Cockrell, Iacocca, & Don Carlo

Sterlin Holmesly has been helping plan this year’s
anniversary mayhem at HemisFair Park as a member of the HemisFair Committee Anniversary Board. The local writer spent 34 years in various rolling chairs and editing positions at the San Antonio Express-News, before retiring to tackle his own projects, writing, among other things, the book HemisFair ’68 and the Transformation of San Antonio.

How did the HemisFair effort come together?

Basically, the old establishment finally got over losing the State Fair to Dallas in 1936 and then put it together. It was a community-wide effort. Of course, it was a financial failure, but a long-term
success that we’re still feeling the ripples from — such as this 1,000-room Hyatt hotel that just opened we would not have had without HemisFair and the Convention Center.

What obstacles stood in front of San Antonio being selected?

The issue was getting together and then pulling off a successful world’s fair. The issues were getting it finished on time, getting it up on time, and getting it sanctioned as a world’s fair — which took some doing — there’s also a story in my book on how we got the Ford Pavilion. The argument was between Red McCombs and Lee Iacocca that was finally settled with President Johnson calling Henry Ford and explaining the importance of HemisFair to Ford Motor Company, and that broke the dam and we got enough industrial pavilions to qualify.

How did Bill Sinkin and Claude Black contribute to getting HemisFair?

Basically, they went around and integrated restaurants downtown … They very quietly did that and other businesses followed. Some private-service places such as restaurants had separate facilities for blacks. There were civil-rights issues and cities burning, but not in San Antonio.

That would have made San Antonio a safer bet, right?

A lot of the world discovered San Antonio through HemisFair. We discovered we weren’t, as Lee Iacocca put it, ‘Some damn dusty little town.’ That we had an airport, trees, and a river, and all kinds of things.

For San Antonio, it was super. Hell, I saw Jack Benny and Flip Wilson, Herb Alpert and the world’s longest opera, which opened at what is now the Cockrell Theatre. I left at intermission and it was midnight.

What opera was that?

Don Carlo. And a lot of people were going to sleep.

Of course, it brought the Convention Center. Lila Cockrell was on the City Council and she was in the group that went to New York and sold $8 million in bonds to build the Convention Center that has done a tremendous lot for the convention business.

We wouldn’t have had that. We wouldn’t have had the arena for the Spurs to come play in when they left Dallas. We wouldn’t have had the Institute for Texan Cultures. We wouldn’t have had the Tower of the Americas and all the convention and visitors and hotels that have sprung up, further development on the River Walk. There’s just a lot of spin-offs that continue today.

What do you think remains for HemisFair in the future?

As you know, HemisFair Park is under Downtown Operations … and it has no set operating budget. They’re short-funded. It needs more parking. It needs more lighting. It needs more events, more attractions. We’ve got these thousands and thousands of people who go to the Convention Center who probably aren’t even aware that it’s there, and there’s not much to lure them out there. There are no longer any restaurants or such.

The City introduced a grandiose renovation plan four years ago but did not appropriate a dime for it. And the City did not contribute to our 40th Anniversary except in personnel.

What has that cost the board?

See, we’re feeding off the Final Four. Sunday the 6th is the 40th Anniversary, and opening of the Fair is also Coca-Cola Day and the NCAA is having The Big Dance at HemisFair Park, four days and nights in a row, each with a corporate sponsor, and we got a piggyback ride on that. It’s up to the city — but that’s a huge asset over there. And then the Institute over there, not a lot of people can
find it.

What would you advocate? What would you like to see over there?

Well, I’d like to see access to the Institute opened up with parking — they’re wasting parking space. I’d like to see the berms knocked down … I’d like to see more events at Beethoven Hall. I’d like to see a beer joint there, things going on, people-attractors.

Integrated into downtown proper.

Also things to draw all those convention people, who are sitting practically there on the grounds. We have, I don’t know how many thousands of convention-goers, but there’s a lot of them. But that takes money and the parks do not have a strong lobbyist.

That’s like Milam Park and Travis Park, none of those have operating budgets, they just sort of shuffle money around from crisis to crisis. But I would like to see it made into a people place. I’ll quote to you an Australian friend of mine who worked with me at the Express in the early days … he got right to the point: He said, “It’s just a bit out of the way, isn’t it?”

So we have to make it accessible and open and welcoming to the public.

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