CityScrapes: Ex-San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley Pushes Another Convention Center Project | San Antonio News | San Antonio


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Courtesy Photo / City of San Antonio

Sculley’s enthusiasm for big downtown projects, and perhaps also his brutal honesty, are rooted in a long personal history.

For Running readers wondering what happened to former San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, she seems to be comfortably settled in Austin, offering advice.

His name emerged as the nonprofit Austin Monitor news organization recently reported on a session hosted by that city’s chapter of the Urban Land Institute, the national organization of real estate developers and types. The subject? An expansion project for the Austin Convention Center. This expansion isn’t a modest proposition either – it costs between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion and would literally involve tearing down and rebuilding the city’s existing site. Bigger, of course.

Despite the challenges ahead, ULI panelists were entirely optimistic and excited about the city’s prospects, Austin Monitor reports. Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Austin, argued that the city’s existing center ranked only 48th in the nation, “putting it well behind facilities in smaller, less economically active cities.” . And Noonan went on to say that the resulting boom in hospitality and the city’s hotel tax revenue would benefit local arts groups and the wider community – a way to “fund the things Austinians love.” “.

For Sculley, the promise of a much bigger convention center would go far beyond just more convention and visitors, according to the report. During the session, she emphasized the “public-private partnership” component of the expansion and its potential for substantial new private development downtown.

“If I can be brutally honest, I haven’t come across a city that was great at retail, so there would have to be experts there who would help the city with any kind of private sector development associated with the project,” she said. .

Sculley’s enthusiasm for big downtown projects, and perhaps also his brutal honesty, are rooted in a long personal history. Long before she arrived in San Antonio, she built her reputation as a manager leading the Phoenix Convention Center expansion effort in the late 1990s. Her promises, memo after memo, were grand.

City employees argued that the existing center ranked only 60th in the county, even though Phoenix was the sixth largest city. A consultant study promised that a larger site would increase the city’s convention activity by 50% to 75%. Time and time again, Sculley stressed that the expansion would not involve any new taxes. Instead, it could be paid for with existing resort taxes and a potential $300 million commitment from the state.

Sculley made much of the presentation to the Arizona Legislative Assembly herself, armed with a 2002 presentation that emphasized “There is no status quo!” At stake was “$32 million in annual state tax revenue” and “12,000 jobs,” according to his presentation. This proved to be enough to cause the state government to commit $300 million to the project.

But a triple convention center just couldn’t stand alone. What Phoenix also needed, as did San Antonio, was a 1,000-room hotel right next door.

The effort to get a private developer to build the grand new “headquarters hotel” proved just as unsuccessful in Phoenix as it was in San Antonio. So Phoenix financed and built the new

Sheraton branded hotel itself with a city bond issue. Clearly, under Sculley’s leadership, the city was poised to become the nation’s next big convention destination.

Except no.

A final Ernst & Young study in 2003 projected that the large new center would host 376,861 annual convention delegates, up from 166,000 in 1996 and 193,000 in 1997. But convention attendance was only 156,000 at the time. during the 2011 financial year and 233,000 the following year. .

Without a congressional business boom, the new Sheraton—later dubbed the “Sherylton” by San Antonio City Hall employees—struggled to service its debt and required continued support from the city’s tax revenues.

Finally, in 2017, Phoenix sold the Sherylton to a private owner, incurring a significant financial loss.

The Phoenix experience did little to reshape public policy in San Antonio after Sculley took over as city manager in 2005.

Armed with a slew of consultancy studies, Mayor Julián Castro’s push for the “Downtown Decade,” and Hemisfair renewal, San Antonio sold $550 million in bonds in 2012 to fund a further expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

In other words, Sheryl Sculley’s enthusiasm for a $1.2 billion-plus convention center expansion in Austin isn’t surprising — it’s just normal.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have questions. Do types of municipal managers learn from the success or failure of the projects they have supported and promoted? Is there a way to hold them accountable for big promises – like Phoenix’s 12,000 jobs – that don’t happen?

And, ultimately, who are they really for? Is it the vast community of city residents and taxpayers? Or is it a select constituency of developers, downtown real estate owners and hotel industry developers, all looking for the next big public project?

Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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