Visitors enjoy cooling off at the splash pad under sunny skies. Credit: Rachel Chaney for the San Antonio Report

Union Pacific Railroad gave $500,000 to Hemisfair to improve the splash pad at Yanaguana Garden, the company announced Wednesday.

The gift comes from Union Pacific’s Community Ties Giving Program, a philanthropic arm of the organization. Hemisfair plans on installing shade structures, artificial turf next to the splash pad, and more lighting with the funding.

The grant is the largest charitable gift that Hemisfair has received since Yanaguana Garden opened in 2015. Yanaguana Garden is 4.1 acres and sees more than 600,000 visitors a year. The money also will help fund maintenance of the splash pad.

“The splash pad has such a high level of use that it’s a testing ground for the equipment that goes into the splash pad,” Hemisfair spokeswoman Thea Setterbo said. “Where equipment might last a few years at a normal pace, we found that at Yanaguana Garden, the need for repair and upkeep is even greater because the use is so high all year round. Which is a great thing, but it does require improvements.”

Yanaguana Garden’s splash pad acts as a place for San Antonians to build memories with their families and neighbors, and reflects the city’s character, said Scott Moore, Union Pacific senior vice president of corporate relations and chief administrative officer.

“We believe vibrant spaces, like Hemisfair, help attract businesses, tourists and skilled workers, and, ultimately, strengthen the community,” Moore said in a statement.

After local Union Pacific employees told him about Hemisfair, Moore said he was immediately interested in becoming involved.

“[They] said, ‘They got something going on in San Antonio,’” he said. “In the shadow of the Tower of America where San Antonians had the vision of bringing the world to San Antonio and show it off, they’re now in the process of building a world-class park that we’re part of here today. And that’s why we said yes, Union Pacific, we want to be a part of that,” he said.

Hemisfair is one of less than 10 recipients of Union Pacific’s regional partnership program, and was given the largest grant from that program to date, Moore said. Though Moore has been to San Antonio before, he visited Yanaguana Garden for the first time Tuesday evening.

“It’s a great gathering place,” he said. “Last night, there were kids playing, couples walking.”

Corporate investment plays a critical role in Hemisfair’s quality of service and park offerings, said Anne Krause, executive director of Hemisfair Conservancy. Hemisfair Conservancy and Union Pacific have worked together since 2017, she added. The railroad gave the conservancy funding to design Civic Park and another gift for the Tower Park visioning project.

“What Hemisfair is doing, creating one of the world’s great public places, is in complete alignment with [Union Pacific’s] desire to create community vibrancy,” Krause said.

Though the Union Pacific grant is the largest gift Hemisfair has received to date, Krause said many of the larger gifts came from individual donors. Flo Crichton helped fund the transplanting of some legacy oak trees, while the Herrmann family funded Goliad Plaza’s restored gondolas.

“In the U.S., about 80 percent of giving comes from individuals,” Krause said. “Only 5 percent comes from corporations and 15 percent from foundations. Our fundraising strategy is in alignment with those trends.”

Through this donation, the splash pad will officially be named the Union Pacific Railroad Splash Pad.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff joined state Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Mayor Ron Nirenberg at a presentation Wednesday to announce Union Pacific’s donation and celebrate Hemisfair.

“This is a place that says to San Antonians, ‘We’re not just for tourists, we value our community,’” Menéndez said.

Wolff reminisced about walking through the park in 1968 when the World’s Fair landed in San Antonio. For a long time after, people struggled to figure out what to do with the space, he said, but the city has watched Hemisfair transform.

“We’ve got a great park in the making that complements what we have in the city,” he said.

In his 18 years serving as county judge, Wolff has worked with four different CEOs of Union Pacific and observed as the company strengthened its focus to giving back to the community, he said.

“I appreciate all they have done for Bexar County,” Wolff said in a statement. “Regional partnerships like those between Union Pacific and Hemisfair are creating transformational change in our community.”

Nirenberg praised Hemisfair for its ability to bring San Antonians together in one place to play.

“This partnership with Union Pacific represents the importance of corporate investment in local communities, and this funding will ensure the splash pad and other features at Hemisfair will be enjoyed for years to come,” Nirenberg said in a statement.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.