The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center opened Tuesday afternoon in downtown San Antonio with all the pomp and circumstance you might expect when celebrating the completion of a $325 million project more than seven years in the making. Elected officials and community leaders gathered for brief remarks, a champagne toast, a tour through the the biggest ballroom in Texas, and the dramatic curtain drop that revealed a large, shimmering sculpture in the cavernous lobby atrium.
"We are proud to unveil the City's single largest capital project to date, which was accomplished on time and on budget," said City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
The design and architecture of the building – by Populous/Marmon Mok Architects – is widely praised by City officials and the business community, but it's more than a pretty building, Sculley said, the Convention Center is also a "key domino" in downtown's own transformation.
Now that the new, east wing expansion is complete, much of the 1968-era west wing will be demolished to make room for Hemisfair's eight-acre Civic Park.
"To date, the Convention center treated Hemisfair as its back door," Sculley said. "The new convention center will treat Hemisfair as its front yard."
Two blocks away, the Alamo Plaza awaits a comprehensive master plan that will bring a Smithsonian-level of display, preservation, and appreciation for the recently designated World Heritage site. Across Interstate 37, a $43-million improvements project is underway at the Alamodome. A stronger, safer connection for pedestrian traffic has been constructed between the dome and the Convention Center.
"While this fabulous new facility impressively transforms the San Antonio Skyline, it is only the beginning of the more far-reaching transformation that our entire community is experiencing," Mayor Ivy Taylor said.
The City's Convention & Visitor's Bureau (CVB) has been booking conventions, both large and small, for the expanded Convention Center for more than a year in advance of the official unveiling on Tuesday. The project, funded by the Hotel Occupancy Tax, included technology and interior upgrades to large portions of the existing structure, all while continuing to host events during the 26-month construction process.
"To see what we've been promising customers come to fruition is really exciting," said Casandra Matej, CVB executive director.
The so-called "transformation" involved advanced design and state-of-the-art technology to deliver a modern, competitive exhibition and meeting space for the Convention Center's growing customer base. Now that exhibitor space has increased by more than 20% for a total of 514,000 square feet, the CVB can attract larger, higher-tier conferences, Matej said.
With that, a 25% increase in tax revenues is expected.
"Building on our rapidly growing downtown and vibrant culture, the transformation of the Center was focused on flexibility, connectivity, and the creation of the unique experience of San Antonio," said Michael Sawaya, executive director of Convention & Sports Facilities. "The new facility is immediately one of the finest in the U.S."
CVB has secured 34 new group bookings that could not have secured without the expansion, she added, which translates to at least 570,000 booked hotel nights.
A big one, one that will require the full use of the facilities, is the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four Basketball Championship.
"Not only did they want us to do changes at the Alamodome, but they wouldn't have been able to fit all their other events had we not had this transformation," Matej said.
The new facility has attracted new customers, but another function of the expansion is to retain the existing organizations that use the space for conferences and annual meetings that were on the verge of getting to big for San Antonio like the Breast Cancer Symposium, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, Distributech, American Assoc of Pharmaceutical Scientist, and others.
"We want to be able to grow with them," Matej said.
*Top image: A large curtain drops to reveal "Liquid Crystal," a public art installation by Jason Bruges in the center of the Henry B. Gonzalez's atrium lobby. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.