River Foundation’s Avery Retires, Amerman Named New Director

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Robert Amerman shakes hands with guests at the press conference.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Robert Amerman greets guests on his first day as executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation.

San Antonio River Foundation Executive Director Estela Avery announced her retirement Thursday, handing over the reigns to Robert Amerman, a tech company executive, architect, and artist.

Avery, who led the foundation for seven years, will continue her decades-long service to nonprofits and boards throughout South Texas, including volunteering at the River Foundation and serving as president of the Nursing Advisory Council at the UT School of Nursing.

Among the many achievements during Avery’s tenure, the foundation’s largest single undertaking was the design, fundraising, and groundbreaking for Confluence Park, “nature’s learning laboratory” on the river’s Mission Reach. The foundation set up $2 million in maintenance and education endowments, with $1 million coming from Avery and her husband, James. James Avery is a well-known Hill Country jewelry maker and local philanthropist.

“Confluence Park will have some programming once it’s built. … A lot of it was a vision we had as a team and I’m still part of that team,” said Estela Avery after a preview event for the 9th annual Rivertini cocktail competition benefiting the foundation. “All of that’s going to keep me busy and active, so I’m not just going to disappear.”

Estela Avery is retiring as Executive Director of the San Antonio River Foundation.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Estela Avery is retiring as executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation.

The river foundation was established in 2003 by the San Antonio River Authority as its fundraising arm and advocacy agency for watershed conservation, stewardship, and education. Amenities such as art and cultural programming on and around the San Antonio River are typically projects of the river foundation.

The $384 million San Antonio River Improvements Project, largely funded by Bexar County and managed by the river authority, was the foundation’s primary focus as it got started. While officials and the community celebrated the project’s completion in 2013, funding and programming are still needed. Since then, the foundation has worked to install several sculptural portals that lead Mission Reach pedestrians and cyclists to the Spanish-colonial Missions.

Avery’s successor, Amerman, is a founding partner in a New York-based web development company and moved to San Antonio full-time eight years ago. He has since stepped down from his work at Third Mind Inc. to work for the river foundation.

“I think it’s an excellent choice,” Avery said. “He is exceptionally bright and committed, well-organized, and very much into the collaborative effort that I have worked on for so many years. He’s the right choice.”

An ad-hoc committee formed by the River Foundation received 45 applicants for the executive director position. Amerman was selected from a group of three finalists.

Amerman said he was “raised on rivers” on an island off the coast of South Carolina. “When you’re raised at 12 feet above sea level, rivers matter, water matters,” he said.

Amerman has volunteered with the foundation for five years, served as a board member, and chaired its art and architecture committee. He’s been on the Confluence Park team for four years and serves on its board. He’s quite familiar with the foundation, its mission, and projects.

The Museum and Mission reaches were the river foundation’s proving ground, Amerman told the Rivard Report. “We were trying to show the city the value, trying to show the citizens how the partnership could work.”

Now, he said, the foundation has established itself firmly.

“Our mission statement uses words like beautification, education, and restoration,” he said. “We were proving some of that with the Mission Reach and Museum Reach. But if you think about what Confluence is doing, it’s all of our mission statement, all in one, for the first time.”

Confluence Park is the foundation’s current focus and will also require continued maintenance and programming, but the foundation will need a next act. So what’s on the horizon?

Amerman already has some ideas – but it’s too early to tell a reporter, he said with a laugh.

“We’re going through a strategic planning process right now,” he said, in collaboration with the river authority and others.

It will involve looking at the San Antonio River holistically “from the Blue Hole to the Gulf.”

In talking about Avery’s leadership of the foundation, Amerman emphasized the difference between a “replacement” and a “successor.”

“There could be no replacement for you,” he told Avery during the announcement.

Avery had served on the foundation’s board for less than one year before stepping into a paid position as executive director in 2010. The river foundation had just wrapped up the grand opening of the Museum Reach, the northern phase of the 14-mile river improvements project in the city’s urban core. But the temperature at the foundation and partner organizations was cold.

I asked her, “What was broken?”

“Oh my, what wasn’t broken?” she said with a laugh.

Many leaders of partner organizations like the river authority and Bexar County felt they weren’t given enough credit for the work put into the project, Avery said.

“[Avery led the River Foundation] in a step in a new direction and the repair of many relationships within the community,” said Brice Moczygemba, chairman of the foundation’s board. “During her tenure, Estela developed trusting relationships with many individuals, nonprofits, public companies, private companies, and many agencies throughout the community.”

Avery was new to the foundation then, but “all I know is that I walked into a situation that needed to improve,” she said.

She began cultivating more collaboration and communication between partners.

“What’s been great about this job has been the wonderful people that I have met,” she said. “The different personalities, the backgrounds, their education, just everything about them. Individuals that I would have never met otherwise – they have really enriched my life.”

 

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