Big Tex bailout, columnist dropout

Rock collection

No good deed goes unpunished, and so the bill for the cleanup at the Big Tex site just south of downtown came due last spring — but it has yet to be paid, leaving the scenic plot in development limbo. Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency removed 1,200 cubic yards of dirt contaminated with asbestos from the Libby, Montana, Superfund site created by repeat enviro-offender W.R. Grace. Grace processed asbestos-laden vermiculite from Libby at more than 200 sites nationwide, including Big Tex. `Search keyword “Big Tex” at, for a slew of articles on this saga.`

A flood of claims related to the asbestos contamination prompted the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001. But Grace is back in the black now, thanks in part to a verdict earlier this year that cleared it of criminal wrongdoing in Libby. So, it’s one of several — and QueQue would say the most culpable — parties from whom the EPA can collect Big Tex’s rumored $2.5 million in remediation fees. That doesn’t mean Grace will foot the bill, though.

Even though current owner James Lifshutz had nothing to do with the original contamination, federal law also makes him a Potentially Responsible Party and allows the EPA to put a lien on the property until the debt is satisfied. But Lifshutz says that if he is stuck with the bill, it could prevent his planned redevelopment of the site. “There is always a financing gap to make a deal happen,” in inner-city San Antonio, Lifshutz said. “Collecting from me would widen the gap. ... So I fear it would prevent me from improving the site”

The lot, adjacent to the Blue Star Arts Complex on the banks of the river just across from King William’s historic manses, is slated for apartments and retail, plus the new, permanent home of the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, which is also on hold till the remediation cost is resolved.

EPA’s list of potential debtors also includes G. Richard Galloway, the man who sold Big Tex to Lifshutz without, Lifshutz says, so much as a whisper about its dirty past. “I wouldn’t have bought the property if I knew it had a problem of this magnitude,” Lifshutz said. The EPA sent letters to Lifshutz and Galloway in 2006 and 2007, notifying them of their potential liability, but Lifshutz said, “I’m hopeful that they will recover from the polluters, and if not from the polluters, then from the `former` landlord.”

Citing the delicacy of the negotiations, EPA is mum on details, including when and how they expect to resolve the outstanding billing, but spokesperson Dave Bary indicated that the amount may be negotiable, and confirmed that the agency is also pursuing W.R. Grace. “Yes, they’re a responsible party,” he said, “but we’re in separate negotiations with them.”

Does $2.5 million sound like a lot of cash for a dig-and-dump operation? EPA Onsite Coordinator Eric Delgado, who oversaw the cleanup and gives Big Tex a clean bill of health, says the final tally includes EPA’s entire involvement, from the initial investigation through the last shovelful of dirt.

Good Saint Nicolas

Wondering who would want to take on the Alameda, the Latino-culture organization responsible for funding and managing the struggling Museo Alameda, the renovation-challenged Alameda Theater, and a new partnership with the Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School of Art & Design? This is San Anto, folks, so naturally an heir to our peculiar history was smitten with the challenge: Guillermo Nicolas, a prominent arts philanthropist whose grandfather booked touring acts from Mexico at the Alameda in its 1940s and ’50s glory days.

“You’ve got basically three designer brands,” Nicolas says of the Alameda’s branches. “As the seventh-largest city, we need to make sure the city knows we have a national organization here.”

In keeping with the recommendations of the Alameda’s grandly named Committee for the Future, the job was expanded to fit Nicolas’s profile and the organization’s needs. He’ll serve as the President and CEO of the Alameda umbrella, and only temporarily as the Museo’s Director. “My strengths are in fundraising and running a business, and running it well,” he says. “I would like to get us in physical and fiscal shape.” Once the Museo’s finances are in order, the board will hire a museum director, curator, and other staff as needed.

Although he is also the scion of a locally influential family, Nicolas’s style is markedly different from his predecessor, love-him/hate-him Alameda founder Henry Muñoz, who favors tightly tailored suits, flashy ties, and a subtle imperiousness shellacked with charm. Nicolas (who has nothing but praise for Muñoz), tends to sport all-black Texas business casual, and has what can only be described as an infectiously sweet enthusiasm. Out with the king, in with the diplomat?

Nicolas is also a member of the city’s new public art board, and like Muñoz before him, he’s pulling double duty as the main fundraiser for Luminaria 2010, the annual city-wide art festival. But Nicolas says he likes his plate full. All of those activities, he says, and “that wasn’t enough!”

The executive team at the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, where Nicolas is the immediate past board president, believes he’s up to the task. “We love Guillermo, he’s amazing,” says President and CEO Kaye Lenox. “He has the vision, but also the ability to know how to get there.”

Nicolas is quick to point out that while his résumé may look “schizophrenic,” a theme runs through his stints in retail, television retail, real estate, and philanthropy: “In each one, I either built a business or came in and cleaned it up and got it running correctly.” Two key lessons he’ll be bringing to his new job will be music to the ears of the Office of Cultural Affairs and local arts organizations who’ve had to compete with the politically aggressive Muñoz. “Diplomacy goes a long way,” Nicolas says. “Also transparency.”

Confidence in the Alameda’s new leadership, including Board Chair Margarita Flores, may have played a part in the Cultural Arts Board’s decision to give the Alameda the full $360,000 second installment in its current two-year funding award from the City. The QueQue reported August 26 that Cultural Arts Board Chair Nelson Balido was frustrated with a lack of transparency and accountability at the Museo, which had to ask donors to step up pledges this summer to avoid defaulting on payroll, and wondered whether they were being good stewards of the public’s tax dollars. But those concerns have apparently been addressed to CAB’s satisfaction.

“We’re finding a solution where both parties feel confident moving forward together,” said Felix Padrón, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the City’s arts-funding process.

Some of the steps the Museo will take to stabilize its finances include bringing back admission fees, at least for a short time, said Flores, and working more local and regional exhibits into the show schedule. The Museo’s sustainability plan also includes increasing earned revenue from rentals, gift-shop sales, and membership. A survey of museums revealed an earned-income average of 15-19 percent, said Flores, while at the Museo it was less than 1 percent. Nicolas and Flores will also work on building the Alameda’s board. “We need to get a good balance of check writers and worker bees,” Nicolas said.

Nom de Guerra

The Express-News’ last fighting columnist laid down his pen Saturday, leaving a hole in the daily’s commentary that can’t be filled by Scott “the great equivocator” Stroud (our favorite Stroud reasoning to date: Two new nuclear reactors are going to be built at the South Texas Project anyway, so SA may as well buy in. We’re gifting him a copy of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem).

Carlos Guerra’s departure, as you might guess, is not up for elucidation, but the QueQue suspects his heart wasn’t in it anymore. His previously inventive invective on immigration, aquifer preservation, and equality had given way recently to a stream of indistinguishable columns about the Camp Bullis development battle. And lord knows these are corrosive times for old-school journalists, with the threat of layoff ever-present and a cacophony of voices in the wilderness regularly decrying one’s idiocy (or worse) in the blogosphere. It used to be cool to be a journalist; now the kids all want to be new-media networkers.

Guerra didn’t follow up on the QueQue’s offer to comment non-controversially (and non-pension-threateningly) on his departure, but he dropped vague clues in his farewell. Citing an aphorism from his grandfather — “El que tiene sólo una manera de mantenerse, tendrá un dueño (The person with only one way to make a living will have an owner)” — he said, “I must now consider my own future, after having the luxury of watching my wonderful daughter grow into a confident, well-educated young woman.”

Officially, he will be missed at the E-N:

“I’ve read and watched Carlos Guerra work since his audition at the San Antonio Light in the early 1990s when this city still enjoyed two rival dailies,” wrote E-N Editor Bob Rivard in an email Friday. “Readers today might take for granted a diversity of voices and people in the columnist ranks; Carlos was a ground breaker in his day. For many years he has given voice to the voiceless. He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, so some will cheer his departure, no doubt, but many more people, I think, will miss him.”

In keeping with Rivard’s prediction, the comments on Guerra’s last column included well-wishes and curses. Our mystifying Newspeak favorite: “Honesty is no excuse for radicalism and vitriol — perhaps now our great city can move forward.” Holding back an entire city? Wow. Now that’s the power of the press.

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