The long-dormant depots of Sunset Station burst back to life Friday for CityFest 2019, once again becoming a way station where people from all walks of life connected with leaders from San Antonio and cities across the state and nation for a day rich with public policy conversations.

The program began shortly after sunrise and continued until after sunset. I found myself shuttling like a passenger late for a departing train between Depot One and Depot Four, where the two CityFest stages hosted simultaneous panels skillfully moderated by Rivard Report journalists.

It was a day to meet the talented people who bring our online report to life every day and, for me, a day to proudly watch and listen. The rooms bustled with people who came to be informed, to make themselves heard, to share a few laughs, to network, and to sound the city’s rich chorus of voices. 

Sunset Station, just steps away from the Rivard Report offices in the former Lone Star Hotel, holds a special place in San Antonio history. I sensed the ghosts of countless past train travelers arriving and departing San Antonio and imagined the excitement and energy of the place from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century, when highways and air travel rendered passenger trains obsolete.

In a city that cherishes its history and architecture, Sunset Station deserves to house that same energy and excitement on a regular basis. It now hosts more and more music events, festivals, corporate gatherings, and the like. Not long ago, we gathered on the Rivard Report‘s second-floor balcony to watch and listen to Lyle Lovett and His Large Band perform in the plaza for a private party.

The depots, along with the rest of St. Paul Square District, are coming back to life under the new ownership of REATA.

My hard-working colleagues here at the Rivard Report and all the speakers and readers they brought together certainly infused the spacious depots with great energy on our day.

In Depot Three, 8-year-old DJ Anjo, part of the AM Project, kept the beat, performing for others who set up booths and presentations, served food, coffee, and, later, cocktails and other beverages.

The people who came to CityFest in its second year – to speak, to listen, to dialogue – served as a reminder that cities, unlike buildings, do not lie dormant. They are constantly changing, and whether they change for better or worse lies in the hands of the people who call San Antonio home.

CityFest was the Rivard Report‘s most ambitious civic engagement event of the year, the culmination of a growing calendar of events in 2019. We will set our sights even higher in 2020.

(from left) Golareh Agha, chief of informatics at San Antonio Metropolitan Health, and Laura McKieran, director of Community Information Now, participate in the panel discussion Smart Data: Public Access in a Digital World during CityFest.

I’ll share my goal for CityFest 2020: Reduced ticket prices, with free admission for students and community members who cannot afford a ticket at any price. This year we provided complimentary tickets to a number of students and East Side residents who could not afford a ticket, which ranged from $25 to $75. We made that decision in the last few weeks leading up to CityFest as we worked to achieve greater diversity in our audience.

Next year we will work even harder to find willing sponsors to join us in achieving that goal. We believe local leaders who have supported CityFest in its first two years can see its long-term potential and will join us in opening the train depots to one and all in San Antonio. This goal can be met only if we win broader business and philanthropic support for CityFest.

Our Wednesday luncheon program at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts was a sold-out success with 350 in attendance to hear San Antonio native Robert Hammond, co-founder of New York’s High Line. That event helped defray costs of the Friday programming but was not enough to eliminate such costs.

Robert Hammond, High Line co-founder and executive director of Friends of the High Line, delivers his keynote speech during the opening day of CityFest.

Staging a public policy and ideas festival and bringing in speakers from around the country is a challenge, made possible by our lead sponsors: The City of San Antonio, Bexar County, the Charles Butt Foundation, Raise Your Hand Texas, the San Antonio Area Foundation, the Tobin Endowment, and the 80|20 Foundation.

Still, even a reduced price ticket is beyond the reach of too many people in a city with the highest poverty rate in the nation. One CityFest panel addressed the urgent need to redouble efforts to address the root causes of poverty. Next year we want an audience that includes more of the people we are working together to help.

A concerted effort to reach out to community groups, other nonprofits, and neighborhood associations should assure that everyone knows we will help anyone interested to find a way to spend a great learning day at Sunset Station, a place that has beckoned generations of San Antonians and is now doing so once again.

We will be saying thank you to our many sponsors, speakers, and volunteers in the days and weeks ahead, and we will be quietly working on an even bigger, more inclusive CityFest 2020.

All aboard.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.