A packed concert at the Alamodome. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
A packed concert at the Alamodome. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
Robert Rivard

It’s a terrible feeling when you miss a good friend’s important birthday. That’s why the Rivard Report is calling attention to Wednesday, May 15. There’s no party planned, not even a birthday cake, but it is the 20th anniversary of the Alamodome.

The Rivard Report has organized its own commemoration with a week-long series of articles written by the people who were there 20 years ago, driven by San Antonio’s failure to become a host city for the U.S. Olympic Festival because we lacked big city sports facilities.

The Alamodome at sunset. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
The Alamodome at sunset. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Back then, San Antonio was a city deeply divided over the issue, but the divisions were far from predictable. In a city often divided along socio-economic fault lines, the Alamodome debate made for strange bedfellows. Allies became adversaries. Adversaries became allies. The election, when it was finally held after several false starts, allowed the Alamodome to be funded and built, but it hardly settled the matter. Still, the Alamodome did open on May 15, 1993, and 2o years later it appears to be doing way better than most locals realize.

I’ve invited a range of personalities to share their remembrances and their assessment of the ‘Dome at age 20. Some of the players, sadly, are dead or gone or couldn’t be reached, but they and the roles they played will be remembered in the writings of others.  We do have contributions from the key players who fought to get the ‘Dome built and others who have since dedicated their professional lives to bring events to San Antonio that would have never happened without the facility.

Voters favored the Alamodome by 52-48%, but the city’s leadership was heavily in favor of the project as an economic development engine, and accordingly, this week’s series tilts heavily toward the pro-Alamodome side. As always, the Rivard Report invites thoughtful commentary from the community. If there are individuals who want to contribute an article, we will gladly consider it for publication, assuming its is not redundant to what we are publishing.

Red McCombs
Red McCombs

Leading off: Red McCombs. If there is a single, larger-than-life individual in San Antonio, it’s the living legend known simply as Red. His remembrance is a pitch-perfect reflection of his enthusiasm for the project and his never-surrender approach to life in general. Red was the owner of the Spurs in those years, an unapologetic advocate for an NFL franchise for the city, one of the most powerful business leaders in the city (still is), and a guy who hated to lose (still does) – whether it was a ballgame or a sports event bid.

Henry Cisneros
Henry Cisneros

Henry Cisneros was mayor when he walked into the office of Robert Marbut Jr., his young staff aide, and told him he wanted a domed stadium for the city. Cisneros then tasked Marbut to find out how to do it. Henry sees the Alamodome the same as many see his mayoral tenure. Both helped put San Antonio on the national and international map.

I asked Marbut to write his own recollection of events. He produced a master’s thesis. It’s the longest article we will publish in the series, but it is, digitally speaking, a page turner. Robert digs deep into the politics and gives readers a grass-roots view of what proved to be one tough political street fight.

Dr. Robert Marbut. Robert was also the founding President and CEO of the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation, now known as San Antonio Sports.  Dr. Marbut has been a college professor for over 20 years and is a tenured full professor at Northwest Vista College.
Robert Marbut

He also tells the story of how two San Antonio state senators, Cindi Krier and Frank Tejeda Jr., pulled a legislative rabbit out of a hat to get a rider tagged to a Corpus Christi bill in the waning hours of the Texas Legislature session that allowed a half-cent VIA tax to be used to fund the Alamodome.

Helen Dutmer
Helen Dutmer

Former City Councilwoman Helen Dutmer is still active on civic boards at the age of 91, and remains a beloved figure on the Southside. She became the de facto face and voice of the opposition, engaging Marbut in what seemed at the time like nightly neighborhood debates before the election. She was joined by COPS, the inner city community organization that had been an ally of Cisneros throughout his political career until the Alamodome election, and C.A. Stubbs and the Homeowner Taxpayer Association.

Nelson Wolff
Nelson Wolff

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was a Northside city councilman at the time of the election, and was mayor by the time the Alamodome opened. He lived through the “Dome Dirt” turmoil that grew out of the multi-million dollar cleanup of asphalt and contaminated soil left over from the old Alamo Iron Works once located on the near-Eastside site.  Wolff made the Alamodome a major focus of “Mayor,” his 1997 memoir of public life in the city from 1981-1995. He revisits that time and reflects on the impact of the Alamodome on the city after two decades.

Susan Blackwood
Susan Blackwood

Susan Blackwood, executive director of the San Antonio Sports Foundation, presided over many of the Alamodome’s most memorable sporting events, and she was there for the city’s worst defeat in a Mexico City hotel when the city lost its bid for the 2007 Pan Am Games to Brazil.

Michael Sawaya
Michael Sawaya

Perception often trumps reality, or even becomes reality. Many people today believe the lack of an NFL franchise symbolizes the failure of the Alamodome, and that it now sits empty. City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Mike Sawaya, who manages the Alamodome and other city facilities today, make a strong case for just the opposite: The Alamodome is booked now on every weekend and for more days than any time since the Spurs made it the team’s home.

The 1989 election that led to the construction of the Alamodome was one of the most divisive in history, unfolding just as my family returned to Texas and set up home in San Antonio after a 10-year absence from the state. The election was supposed to have occurred in 1987, but we’ll save that part of the story for later in the week.

Count me as someone who believes the ‘Dome deserves a party. Yes, it was designed to accommodate a professional football team if the opportunity developed, but not all its backers cared about the NFL. It was conceived as an amateur sports venue, a domed stadium that could host the U.S. Olympics Festival, the Final Four, a college bowl, and the Spurs. It also was supposed to serve as an added convention venue. I still remember city leaders coming to the San Antonio Light newspaper for an editorial board meeting, asking editors to refer to the Alamodome in print as a “multi-purpose domed facility.”

Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger
Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger

San Antonio never impressed the National Football League, though Red tried with his Minnesota Vikings and Mayor Phil Hardberger made it clear to the displaced New Orleans Saints they could stay here as long as they liked. Still, it’s hard to argue that the Alamodome was a bad bet.

San Antonio, after 20 years, takes the Alamodome for granted. It gets little attention, even in a city obsessed with its urban core and the drive to build a San Antonio with all the big city amenities.

One factor that influences negative perceptions of the Alamodome is that the surrounding near-Eastside remains devoid of public and private investment, although that is slowly starting to change in nearby neighborhoods. The departure of the Spurs from the downtown to an arena in the industrial zone on the other side of I-35 still sits badly with many of us, and that, too, undoubtedly colors views about the Alamodome and the people who fought to get the public to build it. Neither venue has contributed much to the surrounding neighborhoods. Officials who promised otherwise were ignoring considerable data available from other cities that showed sports facilities don’t help impoverished or blighted areas very much.

Rowdy and friends warm up the pregame party.
Tailgate time: Rowdy and friends warm up the pregame party for UTSA football. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Yet take a look at who is using the Alamodome and you’ll quickly tally tens of millions of dollars in economic activity that simply wouldn’t be happening otherwise. Take UTSA Roadrunner football and its 25-year lease. The new football program, led by national champion coach Larry Coker, has done more for school spirit than anything else in the university’s history, yet the fast-growing school could not have afforded NCAA Division I football if it had to build its own stadium. Saturday home games bring tens of thousands of fans, locals and visitors, into the city. Because there isn’t a pro sports franchise as an anchor tenant, city officials are able to book many events they otherwise would have to turn away. College football, of course, is one. So, in the end, the Alamodome did win the city a football team.

Paul McCartney was the first bigtime musician to play the ‘Dome. His New World Tour attracted more than 48,000 fans. One year later the Rolling Stones brought their Voodoo Lounge Tour to the ‘Dome. It ranks among my all-time Top 10 concerts, at least the ones I remember. But it isn’t an ex-Beatle or the Rolling Stones who sold the most tickets for a concert at the ‘Dome. The bragging rights for that belong to our own George Strait. His May 2010 performance drew more than 55,000 fans.

A packed concert at the Alamodome. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
A packed concert at the Alamodome. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the attention that high profile events have brought to San Antonio hanks to the Alamodome,” said Mario Hernandez, CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation. “We try every day to keep San Antonio’s name in front of corporate America, which is why the Spurs are so valuable. The Final Four events, in particular, brought a national focus to our city, along with many other events that demonstrate we are a ‘big time city’. The ‘Dome adds to our quality of life and increases the options of “what there is to do in San Antonio,” and makes us a more progressive city.”

Our family’s most memorable Alamodome moment will always be the July 1993 U. S. Olympic Festival opening ceremony. No, it wasn’t Bruce Hornsby, though he was good, or Olympic gold medal figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, although she had rock star appeal. It was the fact that our 10-year-old son, Nicolas, who was already running area races, was invited to join other athletic kids to take a joyful lap around the crowded field as music blared and colorful laser beams cut across the crowd of 63,000.  Talk about an adrenaline rush that lasted for days.

I’ve enjoyed the Spurs celebrating the team’s first championship trophy in 1999, men and women’s Final Fours, memorable Alamo Bowls, one tractor pull, championship boxing, many a Sports Foundation Hall of Fame event, and now UTSA football. The Alamodome has enriched my life and this city’s life. It was built, debt-free, for $186 million collected through a one half cent transportation tax. It’s not the perfect venue, but it’s been more than good enough over the years. It’s made San Antonio a bigger, better city.

That’s my view. We’ll offer other views every day for a week starting tomorrow.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

Sports: A Hole in the Fabric of Downtown

Game Day in San Antonio: We are all Roadrunners

Hemisfair Park: A ‘Brutal Redesign’ or the Bulldozer?

Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

Gallery: Fiesta Carnival’s Family-Friendly Transformation

San Antonio’s Big Bet on Public Art: Hemisfair Park and the San Antonio River

Alamo Plaza: Three Views From Studio Trinity

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.