CityScrapes: Ex-San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley pushing another convention center project

Given her San Antonio track record, Sculley's enthusiasm for a $1.2 billion-plus convention center expansion in Austin isn't surprising — it's just par for the course.

click to enlarge Sculley's enthusiasm for big downtown projects, and perhaps her brutal honesty as well, are rooted in a long personal history. - Courtesy Photo / City of San Antonio
Courtesy Photo / City of San Antonio
Sculley's enthusiasm for big downtown projects, and perhaps her brutal honesty as well, are rooted in a long personal history.

For Current readers who wonder whatever became of former San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, she appears to be pleasantly ensconced in Austin, offering advice.

Her name came up as nonprofit news organization the Austin Monitor recently reported on a session organized by that city's chapter of the Urban Land Institute, the national organization of developers and real estate types. The topic? A proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center. This expansion isn't a modest proposition either — it bears an estimated price tag between $1.2 and $1.5 billion and would involve literally tearing down and rebuilding the city's existing venue. Bigger, of course.

Despite the challenges ahead, the ULI panelists were entirely upbeat and enthusiastic about the city's prospects, the Austin Monitor reports. Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Austin, argued that the city's existing center ranked just 48th-largest in the nation, "putting it well behind facilities in smaller and less economically active cities." And Noonan went on to contend that the resulting boom in hotel business and city hotel tax revenue would benefit local arts groups and the larger community — a way "to fund the things Austinites love."

For Sculley the promise of a far bigger convention center would go well beyond just more conventions and visitors, according to the report. During the session, she stressed 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 met a city that was great at retail, and so there would have to be experts that would assist the city in any kind of private-sector development associated with the project," she said.

Sculley's enthusiasm for big downtown projects, and perhaps her brutal honesty as well, are rooted in a long personal history. Well before she arrived in San Antonio, she built her reputation as a manager by heading up the effort to expand Phoenix's convention center in the late 1990s. Her promises, in memo after memo, were grand.

City staffers argued that the existing center only ranked 60th-largest in the county even though Phoenix was the sixth largest city. A consultant study promised that a larger venue would boost the city's convention business by 50% to 75%. Over and over, Sculley stressed that the expansion would involve no new taxes. Instead, it could be paid for with existing visitor taxes and a potential $300 million commitment from the state.

Sculley did much of the pitching to the Arizona Legislature herself, armed with a 2002 presentation that stressed "There is No Status Quo!" At stake were "$32 million in annual state tax revenues" and "12,000 jobs," according to her presentation. It proved enough to get the state government to commit $300 million to the project.

But a tripled-in-size convention center simply couldn't stand alone. What Phoenix also needed, just like San Antonio, was a 1,000-room hotel next door.

The effort to get a private developer to build the big new "headquarters hotel" proved just as fruitless in Phoenix and as it did in San Antonio. So, Phoenix financed and built the new

Sheraton-branded hotel itself with a city bond issue. Clearly, under Sculley's guidance, the city was poised to emerge as the next great convention destination in the country.

Except that it didn't.

A final study from Ernst & Young in 2003 forecast that the grand new center would welcome 376,861 annual convention delegates, up from the 166,000 of 1996 and 193,000 in 1997. But the count of convention attendees was just 156,000 in fiscal 2011 and 233,000 the next year.

Without a boom in convention business, the new Sheraton — later dubbed the "Sherylton" by city hall staffers in San Antonio — struggled to pay off its debt and required continuing tax revenue support from the city.

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

The Phoenix experience did little to reshape public policy in San Antonio after Sculley's arrival as city manager in 2005.

Armed with a bunch of consultant studies, Mayor Julián Castro's push for the "Decade of Downtown" and the renewal of Hemisfair, San Antonio sold $550 million in bonds in 2012 to fund yet another 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 par for the course.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have questions. Do city manager types learn from the success, or failure, of the projects they supported and promoted? Is there any way to hold them accountable for the grand promises — such as Phoenix's 12,000 jobs — that aren't realized?

And, ultimately, who do they really serve? Is it the broad community of city residents and taxpayers? Or is it a narrow constituency of developers, downtown property owners and hospitality industry boosters, all in search of the next grand public project?

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

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