1860s to 1930.

The Tricentennial budget is made up of private contributions, in-kind donations, and funds from the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. That budget included salaries, promotional material, event planning and execution and more. The budget came from more than 100 gift sponsors and private sector funding covered both budget expenses and specific initiatives.

Presenting-level sponsors included the Greehey Family Foundation, the City of San Antonio, USAA, Valero, Brooks, Landry’s, Port San Antonio, Frost Bank, Weston Urban, Zachry Corp., and Andeavor (now Marathon Petroleum).

“Our city was on the world stage,” Contreras said. “We had dignitaries, elected officials, and diplomats from all over the world who came to San Antonio this year. We had eight of our 11 sisters cities, high-level delegates of the Canary Islanders; we also had the king and queen of Spain to our city. Obviously, there was a lot of media attention on our city for each of those.”

The city also hosted, by design, the NCAA Men’s Final Four during the tricentennial year. “And that was a tremendous success,” Contreras added. “So we had visitors come in that obviously had an economic impact on the city. We had the local community that participated in overwhelming numbers. And much of what our budget became was private-sector funding.”

Before the party even started, in late 2016, a local economist estimated that Tricentennial celebrations throughout 2018 would have a nearly $120 million impact on San Antonio’s economy.

Steve Nivin, chief economist of the SABER Research Institute, estimated the economic impact would come in the form of 1,300 new jobs, 263,000 more visitors in 2018, $4 million in tax revenue for Bexar County and the City, $8 million of in-kind media coverage, and $45 million worth of generated wages and benefits.

By contrast, Fiesta San Antonio is said to have had a $340 million economic impact on San Antonio in 2017, generating $188 million in spending by visitors, supported nearly 3,500 jobs, and attracted 2.5 million event attendees.

Though a post-Tricentennial study looking back at the validity of Nivin’s estimates won’t be available until February, Visit SA reports that outer-market media value mentioning the Tricentennial in some way is valued at almost $14 million. That was the result of one story for every day in a year – 352 in fiscal year 2018 and 13 in fiscal year 2019.

Those include the articles “San Antonio tricentennial remembers the Alamo and much more” – an Associated Press story picked up by more than 200 individual media outlets – “Best of the World 2018” by National Geographic Traveler, and “San Antonio’s Summer Homage to Spain” in the New York Times. One article appearing in Texas Highways magazine, though, drew ire for what some considered a pattern of failure in acknowledging the contributions of African Americans in San Antonio history.

Casandra Matej, Visit San Antonio President and CEO
Visit San Antonio President and CEO Casandra Matej Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Without a doubt, 2018 was a huge year for us,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit SA. “Our 300th birthday provided a great platform for telling a story about San Antonio. The things we were able to pitch to national media provided a conduit to open up some doors for us.”

Matej said Visit SA “threaded the message of the Tricentennial” in everything the tourism bureau did, from consumer events in San Antonio to marketing materials and media buys. “We even had a float at the Texas State Fair, which got us in front of hundreds of thousands of eyes,” she said.

Visit SA does not yet have the data revealing how many travelers came to San Antonio for the Tricentennial, but a spokesman said they have heard “plenty of great things anecdotally.”

“There are a number of we reasons ended up with a great year,” Contreras said. “Certainly, the generosity of our sponsors was a big part of that. We also had 500 or so community sponsors put on 700-plus officially sanctioned events.”

Like San Antonio, New Orleans, in celebrating its own tricentennial in 2018, also hosted a variety of special events, concerts, and fireworks displays. But the Big Easy also marked its birthday by completing major infrastructure projects, including a Bourbon Street makeover and additions to the Lafitte Greenway linear park. The New Orleans commission’s legacy project was a restoration of the historic Gallier Hall, a project that began well before 2018 and was financed by both the City and private benefactors.

In its 300th year, New Orleans also hosted the U.S. Travel Association’s largest travel show, with one report stating it would generate a “ripple effect” of $1.2 billion into the economy and bring 500,000 additional international visitors to New Orleans in the next three years.

San Antonio’s Tricentennial Commission counts among its accomplishments the number of volunteers who contributed over 19,000 hours of time assisting with 36 Tricentennial events, an “impact value” of $481,000 based on the value of volunteer time set by Independent Sector. “Serve 300” sponsors were NuStar, Valero, AARP of San Antonio, Whataburger, and Citibank.

In May, the Commission raised $800,000 at the Founder’s Day Gala, funds earmarked for a San Antonio Missions gateway project. Contreras also pointed to the publishing of Char Miller’s San Antonio: A Tricentennial History, permanent art installations, and the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, as other lasting legacies of the Tricentennial.

A young girl runs through the water before sunset.
A young girl runs through shallow water at San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Leaving a positive and lasting legacy was one of the guiding principles created by the Tricentennial Commission as it went about developing plans, Contreras said, along with creating something that would showcase the city’s diversity and celebrate history – while also posing the question “What do the next 300 years look like?”

Related: Goal Within Reach of 300 Pollinator Gardens for San Antonio’s Tricentennial

“I would leave [the question of] how well we did to the people of San Antonio,” Contreras said. “I think there was great pride [that I saw on social media]. … So I’m proud of what we did. I’m proud of what the board planned, of what we accomplished, the support we had from the 500 community partners. I think it was a tremendous year.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.