Scott Ball and Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report
A day after San Antonio City officials chose not to bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention, the presidents of two local chambers of commerce cited political strategy and economics as the respective reasons they remained silent about the contentious issue.
The head of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce blamed lobbying fatigue, saying his organization chose to "keep our powder dry" for future political fights. The leader of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said his group was unconvinced that promised economic gains outweighed the potential costs of hosting the Republican gathering.
"My reading of the tea leaves [at the time] was such that I didn’t think the council would be embracing this opportunity," said Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "That means we'd have to push them really hard to embrace it. My recommendation to the leadership here at the chamber was that we should keep our powder dry, and that’s what we did."
Other business community leaders, however, lamented what they called a missed opportunity and criticized City Council for holding its discussions behind closed doors.
"We’ve got so much going for this city," said Henry Feldman, who owns a La Quinta Inn & Suites Convention Center in northwest San Antonio. He said that hosting a national political convention would have been an even bigger catch for the city's hotel industry than the recent NCAA Final Four basketball tournament.
"This was a great opportunity to show it off and we blew it," Feldman said.
Perez, whose chamber represents the greater San Antonio area, said his board of directors accepted his recommendation that they not pressure City officials to submit a convention hosting bid. The decision, he said, was tactical.
He was among several civic and business leaders in a closed meeting March 23 when three representatives of the Republican National Committee, including Massachusetts National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, made a presentation on the bid process. They informed participants that San Antonio met minimum requirements to bid given considerations such as its numbers of hotel rooms, airport capacity, and having an appropriate convention venue.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg led the meeting, which included former Mayor Phil Hardberger, directors of several other business associations, but none of the other City Council members.
Perez said that in the month and a half before the March 23 meeting, his chamber had lobbied City officials aggressively on another issue – a proposed labor peace agreement that would have allowed unionizing efforts among concessionaires at the San Antonio International Airport.
So when Perez observed what he considered a tepid reception to the RNC's convention presentation, he decided the chamber shouldn't fight to submit a bid.
Perez added that he has no doubt of what the city stood to gain by hosting the convention, but he believes that taking a bye on the RNC bid doesn't preclude bidding to host future political conventions.
"I think there has to be a coordination between the political will [on the Council] and the business community," he said. "We should have started there as opposed to getting thrust into it."
Consideration of a bid for the convention appeared dead after the March meeting. Only after President Donald Trump's 2020 re-election campaign manager, Brad Parscale – who has strong ties to San Antonio – launched a Twitter invective against Nirenberg did business community leaders begin to press the City Council to take action.
Four local business leaders vowed on Tuesday to raise $60 million to $65 million to launch a bipartisan bid to host the convention. Historically, the host city and county have each contributed between $2 million and $3 million to the overall cost of the convention, they wrote in a letter to Council. The rest of the funds, they said, would have come from the private sector.
In a separate letter of support for a convention bid, a coalition of 14 business and industry leaders urged City Council to make a good-faith effort to host the GOP gathering.
Several business community leaders who spoke to the Rivard Report on Friday said they were disappointed that the San Antonio and the Hispanic chambers did not wield their outsize influence to sway the Council toward at least submitting a bid.
But officials at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce were not convinced about the touted economic benefits, CEO and President Ramiro Cavazos said.
"We did not stay neutral so much as we felt it was not up to us to make a recommendation," Cavazos said. "Although it was clear the numbers didn’t work."
Cavazos, who previously directed the City's economic development department, said a three- or four-day convention would not deliver the long-term economic benefits to justify committing public funds to it.
After an hours-long closed executive session Thursday afternoon, Nirenberg announced the City would not submit a bid to host the convention. The Council weighed the financial package it would take and declined to go forward with a bid, which would have required a public discussion and vote later.
Nirenberg said that because the discussion involved a competitive economic development opportunity, it met one of the exceptions under the Texas Open Meetings Act. Thus, he said, the Council considered the item in closed executive session.
Cavazos, who was involved in the private negotiations to bring a Toyota manufacturing plant to San Antonio, said the Council's handling of the RNC bid deliberation was "done the right way."
But Cristina Aldrete, executive vice president of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said she was disappointed the Council did not allow the merits of a bid to be discussed and debated in a public forum.
"To not even have that chance is very regrettable," she said.
Marco Barros, who heads the San Antonio Tourism Council, said Friday that "disappointment" was a word he'd heard repeatedly since the announcement, including at the Tricentennial Founders' Day gala Thursday night as San Antonio celebrated its 300th anniversary.
Barros said misinformation has been spread about the effect that hosting the Republican convention would have on Mexican tourism in South Texas. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and other area leaders have said that cities such as McAllen have experienced radical decline in sales tax revenue – a trend Treviño blamed on opposition to Trump's proposed border wall, his threat to end the North American Free Trade Agreement, and his immigration policies.
But Barros disagreed, attributing the decline in tourism dollars from Mexico to a devalued Mexican peso, which fell in 2017 but is on a gradual uptick.
"I think a lot of the decisions made were very irrational and without facts," Barros said. "They were political issues."
Justin Holley, who sits on the board of the San Antonio tourism organization Visit San Antonio, said the city missed out on rich opportunity to draw revenue for the local hotel industry during the typically off-month of July, and during a year in which conventions are on the decline nationally.
"This was $200 million in economic impact, and we have [no conventions] on the books" during that time, Holley said, who owns seven hotels in San Antonio and in south central Texas.