Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The digital face of San Antonio's Tricentennial will get a much-needed upgrade as early as Monday, according to officials and designers – a facelift that could represent a fresh start under new leadership for the troubled Tricentennial Commission.
But the story of how the current website evolved contains familiar challenges of mismanagement from the previous regime, including a restrictive budget for the site's initial design and arguably insufficient resources for its upkeep.
The new website for San Antonio's 300th anniversary, www.sanantonio300.org, is pending final touches and approval from the commission, which will review it on Friday, interim Executive Director Carlos Contreras told the Rivard Report. If all goes well, it will go live on Monday, he said.
"We asked Tribu to come in and improve the look and interactivity," Contreras said. Tribu is a local web design firm, founded in 2011, that has worked on public projects including the SASpeakUp budget input campaign. It also manages social media for Tricentennial.
The decision to revamp the website, which has a bright pink theme with a traditional layout, came before the City named Contreras, an assistant city manager, to lead the Tricentennial in November, he said.
The website will be just the latest change under Contreras' leadership. After Edward Benavides resigned as head of the Tricentennial amid concerns about the local government corporation's operations, Contreras stepped in and two commission chairs stepped out. On Thursday, City Council, which founded the Tricentennial Commission in 2015, appointed two new chairs.
"Our focus is looking forward," Contreras said, adding that his role was mainly to accelerate delivery of the new website. "The intent of the office was to revise the website as we got closer to the event … but frankly we should have done this sooner."
After hearing criticism and reviewing other websites, such as the New Orleans Tricentennial website, Contreras said he was "struck by the lack of content" and opportunities to improve San Antonio's.
"[The current website is] kinda clumsy and it's not easy to switch back and forth [to navigate] or access the calendar," he said, adding that the calendar is one of the most important features. The celebration will kick off on New Year's Eve, Contreras said, but more than 700 official events centered around history, arts and culture, education, and volunteerism will play out throughout the year.
One new website feature? A calendar with an enhanced capability to allow users to search for events or volunteer opportunities based on location or interest. "What are the events that are happening in my neighborhood?" Contreras asked.
This website should be able to provide that, he said, adding that at first the calendar will focus on events scheduled during the first quarter of 2018, with more events added as the year progresses.
In October 2015, a few firms submitted proposals to do marketing and design work for the Tricentennial. Webhead, a San Antonio web design company, teamed up as a web design subcontractor with KGB Texas, which won the overall marketing bid.
But the commission didn't have enough money for the website piece, Webhead CEO Janie Gonzalez said, recalling that Benavides informed her that the "budget’s really tight" and they'll try doing the website "in-house."
In June this year, the Rivard Report discovered a similar situation when Maverick Music Festival won a bid to produce an official Tricentennial music festival. The contract and the festival were dropped because the commission couldn't afford the $1.2 million contract.
Eventually the original www.sanantonio300.org was designed by City staff in the Information Technology Services Department.
Webhead was then hired at a heavily discounted rate of $12,500 to address several design and functionality issues, Gonzalez said. "This included several functional components and technical expectations to be completed within an aggressive timeline."
Webhead had proposed an upgrade for twice that amount, but the commission couldn't afford it.
But there was "no sincere effort" to professionally maintain the site, Gonzalez said. Tricentennial staff made changes to the site, and leadership declined to hire Webhead for maintenance support despite repeated efforts to inform Tricentennial staff of glitches and required updates.
“The previous leadership did not leverage the small-business support that they had available for web support technology,” Gonzalez said.
Since Contreras took over, he has made it clear that the Tricentennial staff will have increased transparency and enhanced communication with the commission, City Council, Bexar County, companies it contracts with, and the public.
Contreras declined to comment on either how the previous site was managed – since the new site was initiated before he started as executive director – or why Tribu was selected for the redesign. He said he only recently found out that Webhead had designed the previous version.
"I know Webhead as a company and Janie in particular. My interactions with them have always been very good,” Contreras said. "The responsibility for the condition of this website lies solely with this [Tricentennial] office."
Other sources close to the project confirmed that the main issue was not with design or the performance of Webhead, rather the lack of funding and communication from the Tricentennial and its staff.
That's where Vanessa Lacoss Hurd comes in.
The former DoSeum CEO is working as a consultant for the Tricentennial – though she prefers to be called a "helper," Hurd told the Rivard Report.
Hurd has been tasked with overseeing the website and ensuring that feedback received regarding content, design, and functionality are addressed for a "dramatically improved product," she said.
She's confident in Tribu's abilities. "They're at a point of organizational development where they are very eager to get to work and hit it out of the park," Hurd said.
There will be room in the budget for professional website maintenance for throughout 2018 and beyond, she said. "There’s no doubt that we need to dedicate resources toward that capacity whether they be in-house or contract."
The contract with Tribu is likely more than what Webhead was paid, Hurd said. Details regarding how much the new site cost could not be provided before deadline.
"The tricentennial is a wonderful opportunity for our city and it’s a very complex undertaking and we’re really not interested in criticizing, in any way, past efforts," she said, echoing Contreras. "We’re focused on moving forward."
Once commission members have a chance to review the website and provide feedback, some tweaks might need to be made to the design.
"At the end of the day I’m glad that the city is moving forward and hired a local, woman-owned firm, Gonzalez said, "it’s unfortunate that Webhead was not afforded the opportunity to continue be part of a significant event, even after the initial investment to sustain the site."
Sarah Helmy, CEO of Tribu, said the new homepage has more movement and from "a function perspective we’re adding in a lot more information.”
Helmy and her team like to create "living and breathing websites,” she said, adding that she expects the site will last long after 2018 has gone. "We built it to consider that."
Asked if the new site will be pink, she said: “We are following the brand standards guide of the SA 300 mark as chosen by the commission.”
One of the biggest changes will be the calendar functionality and the "mega menu" for navigation, which will allow users to more easily select what kind of information they want to see.
"There is a pretty intuitive architecture on this site," Helmy said.