Laredo city council takes yet another swing at convention center project



Illustration from the article: Overview of a failed concept for a convention center adjacent to San Agustín Square in downtown Laredo. A sales tax proposal to help fund it was rejected in 2018. Source: Trahan Architects.

Posted: 10/21-2021

by Adolfo Pesquera

Laredo (Webb County) – The municipal council is in full swing groundhog day territory here, but on Monday the mayor moderated a public debate on the location of a convention center, assuming that a convention center could one day be built.

To put this exercise in perspective, Laredo is the twelfth largest city in the state and does not have a convention center. There are at least 78 small towns in the state that have convention centers.

Laredo is not in this situation, for lack of trying. Studies have been commissioned, some at considerable expense and the first going back almost 40 years. In 2018, following a well-orchestrated two-year campaign, voters were asked to approve an increase in tourist taxes – car rental and hotel occupancy taxes – to partially fund a convention center.

This was a relatively small project – a 140,000 square foot facility involving new construction and the restoration of a few historic structures that would be incorporated into the complex. It was led by the Fasken family, owners of a monument in the city center, the La Posada hotel. They commissioned an architect from New Orleans, Trahan Architects, produce conceptual documents to promote the project. Trahan worked with a local firm, Frank Architects Inc. (now Capable city).

Conceptual rendering of the proposed convention center, seen from its central courtyard. The project was rejected by voters in 2018. Source: Trahan Architects.

The proposal failed by a landslide, 57% to 43%. This happened despite the fact that residents knew their historic downtown economy was not in great shape at the time. The COVID-19 pandemic has since worsened the situation exponentially. Border crossings have been closed to non-essential travel for 19 months, accelerating the closure of businesses and prompting residents who can afford the cost of relocating elsewhere.

The inner city diehards seem to have overwhelming support for keeping the inner city as their preferred location. All previous studies have focused on a downtown site because of its pedestrian and cultural character; Laredo city center came into being in the 18th century and the unique layout of the neighborhood with its narrow streets and mainly 19th and early 20th century buildings still have the bones of what could become a major attraction.

Hidalgo Street in downtown Laredo, with its narrow width and century-old buildings, characterizes the commercial environment before the pandemic. Since this 2016 image was captured, many more stores have closed. Source: Google Streets.

However, there is competition. The developers have expressed more interest in building a convention center on the north side. Member of the board Ruben Gutierrez Jr. stressed that the lack of infrastructure in the city center is not a problem around the Sames Auto Arena.

“The developers came in and said if the city gave them access to the land – the city has several properties (next to the arena), they would be willing to fund the whole project,” Gutierrez said.

Member of the board Albert Torres did not have it. The north side is booming and doesn’t need a convention center project to keep it going, but the city center does, he said.

“The city center has been on life support … for far too long. It was kept alive with the help of the Fasken Group Hotel La Posada and the Cathedral (San Agustín). If it weren’t for those two places, downtown would be completely dead, ”Torres said.

Board Member Dr. Marte Martinez expressed no desire to go back to voters for any tax increase.

“The private sector is really going to have to step up, to really pay the price. And we, at one point, in a kind of public-private partnership, ”he said.

Carole Alexander, TIRZ 1 city center board member, addressing the city council.

Mayor Pete saenz asked the city manager to organize a 30-day workshop that would include input from the public, with an emphasis on refreshing everyone’s memory on the data collected in previous studies, as well as any information that can be gleaned on the November 2018 election results. Following the workshop, Saenz said the city council should deal with the issue as an action point and the official chooses a general location.

A location in the city center, with at least three sites being considered, could benefit from the work carried out by the city’s No.1 tax increase reinvestment zone (TIRZ city center), which was formed in 2017. Member of the board of directors of TIRZ Carole alexandre said three streetscape projects would pave the way in 2022 and improve the possibility of walking between La Posada, the Laredo Center for the Arts, the cathedral and The Outlet Shoppes in Laredo.

“We must not give up hope. It’s about time, ”said Alexander. “If we build our conference center in a hurry, it will be a conference center that could be anywhere in any city in the United States, and the flavor and gravy that makes Laredo ‘Laredo'” downtown. This is what we would like to share with the world.

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