Robert Rivard

Downtown business and civic leaders who reserved seats at Monday’s Downtown Alliance “State of the Downtown” luncheon at the Westin Rivercenter found themselves instead at the inaugural Centro San Antonio event in which four distinct non-profits devoted to building a better downtown San Antonio have merged into a single entity.

Same people, same mission, new sense of purpose and a more market-savvy image and story. See ‘We Move Downtown’: Centro San Antonio Launches With New Brand, Structure posted Monday.

One refreshing aspect of the new message is its honesty:

“At the center of every great city is a great downtown. San Antonio’s downtown is blessed with extraordinary people, traditions and cultures. But its greatness is yet to be achieved. Look around. Tall buildings and bustling businesses contrasted by vacant spaces and empty store fronts just steps away from our beloved Alamo and River Walk.”

Vacant storefronts (center, right) surround downtown skyscrapers a block away from the San Antonio River on the corner of Soledad and Houston Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Vacant storefronts (center, right) surround downtown high-rises and skyscrapers a block away from the San Antonio River on the corner of Soledad and Houston Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That’s language excerpted from page one of Centro San Antonio’s luncheon program. Centro’s President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni assumed a pulpit-like demeanor as he led the audience in a communal recital of the longer text that included the above excerpt. All that was missing was an “Amen!” and a church organ.

[Download DiGiovanni’s presentation points here.]

The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The reorganization seems to align SA2020 and Centro San Antonio more closely than ever. SA2020 Darryl Byrd opened the program with the observation that “San Antonio, unlike a lot of other cities, decided what the next decade downtown was going to look like,” and that process, he said, led to today’s announcement and the program’s focus on culture and education as the two keys to transforming downtown into “everyone’s neighborhood.”

DiGiovanni said the merger grew out of a “self-assessment” that concluded  a single, stream-lined organization that included each individual entity and preserved the respective missions was a smarter marketing approach.

“We will meet our SA2020 goals on housing, jobs and quality of life,” he said.

Coincidentally, The Atlantic Cities website previewed a story today, Where Millennials Can Make It Now, in which reporter Nona Willis Aronowitz, herself a Millennial, writes about her recent six-week journey through urban America, exploring cities large and small that are attracting her generation to live and work.  She skipped the obvious destinations for twentysomethings, such as Austin, Portland and New Orleans, and looked for the emerging destinations. She found nine cities that stand out, one being San Antonio. Individual stories from each of the cities will follow.

Downtown Kickball, one of many emerging staples of downtown San Antonio. Courtesy photo.
Downtown Kickball, one of many emerging staples of downtown San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

DiGiovanni gave way on stage to two women leaders who stole the show, in my opinion, which should serve to remind everyone that attracting women to live and work (and fill leadership positions) downtown goes far beyond some of the suggested reasons and attractions offered up in another recent Downtown Alliance luncheon. See Designing Downtown Spaces — With Women in Mind.

President and CEO of the Southwest School of Art Paula Owen stands amid supplies and kilns at the outdoor studio space at the school. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
President and CEO of the Southwest School of Art Paula Owen stands amid supplies and kilns at the school’s outdoor studio space. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Paula Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest School of Art, which will begin offering four-year undergraduate degrees in the arts in the Fall 2014, painted a convincing portrait of the “artistic dividend” earned by cities that understand the value of a community rich in artists, who produce art, intellectual property and what Owen called a “creative climate, a creative vibe.”

Looking south from the Broadway Cultural Corridor, Owen ticked off the names of the newest places and events enriching the urban core’s artistic profile: The San Antonio Book Festival, The new San Antonio Children’s Museum (opening in 2015), the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (opening in 2014), the Southwest School of Art (an accredited four-year college starting in 2014) the recently opened Briscoe Western Art Museum, the soon-to-be-expanded Blue Star Arts Complex, and the Alameda Theater renovation.

Owen was followed by Carri Baker-Wells, chair of the San Antonio Independent School District Foundation board and an executive with the Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson law firm.

“Great cities have great downtowns, but great downtowns have to have great schools,” Baker Wells said. She then dispelled what she called the “The Myth of SAISD.”

“How many of you think the dropout rate is more than 40%?” she asked. A few hands went up.

“How many of you think the dropout rate is more than 30%?” More hands went up.

The real rate for the Class of 2013, as measured by the Texas Education Association, Baker Wells said, will be “less than 10 per cent,” which she said represented the district’s success in cutting its dropout rate by more than half in recent years.

Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (left) and SAISD Foundation Chair Carri Baker Wells accept $3,000 checks from Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (left) and SAISD Foundation Chair Carri Baker Wells accept $3,000 checks from Centro San Antonio as a token of the nonprofit’s commitment to arts, culture, and education in San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

That drew some surprised murmurs and applause. Baker Wells offered an overview of the district’s growing number of in-district charter schools and programs, all of which have been profiled on the Rivard Report and can be found below. She also introduced a new video interview with Lorenzo Gomez, executive director of Graham Weston’s 80/20 Foundation, which underwrote the cost of introducing CodeHS, a new programming curriculum developed by Stanford graduate students, at Highlands High School to more than 400 students who are learning how to write code.

[Read more: From Stanford to Highlands, CodeHS Aims to Program Success]

The loudest applause of the luncheon came after the video presentation, which included one young student saying his current goal was to land an internship at Rackspace or Google.

Gomez happened across Code HS co-founder Zach Galant while watching another video featuring several more prominent figures in the tech world, but shortly after the youthful Galant came to San Antonio, his name and program went viral. Last week he was the featured guest on the Colbert Report.

SAISD, the city’s largest inner city school district, is realizing real gains. Like Centro San Antonio, the district may need a marketing makeover to get out its real story. It’s sounding better all the time.

Full disclosure: Robert Rivard is a member and donor of the non-profit SAISD board and a district resident.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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‘We Move Downtown’: Centro San Antonio Launches With New Brand, Structure

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Local School’s Anti-Dropout Program Makes it to the Small Screen

The Pre-K 4 SA Model: Where Kids are Nurtured and Nourished

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce: San Antonio Makes Top ‘Enterprising Cities’ List

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.