San Antonio and New Orleans: A Tale of Two Tricentennials

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A Tricentennial billboard is displayed in the walkway from the parking garage at the San Antonio International Airport.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A Tricentennial billboard is displayed in the walkway from the parking garage at the San Antonio International Airport.

Amid the finger-pointing and reviews over the city's Tricentennial Commission's practices and programming following last week's sudden departure of CEO Edward Benavides, it should not be forgotten that San Antonio has a great story to tell the world.

A leadership change at this late juncture – less than 45 days before the New Year's Eve fireworks – is a serious setback. The commission's insider sponsorship deal with KSAT-TV first reported by the San Antonio Express-News is a problem unlikely to go away, and the musical acts signed up for the big New Year's Eve party have been met with yawns.

The eleventh-hour crisis, however, is an opportunity for Mayor Ron Nirenberg to direct an overdue course correction, reinvigorate the Tricentennial Commission leadership, and use his position to build confidence with citizens and with business, cultural, and community leaders.

Hopefully, the compelling narrative blending San Antonio's past, present, and future will regain its footing over the inevitable continuing media coverage of commission activities under Benavides' watch.

San Antonio is one of two unique American cities, the other being New Orleans, that will celebrate 300 years of existence in 2018. The two cities ought to be selling package deals.

An aerial view of New Orleans.

Courtesy /

An aerial view of New Orleans.

San Antonio is, remarkably, one of only three UNESCO World Heritage cities in the U.S., along with Philadelphia and New York. The 15-year $384 million transformation of the San Antonio River has brought the city global acclaim with the Thiess International Riverprize this year. People might not appreciate the enormity of this recognition. San Pedro Creek's downtown reach and Confluence Park on the Mission Reach both open next year.

Call it a slogan, but we are a city on the rise. Three years from now, as former Mayor Julián Castro's Decade of Downtown comes to a close, we will have realized an ambitious transformation of much of San Antonio's urban core, from Broadway to the Zona Cultural and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, teeming with thousands of new residents and downtown workers where vacancy and blight once held sway. The Frost Bank Tower, the first new office tower on the downtown skyline in decades, will be a gleaming reality by then.

As city leaders hit the reset button, they would be wise to study New Orleans and its approach to the Tricentennial.

Start with the respective websites: New Orleans puts the focus on substance and city building. San Antonio's digital presentation with its oddly pink-hued design, fails to capture much interest. You might not care about the two websites, but ask yourself what cultural travelers will think as they look at the New Orleans site and then the San Antonio site as they weigh their options. What city would you visit?

But it isn't just websites. Look at the way New Orleans touts infrastructure projects underway and its Next 300 Challenge Award to area nonprofits and community groups. The San Antonio site is about partying.

Both cities offer generous servings of history, cuisine, ambience, and good memories. Both know how to throw a party and put on a parade, although we are more of a PG-13 family-friendly city while New Orleans veers toward an R rating. Both cities have their share of social and economic challenges. New Orleans seems to be using its Tricentennial to move forward, while San Antonio seems to be overly focused on fiesta.

Everyone loves a great New Year's Eve party, but the Tricentennial should not be about the party. It should be about San Antonio building on an already sturdy and enduring foundation, using a year-long celebration of the city's first 300 years to set an ambitious agenda for now and the coming years.

Mayor Nirenberg said as much recently when we spoke about his plans to lead the Tricentennial in a more transparent and focused direction. His vision represents a more mature and forward-leaning viewpoint of the Tricentennial.

For Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, a credible leader who will serve as acting CEO of the Tricentennial, the mayor's pivot will be no small challenge given the timeline. He may have the hardest job in city government, but he will find a lot of people supporting a change in the Tricentennial's direction.

"This is our one moment in a lifetime to have our city, its past, its present, and most importantly, its future, on center stage, demonstrating to the world why people should invest their time, energy and resources in San Antonio," Nirenberg said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

"We have to admit there have been lapses in judgment and bad decisions made, but we are not going to win any games by playing Monday morning quarterback," Nirenberg said. "I have committed to making sure we have the necessary funds for the Tricentennial, and I am more than optimistic we will get there. But we have to improve our communications, act with transparency, and get past the narrative that it's all about a party."

Nirenberg said the Tricentennial should be a vehicle for exploring opportunities and concrete gains on multiple fronts, including transportation, public education, public health, public safety, workforce development, and smart jobs growth. He shared a recent conversation he had with Marta Peláez, the pioneering director of Family Violence Prevention Services, about the city's domestic violence rate, one of the worst in the nation.

"I want all of us to pay attention to challenges like that one," Nirenberg said. "If we can coalesce around a vision to get ourselves off that list next year, it will be one of the most significant accomplishments of the Tricentennial. We should look at everything that way. Let's ask ourselves: Who are we and where do we want to go?"

Nirenberg shared another anecdote this one about a Donna, Texas native who now owns her own business in San Antonio and recalls her childhood in the Rio Grande Valley when the family would make a weekly visit to the local post office to pick up a Sunday newspaper from San Antonio.

"She told me they would read about this great modern metropolis preparing for Hemisfair '68, and after it finally opened, the family drove to San Antonio," Nirenberg said. "As they stepped out of the car, her mother invited her to look around and experience a real city. It was a moment that helped shape her future here. That's what we want to do again now with the Tricentennial, inspire new generations of people to come here to find their opportunity and their future."

14 thoughts on “San Antonio and New Orleans: A Tale of Two Tricentennials

  1. Excellent article. I hope we can fill the gap. Sept 7, 2018 will be our 50th wedding anniversary. Got married during Hemisfair and Wedding night at PLacio Del Rio.

  2. Ha I like the Pink/style of the SA 300 marketing scheme! When I compared the two websites without going in depth, San Antonio looked like a lot of fun…and well, San Antonio likes to Fiesta. I have not followed every 300 idea/event closely but what I have picked up is SA is doing a lot of cool things to to get ready as a city. Such as: San Pedro Creek phase I, Hemisfair/Yanaguana are looking great and Civic Park is on the way, Confluence Park (and new trails) and 300 artist project…. are things I can think of off the top of my head that are cool new additions to San Antonio in time for the tricentennial—at least in creating public art, plazas, parks, and trails—-San Antonio is impressing me.

    I lived in Oregon for their Sesquicentennial (2009. only 150 years) which was so much fun, but my favorite part was their mascot… SESKI SASQUATCH. He tied the whole event in together. But again this was the whole state not just a city celebration. But maybe a really good mascot is needed!

  3. So the city spent taxpayer money to a CEO that quit because the city didn’t secure even half of the 10 million needed for this celebration? Who is held accountable for this? How much will the tax payers be paying for the new CEO? This is confusing as it seems the tax payers money is used for a year long celebration whose purpose is to provide events for those same tax payers to go out and spend more of their money?!? Hahaha. What happens if it doesn’t happen? What happens if it’s a flop? Too many silly questions and not enough real answers. Meanwhile there are real issues we the tax payers are facing such as the SAWS hike but this proves more than ever that the city of San Antonio and it’s municipalities are in fact only concerned with a “party” as it will help cover up their flub and Sculleys large salary.

  4. Frankly, the whole exercise seems like a waste of time. Why not have one weekend bash and call it a day?

    With respect to the New Orleans comparison, how is the featured building of a Four Seasons hotel relevant in the context of a 300 year history.

    I’ve never had a birthday I celebrated for more than one day, and I don’t think I ever will. A year long celebration is unnecessary.

  5. It’s such a shame that this city started things off on the wrong foot with the crooked, sleazy deal orchestrated between Phil Lane at KSAT and the Tricentennial commission, ruining this city’s chances of a full media push by all the local media. And why not? Why shouldn’t all media be able to promote the Tricentennial? It’s their city, too. Instead, KSAT alone gets all the spoils, and the citizens of our community get the shaft. This could have been handled in an upright, fair manner. Instead, inside interests in the commission and KSAT resorted to a crooked backroom deal. This city deserves better. Clearly, they cheated, so KSAT deserves to lose the contract.

  6. Take a look at the minutes of the commission’s meetings-the two I looked at were less than one page long?! What was discussed at those meetings? What a waste of time, money, and effort-disregard the word effort.

  7. Loved this article! I hope our city leaders read it because it hints of the short sightedness past city leaders have had. I feel that SA has been touting the “we’re ABOUT to be the next great U.S. city” my whole life (I’m 40) yet we never seem to turn that corner due to small gains being touted as gigantic accomplishments. Other major cities just keep heading toward that designation without the need for the self vibrato. For example, we are up in arms over the 23 story, 460,000 square feet Frost Bank tower. Even though the design looks cool, it is nowhere as cool looking at the tower that Frost Bank built for Austin at 33 stories and 525,000 square feet. We’re always patting ourselves on the back for underachieving. It’s about time this city did something that people outside of SA consider grand instead of just talking about one day doing it! Our Tricentennial is the perfect opportunity!

  8. The five San Antonio Colonial missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015; however, (as far as I know) the city of San Antonio has not been designated a World Heritage City.

  9. A website comparison is also useful in highlighting:

    1. Accessibility problems – last check, our homepage contains over 30 serious accessibility errors to NOLA’s 3.

    2. A strong welcoming and framing statement from the Mayor, so it’s clear where the buck stops – Yes NOLA, No SA.

    3. Streamlined website design free from blatant sponsor promotion / NASCAR like logo placement (it’s not about the sponsors) – Yes NOLA, No SA.

    4. Committees with inspiring aims and nothing but the names of committee members (it’s not about the committee members) – Yes NOLA, no SA.

    5. Website design clearly aimed at inviting, welcoming and serving an outside audience and not weakened by weirdness like FAQS for sponsors – Yes NOLA, no SA.

    6. Committee aims and public MOBILITY infrastructure projects aimed at inclusion and reconciling past exclusions – Yes NOLA, no SA.

    7. A signature restoration of a legacy public building to mark the occasion — Yes NOLA, no SA.

    8. Grants for community members to help seed innovation and engage residents broadly and as equals/contributors in the event.

    This analysis might seem late in the game but it’s not new and has been offered free online by residents for weeks to months. The current moment is at least an opportunity for some in San Antonio to maybe finally learn some truths about the need to plan and design for inclusion and to place aims for inclusion and reconciliation higher than individual egos and the desires of sponsors. Education is always expensive.

  10. New Orleans is clearly the better choice because they make it a habit to include ALL PEOPLE from ALL backgrounds and Not just try to keep it Hispanic only….

  11. I have been reading about KSAT television’s under the table deal with our city for weeks. Seen two people in charge of the Tricentennial Commission stepping down, in part, because of this despicable action. When do we get to read that KSAT has had to relinquish its contract for the crooked, rigged deal it made with the city?

  12. I thought the primary celebration was in May 2018. It includes educational sessions on our history as well as our future. It was never about a new years party. Somebody from the sa300 say something. Personally i am fascinated by our history…the Mavericks, Juan Seguin from Mexico, the Luchesses from Germany, mr Giraud from France, the Dulnigs from Austria, the 3 nuns from France who found Santa Rosa and priests and brothers who started st marys univ, the Persyns and Van de Walles from Belgium, the Penners from Poland and on and in.

  13. I just returned from New Orleans and felt all the excitement in the air. There are Tricentennial banners and flags everuywhere. It felt like Fiesta in San Antonio or the World’s Fair here in 1968. Their website is easy to navigate and there is no comparison with the SA 300 website.
    Six months ago I sent an e-mail too SA300 and suggested that flags be sold because it should become very popular like the Fiesta flag. I have tried several times since and still no response and now it is too late. I blame City Manager Scully and then Councilman Nirenberg because they were the two who raved about Benavides and were his biggest supporters. Now they want to rehire him at his 200k salary. Where is the transparency? Why is the guy getting a free pass? All they give citizens is empty stadiums(Alamo and Soccer). So “world class”, “top tier” and that is a joke!!!

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