Editor’s note: Helen Dutmer is one of San Antonio’s longest-serving civic leaders. At age 92 she still serves on the City of San Antonio’s Board of Adjustment and the San Antonio Water System’s Grievance Commission. She lives on the near-Southside on McKinley Street on land that a century ago was the family dairy farm. Of all the people involved in the fight over building the Alamodome, she was the elected leader who lived closest to the long-abandoned former Alamo Iron Works site.
Dutmer represented the Southside on City Council from 1977-1991 before the era of term limits. After leaving the City Council, she served for six years on the Bexar County Commissioners Court. She still drives her own car, points out that she doesn’t need glasses, and doesn’t have a computer or use email. The following article was written by hand and augmented in an interview with Robert Rivard.
It seemed like every time we attended a National League of Cities convention in another city the mayor and city council came home in a rush to spend money and copy what some other city was doing.
That’s what happened when Mayor Henry Cisneros took us to Indianapolis for such a meeting and to see that city’s fancy new domed stadium. It was the envy of everyone around the country. You know Henry. We just had to come home and outdo everyone else.
In the first place, what we built doesn’t even look like a domed stadium. It looks like a big airplane hangar. I said back then we ought to use the expressway as a runway and park planes in there. And the AT&T Center, which we built later, is just as bad. It looks like a cow shed compared to what we saw that day in Indianapolis.
All these great things were supposed to happen on the Eastside after the Alamodome was built. Well, look there today. Nothing much happened. People come and then they go home, and everything stays the same for the people left behind.
Now the same thing happened with Henry and Target ’90 (a city-wide community planning organization started in the early 1980s to “implement strategies for meeting San Antonio’s economic, cultural and social goals,” much like contemporary Mayor Julián Castro’s SA2020 initiative).
If my memory serves, all of us went to Fort Worth for another League of Cities meeting and they had just finished restoring the Stockyards. I still remember all that brick. So home we came and started spending money, putting in a big water fountain in Hemisfair Park and paving it all over, making Houston Street one way, narrowing the lanes and widening the sidewalks, putting bricks down everywhere, tearing things up. For what?
I speak my mind and people know it. Henry knows it. He still calls me from time to time to say hello. My family and his family have been friends going way back. It’s not personal. Now, if I can get this 92-year-old brain working, I will try to convey my rationale back in the 1980s for opposing the construction of the Alamodome – back when it was still just an idea on paper.
Back then, in the late 1980s, I had been on City Council for quite a while. I actually served from 1977 to 1991. Somehow I became the voice of the opposition. I never planned it that way, but I didn’t mind it, either. I can’t remember how many times Robert Marbut Jr. and I debated in front of community groups, neighborhood associations – you name it. Robert and I made quite a circuit. We never said no to anyone who invited us, and Robert and I always got along just fine, despite our differences. Like I said, it wasn’t personal.
[Read Marbut’s side of the story: San Antonio’s Strangest Election]
My objections were based on financial considerations, not necessarily opposition to a sports facility in general.
To meet the cost of building such a facility, ticket prices were going to have to be set high. That meant many people would not be able to afford to get inside the Alamodome. They’d have to settle for more affordable outdoor sporting activities where they could find them.
I didn’t like the proposition of building a domed stadium suitable for a professional sports team when I knew we didn’t have a professional sports team to put in there and we weren’t going to get one. Pro football was what everyone had in mind, whether they said so then or whether they say so now.
At the time, the Alamodome was not necessarily conceived as a venue that would host other, non-sporting events. That became necessary in time, but in the beginning the project was hurried and not well-thought out in advance. In those years the San Antonio Spurs played in the HemisFair Arena and were just beginning to be recognized in the David Robinson era. Dallas and Houston and UT-Austin all had better arenas and were filling them.
The Alamodome became a place for Red McCombs, then the owner of the Spurs, to get a better concession deal, charge more for tickets, and give the Spurs a new home – until we made the mistake of building them another home deeper on the Eastside and away from downtown (the AT&T Center). It turned out the Alamodome was never a great place for a basketball game. The domed ceiling was so high, the acoustics didn’t lend themselves to the experience of a smaller arena. So the Spurs left.
Today I’d say the Alamodome is second now to the AT&T Center, and not just for sports, but for concerts and other events, too. That’s regretful, in my opinion.
My intent always was to point out that I didn’t oppose sports facilities, but this one wasn’t a very good one and at the time the city should have had greater priorities for its spending. It was not the right project for the time. My approach as a city council member was to think things through, make a decision and then stick with it, even if it meant I was going to go down fighting. And I did. So we debated and debated.
During this time Henry Cisneros was pretty frustrated and he told me, “Helen, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
I told him, “Henry, it’s not the heat. It’s the smell of the deal.”
Well, despite all that, the other side finally won and that’s about the time I stepped out and left the Council.
I’ve since been to the ‘Dome for concerts and other events, but not for several years now – those parking lots and neighborhoods used to be farmland. I was raised on one such dairy farm, what is now the 900 block of South New Braunfels Street, right in the shadow of the Alamodome.
It was all fields back then. That was a long time ago.