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Amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic and the recession it has triggered in a bitterly partisan election year, it’s easy to forget San Antonio’s $450 million Alamo redevelopment plan.
City leaders will need to push anew to keep the five-year effort on track with the state.
The master plan represents a complex state-city partnership that will protect the Alamo, a World Heritage site, and redevelop the Alamo Plaza as a historic battle site with the addition of a museum and education center to offer a more complete telling of the site’s centuries-old occupation.
At best, plans to move and restore the Cenotaph, redevelop the plaza, and construct a museum on the site now occupied by buildings that house various amusement and entertainment businesses will be delayed beyond the intended 2024 completion date. At worst, the entire project could be at risk and, like past master plan efforts, could end up unrealized, the victim of petty political squabbles and the absence of strong leadership to keep the project on track.
Last Tuesday’s surprise announcement that Alamo Trust CEO Douglass McDonald will not renew his contract when it expires Sept. 30 adds significantly to the challenge ahead. His departure leaves the nonprofit Alamo Trust, overseen by the Texas General Land Office, without a strong visible leader at a time when politics in Austin have repeatedly delayed the first major step in plaza reconstruction: the relocation and restoration of the Cenotaph.
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) has stalled approval of the Cenotaph project in multiple meetings since December and will not meet again until September. Sources say Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is behind the delay, pressuring the THC leadership as part of his continuing campaign against Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
Patrick first took aim at Bush last December after Bush fell victim to a Facebook disinformation campaign launched by Rick Range, a rightwing former political opponent who started a group called Save the Alamo. The group falsely accused Bush of planning to erect a statue of Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna in the Alamo Plaza.
Patrick attacked Bush in the wake of that false charge after the land commissioner said the attack on him was racist. Patrick has continued to issue statements critical of the redevelopment plan and the GLO’s management, although the GLO only oversees the Alamo. The City of San Antonio oversees the plaza.
McDonald, 66, is a nationally recognized museum leader with a home in Ohio. He agreed to take on the project three years ago as a career capstone when the redevelopment plan appeared to be on a faster track. From the beginning, however, the controversial redevelopment plan has met with resistance, an echo of past efforts to redevelop Alamo Plaza, all of which failed.
McDonald, privately frustrated with the costly delays of the Cenotaph relocation, likely concluded that with the convergence of political in-fighting, the public health crisis, and the ensuing recession it would require years more of commitment to see the project to conclusion than he was willing to commit.
Recruiting a new project leader with the right professional credentials and the necessary political skills will not be an easy task for the Alamo Trust board of directors. McDonald’s announced departure this fall comes months after San Antonio developer Gene Powell, a driving force behind the project since its inception, abruptly resigned as chairman of the Alamo Management Committee, which is now chaired by City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), the City’s leading advocate for the redevelopment plan.
The management committee includes Treviño, City Manager Erik Walsh, Fort Worth philanthropist Ramona Bass, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes), GLO Deputy Director Hector Valle, and attorney Jeff Gordon, who serves as general counsel.
Powell’s resignation in March reportedly came after a dispute with Bass, who serves as the influential vice chair of the Remember the Alamo Foundation, the private fundraising entity supporting the project that is charged with raising $200 million or more of the $450 million total. Bass pushed for greater diversity on the Trust board. That apparently led to the appointment of Hurd, who is not running for reelection in November. Powell is still listed as a member of the Trust on the Alamo website.
“It’s dragged on too long. We have to move the Cenotaph. We as a city need to be more vocal,” Treviño said Saturday. “We have contracts to move it; we really aren’t debating it anymore. It’s our responsibility to make the THC understand that and see this project through. Failure to move the Cenotaph would mean we aren’t adhering to the vision and guiding principles that were established.”
Treviño, first appointed to City Council in 2014, has served as the lead elected official on the project virtually his entire time in office as the District 1 and downtown representative at City Hall. At this juncture in the project, he may be the person best suited to succeed McDonald. With the master plan in place, political skills and credibility with all the relevant parties are now more critical than museum and historic site management experience.
“I respect Doug, and I think we made a great team,” Treviño said in our Saturday interview. “I don’t have his experience. I’d be flattered if people thought I could do it, but I recognize what we are losing in terms of Doug’s experience and expertise. I want this project to be successful as much as anybody, whatever it takes.”