By Bill O’Neil
After weeks of debate, the San Antonio City Council makes a decision on who will be providing cruises along the River Walk.
The verdict: Council has chosen a more local bid–despite a higher score being assigned to a bid from an out of twon company.
“They’ve demonstrated in other cities in which they operate a strong commitment to be a good community partner” Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras said, insisting San Antonio River Cruises is the best fit for the Alamo City over the other finalist Go Rio San Antonio, led by Landry’s and former Texas Secretary of State and current VIA Board Chair Hope Andrade.
“They have a unique ability to leverage their database of more than 2.5 million guests that cruised with them in the other markets in which they operate in order to promote San Antonio and the upcoming Tricentennial” Contreras said.
But the debate was far from over.
“I believe that when all is said and done, to choose to ignore our local preference… when all factors seem to indicate that they work as we designed them would not only set a dangerous precedent–but also sends a contradictory message” Mayor Ivy Taylor said in explaining why she backed the Go Rio San Antonio bid.
Many critics were quite unhappy with the recommendation to go with the Chicago-based firm behind San Antonio River Cruises.
“We tell our kids you can do anything you want… but you have to be given that opportunity” said LULAC’s Henry Rodriguez.
“We are local. My business partner and I… Lisa Wong… we are life-long residents (of San Antonio” Andrade said, adding “We not only know, but we also understand why the River Walk is indeed the crown jewel of our beautiful city.”
The man in charge of the Chicago-based company however insisted his company is committed to serving local communities.
“Over 40% of the value of this RFP through our bid is already contracted to go to small, local, minority or women-owned businesses” Paul Sanett said.
But Councilman Joe Krier said his own research–thanks to Google–of Sanett’s company brought him some red flags.
“You will find I’m sure a number of favorable things… but, you will also find boat operator fails to meet financial targets” Krier said, pointing to the company shutting down operations in recent years in Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale.
One by one, Council Members seemed to line up behind the Go Rio bid. But there was also talk of room for improvement too.
“We do not want to see a commercialization… I would recommend highly against the idea or concept of mascots” Councilman Rey Saldana said.
Sanet’s company’s bid included a dining component, complete with a commissary. Chef Johnny Hernandez was a key piece to that portion of the bid.
“What I saw in Chicago was a company that demonstrated leadership. They had employees that appreciated working for them. They worked for them for fifteen, twenty years… I was amazed” Hernandez said.
Other local restaurant operators however voiced their support for Go Rio San Antonio.
“It’s called staying power… and it’s people who have dedicated their lives to this community” Jim’s Restaurants Chief Jimmy Hasslocher said.
Hernandez stood firm on his belief San Antonio River Cruises is the best fit.
“You know the commitment I have made to our community, and I want you to hold me accountable” Hernandez said.
“Johnny is internationally known as being a San Antonian. That’s the kind of experience we want to have” Councilman Ron Nirenberg said, the only Council Member to throw his support behind the Chicago company’s bid.
Others didn’t like either of the two final options, making a late pitch for Buena Vista Barges, another fully locally-based bidder bringing a major tech component to their bid.
“A team that will put their whole heart in to making this successful because they care about our City… not just the bottom line” Patricia Benson told City Council.
One of five overall bidders, Buena Vista did not place in the top two when ranked by City Staff–and was not invited to present their bid to City Council.
“We kind of do send some mixed signals in local participation when you can argue that Buena Vista is probably the most local (bid)… bid didn’t have a chance to present in front of the full Council” Councilman Cris Medina said.
The man at the top of the outgoing Rio San Antonio Cruises didn’t ask the Council to reconsider–but did urge Members to think about what local means in awarding the next contract.
“We have farmed out the design of this boat, we have famed out the production of this boat, and now we’re getting ready to consider farming out the operation of this boat” Pat Boone said.
Boone expressed his surprise at all of the attention being paid to the contract, for what he believes will be a relatively small pot of cash when all is said and done.
“Another little secret… the dinner barges are not profitable” Boone added.