Laredo City Council Takes an Umpteenth Swing at a Convention Center Project
Feature Illustration: A bird’s-eye view of a failed concept for a convention center adjacent to downtown Laredo’s San Agustín Plaza. A sales tax proposition to help fund it was rejected in 2018. Source: Trahan Architects.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Laredo (Webb County) — City Council is deep into Groundhog Day territory here, but on Monday the mayor entertained public discussion on where a convention center might be located, assuming a convention center could ever be constructed.
Putting this exercise in perspective, Laredo is the twelfth largest city in the state and it has no convention center. There are at least 78 smaller cities in Texas that do have convention centers.
Laredo is not in this predicament for lack of trying. There have been studies commissioned, some at considerable expense and the earliest initiative dating back almost 40 years. In 2018, following a two-year well orchestrated campaign, voters were asked to approve a tax increase on tourists–car rental and hotel occupancy taxes–to partially finance a convention center.
It would have been a relatively modest project–a 140,000 square-foot facility involving some new construction and the restoration of a few historic structures that would be incorporated into the complex. It was spearheaded by the Fasken family, owners of a downtown landmark, the La Posada Hotel. They commissioned a New Orleans architect, Trahan Architects, to produce concept documents to promote the project. Trahan collaborated with a local firm, Frank Architects Inc. (now Able City).
Concept rendering of the proposed convention center, as seen from its central courtyard. The project was rejected by voters in 2018. Source: Trahan Architects.
The proposition failed by a landslide, 57% to 43%. This happened despite residents knowing their historic downtown economy was not in great shape at the time. The COVID-19 pandemic has since made everything exponentially worse. Border crossings have been closed to non-essential travel for 19 months, which has accelerated the shuttering of businesses and incentivized residents who can afford the cost to move elsewhere.
Downtown diehards appear to have overwhelming support for keeping downtown as the preferred location. All prior studies emphasized a downtown site because of its walkability and culture; downtown Laredo had its genesis in the 18th century and the district’s unique layout with its narrow streets and mostly 19th and early 20th century buildings still have the bones for what could shape up to be a major attraction.
Hidalgo Street in downtown Laredo, with its narrow width and century old buildings, typifies the commercial environment, pre-pandemic. Since this 2016 image was captured, many more stores have closed. Source: Google Streets.
There is, however, competition. Developers have expressed more interest in building a convention center on the north side. Council Member Ruben Gutierrez Jr. pointed out that a lack of infrastructure downtown is not an issue around the Sames Auto Arena.
“Developers have come in and said if the city were to grant them access to the land – the city owns several properties (next to the arena), they’d would be willing to fund the entire project,” Gutierrez said.
Council Member Albert Torres wasn’t having it. The north side is booming and doesn’t need a convention center project to keep it humming, but downtown does, he said.
“Downtown has been on life support … for way, way too long. It’s been on life support through the assistance of the Fasken Group’s La Posada Hotel, and the (San Agustín) Cathedral. If it wouldn’t be for those two locations downtown would be completely dead,” Torres said.
Council Member Dr. Marte Martinez expressed no appetite for going back to the voters for any kind of tax increase.
“It really is going to take the private sector stepping up, actually taking the brunt of this. And us, at some point, in some sort of private public partnership,” he said.
Downtown TIRZ 1 board member Carole Alexander speaking to City Council.
Mayor Pete Saenz directed the city manager to arrange a workshop in 30 days that would include public input, with a focus on refreshing everyone’s memory on the data collected in previous studies, as well as an analysis on what caused voters to reject the the November 2018 proposition. Following that workshop, Saenz said City Council should take up the matter as an action item and formally choose a general location.
A downtown location, of which there are at least three sites being considered, could benefit from work being done by the city’s Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone #1 (the Downtown TIRZ), which was formed in 2017. TIRZ board member Carole Alexander said three streetscape projects will break ground in 2022 and will enhance walkability between the La Posada, the Laredo Center for the Arts, the cathedral and The Outlet Shoppes at Laredo.
“We mustn’t lose hope. There is time,” Alexander said. “If we build our conference center in a hurry, it will be a conference center that could be anywhere Any Town USA, and the flavor and the sauce that makes Laredo “Laredo” is in downtown. That’s what we would like to share with the world.”
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.