Centro Partnership: Trickle Down(town) Economics

By Enrique Lopetegui

[email protected]

Update on 1/25/10: Pat DiGiovanni on potential City parking job losses.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, the City Council approved a resolution of support greenlighting the incorporation of Centro Partnership, a public-private non-profit umbrella corporation that would oversee the Downtown Alliance (advocacy and marketing), Centro San Antonio (operations and maintenance) and the Community Development Corporation (real-estate acquisition) in order to turn San Antonio's downtown area into, according to the June 2009 proposal, “a new model other cities may seek to copy for years to come,”

Despite a few reservations on the part of some council-members (District 10 councilman John G. Clamp drilled deputy city manager Pat DiGiovanni on funding, and District 9 councilwoman Elisa Chan wants more City involvement in the Centro's bylaws and governance), the Centro's proponents were able to convince the Council that this was a good idea that, in the words of DiGiovanni, will correct the fact that the downtown area “has no key person or entity to go to.”

“The Centro will have a tremendous impact on surrounding areas,” DiGiovanni said, in what the QueBlog calls the “trickle Downtown effect”: Pour money into Downtown, and everybody else will shine.

“Downtown is a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces, but we're missing some pieces,” said David Freehan, president of Civitas Consultants LLC, who was contracted by the city in January 2009 to expand on recommendations made by the International Downtown Association Advisory Panel, which met in San Antonio in May 2008. “We need a system that will find these pieces.”

The planned Centro Partnership is a 501(c)(6) non-profit corporation that would manage, market, and maintain downtown's public spaces and economic development. It would be headed by a CEO, but its ultimate authority will rest in a board of directors, with the public sector represented by the Mayor, City Manager, Bexar County judge and a representative selected by the City Council.

Among other organizations, the Centro is endorsed by the Frost Bank, the Greater Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation and the Tourism Council.

However, at Thursday's Council meeting, GOP tie-wearing local conservative —— and perennial presence at the Council chamber —— Jack M. Finger expressed his skepticism.

“Good day, sirsâ?¦ It's a good day to be an American,” he said, “especially if you're a Republican, he-heâ?¦” The council sat stone-faced, and Finger proceeded to show them handwritten signs reading HemisFair '68, Urban Renewal '70, Target '90, and CRAG (Community Reinvestment Action Group), all, in his opinion, high-profile initiatives of the past that didn't do jack for San Antonio.

“We've been through this before, and nothing was accomplished,” he told the Council. “Now we're going down the same road.”

Although it is not clear what impact the Centro will have on small business owners, its immediate impact might soon be felt by the city's parking-lot attendants. Under the new plan, all municipal parking systems will be under the Centro's control, and there are no guarantees that the current lot attendants will keep their jobs.

“Nothing has happened `yet`, and we will continue to communicate with `the Council`,” said DiGiovanni, after District 7 councilman Justin Rodríguez asked him about a memo the councilman received talking about a “possible reorganization” of the parking system.

“I hope we don't lose any employees, and whatever shrinkage `there is` comes from elsewhere in the system,” said District 3 councilwoman Jennifer V. Ramos.

“Details to come, Councilwoman,” replied DiGiovanni.

During lunch recess, the QueBlog decided to visit a nearby city parking lot, where a man and two young women employees were talking. After introducing ourselves, upon the sole mention of “Centro Partnership” they looked at each other, smiled, and the women took off in different directions.

“They're scared shitless,” said the man, who wanted to remain anonymous (we'll call him “Deep Lot”). “Wouldn't you be if you didn't know how much longer you're going to work? But come with me, I want to show you something. Let me take you on a merry path.”

He pulled out a couple of printouts from his pocket, the first one being an agenda for an October 9, 2009, Centro presentation by Freehan before the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation at the Hilton Pavilion, which he attended.

“`The City` is trying to take over the parking division to raise money to do other things, like acquiring land, which otherwise it would be much harder for them to do,” Deep Lot said. “As one of the Council members said before, it is a complex mess of many layers, and the more layers you put in, the harder it is for anyone to track down what they do.”

He was probably referring to Chan. According to an Express-News report from September 25, 2009, at that point she thought that, “rather than streamlining the city's downtown plan, `it` would merely add another layer of bureaucracy and introduce more organizational confusion.” She now supports the project.

“The reason why `Chan` went along with it was because the `Centro's` bylaws were amended,” Jeff Bazan, director of communications for Chan, told the QueBlog. “Part of those amendments included adding the chairman of the Economic `and Community` Development Committee and all four of the members of the ECDC on the board of the Centro.”

Deep Lot said the parking-lot attendants are well aware that their jobs may be at risk, but few want to talk about it.

“You knowâ?¦ If you look for another job, nobody wants the City to speak badly about you,” he said. “They say they'll find us jobs in another City position, but nobody is guaranteeing anything. We're expendable, because our `parking division` is the ugly step-child of the city.”

Then he said, “Let me guess: The `City Council` vote `approving the Centro` was unanimous, wasn't it?” It was, we tell him. “Of course! It'd be political suicide if they don't vote the same thing. Look who's on the board `Mayor Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, among others`!”

On January 20 (a day before the council meeting), Director of Downtown Operations Paula X. Stallcup sent an intradepartmental correspondence to the parking division employees, with a copy to DiGiovanni. That's the memo Rodríguez talked about at Thursday's Council meeting.

“Open communication with our staff is a top priority, and this letter serves to communicate with you directly about potential changes in our department,” the memo reads. “As you know, the City of San Antonio has been working with a consultant to create the Centro Partnership, a new organization charged with leading redevelopment efforts of downtown. On January 21, 2010, the City Council will be considering a resolution to support the concept of the Centro Partnership. Because the parking system is an integral part of downtown, it has been recommended that the city considers transitioning the parking system to this new organization. The city will be studying and evaluating this potential transition in order to determine how we will move forward. Please remember that the city has always made an effort to continue employment of affected individuals. The council's consideration on January 21 is a resolution supporting the concept of Centro Partnership. Through additional studies we will be able to determine how the parking system will be affected. We appreciate your continued hard work to create a positive experience for our downtown patrons. We will keep you informed as further decisions are made.”

“What does this sound like to you?” Deep Lot asks. “A warning,” I say. “No, they're making it sound like they're helping us, but really, she works for the City and she was representing the City in that `Oct. 9` meeting. So they make it sound like they're trying to help us, butâ?¦ If they want to fire us because we're not doing our jobs well, that's fine. But don't fire me just because that's how they do it in the big cities.”

As I leave, the woman who “escaped” from the QueBlog earlier collects for my parking ticket and says, “Hmmmâ?¦ You're still here?”

I pay, and ask her, in passing, “You're not too much into the Centro Partnership idea, are you?”

“No,” she says, “but what can you do? Whatever they decide, they decide, and we have to go along with it.”

Councilmen Rodríguez and Clamp, neither of whom knew anything about potential job losses until Wednesday (Rodríguez) and Thursday (Clamp), offer a tiny ray of hope.

“I wouldn't necessarily call it a deal breaker,” Rodríguez told the QueBlog Friday, “but we directed staff to bring that back to us for further discussion. The two main issues are governance, whether authority is taken away from City Council, and the well-being of the employees. There's a commitment, at least in theory, that the City never had to layoff employees. So we'll continue to talk about that.”

“I'm concerned that the `parking` workers are going to be displaced,” Clamp told the QueBlog Friday. “I didn't even think about the workers until yesterday, because I just assumed that they were going to go over to the new partnership. But we only voted for a resolution to incorporate the partnership. They have no funding yet. They're just a paper entity and we still have several concerns. Do I buy into the notion that the City will offer `City parking lot attendants` other jobs within the city? Yes. I'm just not so sure as to whether the jobs will be good or bad.”

Or whether there will be enough of them, but deputy city manager DiGiovanni stands by the city's track record.

"First of all, no one's losing their jobs," Di Giovanni told the QueBlog on January 25. "The City's pledge in the past has been that, if we do these kinds of transitions, nobody loses their jobs. I would suspect this will be the case in the future. There's no danger, if you will, of anyone losing their jobs. We had a no-layoffs policy for ages here.

"What I'm talking about is absorbing them into the rest of the organization, and giving them jobs that are comparable to what they're being paid right now. We're not talking about them going with the `new` parking system. They will have an option like that available to them, just like we did with the golf employees, but no one took us up on that offer. When they were offered the opportunity to go with a new golf organization, they refused to go and the City found them all jobs within the city organization, so no one lost their jobs, and no one lost pay. That's exactly the scenario that we will be looking for with the parking system."

OK, so they may not lose their job, but they may lose that particular job, right?

"Yes," DiGiovanni said. "But we're getting the car way before the horse here."


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