While the River Walk is one of the state’s top tourist attractions, a group of business owners along the popular river bend portion downtown say it needs a facelift and new attractions, especially as the city’s tourism industry rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the pandemic that brought together the founders of the new River Walk Business Group, a nonprofit that wants to improve and protect the heart of the River Walk. Terry Corless, the group’s chairman, is CEO of Mad Dogs Restaurant Group, which includes Mad Dogs British Pub, Prost Haus and Crockett Tavern. Other members include architect and Esquire Tavern owner Chris Hill, restaurateurs Sam Panchevre and Will Grinnan, hotel manager Garvin Oneil and Hope Andrade, co-founder of Go Rio San Antonio River Cruises.
Corless said that, like him, many of the group’s core members struggled during the pandemic amid lockdowns and business closures. “We all got together, hunkered down, and said, ‘How the hell do we survive this?’”
Those conversations and meetings led to the formation of the River Walk Business Group, which is putting together a 10-year master plan with a focus on raising funds and implementing beautification initiatives, including better lighting, improved landscaping and safety and security enhancements.
Corless said the River Walk also needs new attractions in order to compete with SeaWorld, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and the San Antonio Zoo. He said these popular destinations regularly roll out new attractions that help draw locals and return visitors, while the River Walk has gotten relatively stale.
“You can visit this June, and then turn up again next June, and essentially you get the same exact thing,” he said of the River Walk. “Nothing has been changed or reprogrammed. We realized that if we’re going to really move forward, we need to have a vision that’s going to make everybody want to come to the River Walk.”
Development and long-term planning
Early River Walk planning and development began in the 1920s. Over the decades, walkways, bridges and commercial properties such as restaurants, shops and hotels were constructed, including the Hilton Palacio del Rio, which opened in 1968 for the World’s Fair.
The River Walk Association got its start in 1964, formed as the Paseo del Rio Association and staffed with one individual funded by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Renamed the San Antonio River Walk Association in 2017, the organization managed dozens of events each year on the extended linear park.
In January 2021, during the middle of the pandemic when tourism and the economy were in free fall, the association merged with Visit San Antonio “as a positive combination of resources and areas of expertise to elevate the experience and promotion of the River Walk,” Visit SA said in a statement at the time.
Corless said he hopes the River Walk Business Group can work with Visit San Antonio to improve the River Walk, but he and others also indicated that the two organizations have different goals and objectives.
Marco Barros, formerly longtime San Antonio Tourism Council president who serves as the River Walk group’s trustee, said Visit San Antonio is more about marketing, branding and events, while the business group is focused on development and long-term planning.
“We’re working to make sure we have the right categories of retail and restaurants and that there’s local ownership,” Barros said. “Our roles are very different.”
Barros said that over the next year, the River Walk Business Group plans to hire some additional outside consultants who have worked on similar projects. He added that the group hopes to partner with city officials to help move the project forward. “We very much want [the city] involved in the process,” he said.
A unifying vision
Corless said that when he first arrived in San Antonio in 2000, he was struck by how fragmented the River Walk was. There was a select number of restaurants, hotels and attractions that local families had operated for generations, along with big corporate chains.
“And then there was an ever-diminishing group of small, local businesses,” he said. “We really didn’t know each other as best we could, and we didn’t work together as best we could, and we had loose-knit relationships with the Riverwalk Association,” he said.
While it wasn’t easy, Corless said he and other small-business owners thrived as the River Walk continued to be a major draw. But as the pandemic took hold, the River Walk, like many other parts of the city, struggled with vandalism and crime.
“It was absolutely devastating,” he said. “Everyone was struggling for survival, and many of us didn’t make it. But it caused us to come together. And the first thing we did was form an alliance for those who wanted to be part of a plan to get out of this crisis.”
As Corless and others began organizing the River Walk Business Group, he said they realized they needed a unifying vision and voice for moving forward. “We needed to identify what was missing and what we needed, and that’s the stage we’re in now.”
River Walk Business Group has about a dozen members, with a goal of about 40, Corless said. Each member is expected to pay $1,000 to join.
“People ask me why are you charging $1,000 for this new entity with no track record,” he said. “And I say, if we charged $100, we could get 10 times the people. But we’re not interested in membership. We’re interested in people who are motivated, capable, and live and breathe the River Walk.”
Once the group completes its master plan, Corless said they can use it as a vehicle to apply for grants and other financial support. He said he hopes the River Walk Business Group can also help convince the city to invest in the River Walk the same way it has invested in projects like the Alamo and Hemisfair.
“Everybody thinks that the River Walk is the golden goose that will just keep producing,” he said. “But look at what happened during the pandemic. We’ve been very blessed to survive and thrive for as long as we have, but we have to make some strong moves to be world-class. There’s a lot of work to do, but we have the potential to be so much better.”