Michael Sawaya has been president and general manager of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center since early 2018, after he was recruited by the state-controlled exhibition hall’s overseers to manage the biggest upgrade in the vast building’s 37-year history.
At the same time, he was asked to kickstart a long-stalled project that could see billions of dollars invested by private developers to build a new entertainment-focused neighborhood on about 50 adjacent acres owned by the center.
After overcoming initial political hurdles, pandemic delays and other obstacles, the $557 million upgrade is now about one-fifth completed, and a “master developer” contract was signed to start work on the new neighborhood, now dubbed The River District, sometime next year.
Mississippi born and Arkansas raised, Sawaya, 62, signed a new five-year contract earlier this year. He hopes to be able to see the project through, as he did with a $60 million renovation of the Alamodome and $325 million upgrade to the Henry B. González Convention Center while director of San Antonio’s Convention & Sports Facilities Department.
In a wide-ranging interview, Sawaya offered updates on the progress of the renovation and hinted at a new, future attraction inside the Convention Center.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It took 20 years since the convention center bought those upriver acres to get to the point where there is a plan and approval to build a new riverfront neighborhood. Do you think you’ll be around to see it completed, or at least partly built?
A: It’s what we call in our industry ‘cathedral thinking,’ because you have to really plan for things that you may not see the end of. I hope to certainly be around when all of it is finished, like I was able to do in San Antonio. But that was a project that took me 10 years to develop. Projects of this magnitude don’t just happen that quickly and especially when there’s a lot of scrutiny on public investment.
Was there a lot of politics involved in that job, too?
A: Absolutely. I mean, in the course of my job there, I had five different mayors, probably 40 different city council people that I have to interact with on a regular basis. So, every week I was at the city council meeting at the podium, presenting my contracts, making presentations on major projects. The convention center expansion that we did was the largest capital project that the city had ever done in its history.
One piece that is yet to fall into place is a so-called headquarters hotel, which stalled in 2020 when the pandemic changed the outlook for the hospitality industry, and there was some objections to it from the public finance watchdog. You’re again pushing for this part of the project. Why is building a large hotel next to the center so important?
A: Actually my first project [in San Antonio] was getting the headquarter hotel built there. Before we even envisioned a convention center expansion, we built that thousand-room Grand Hyatt Hotel. [The 34-story, 1,003-room Grand Hyatt San Antonio River Walk, directly adjacent to the González convention, was completed in 2008].
I don’t have a headquarters hotel right at the door of the convention center and every one of our competitors has one. Nashville, when they built a new convention center, what they were lacking was any hotels around the convention center. Within a year or so, they had a brand new 800-room Omni Hotel right at the front door of their convention center.
It’s key for any meeting planner because they don’t want to have to use 12 different hotels. The fewer hotels they have to put in a lot, the better, because then they have transportation and all kinds of other logistical issues. All our competitor (cities) have that competitive advantage of having one big hotel block next door.
What is the most important thing on the agenda now that conferences have returned, at least this year, to pre-pandemic levels?
A: Our investments in this building have to be the priority now. About $110 million out of the $557 million [capital improvement project] has been completed.
The bigger parts of it are yet to be done and those are the things that are transformational to the building itself, that really change the look and feel of the place…One of those is what we’re calling ‘the Ballroom of the Future’. In between the two bridges on the third floor overlooking the Mississippi River.
It will be steel and glass so you can see the architecture of the bridges. We don’t have cost estimates on that yet but they’re going to be high. Everything’s higher right now.
Hurricane Ida was another setback for business. What was the extent of damage and where does that stand now?
A: We had major damage, about $13 million worth of damage to the roof. It’s costing us about $2 million [after the insurance recovery].
The new roof — replacing a 40 acre roof that’s nearly 40 years old — is a $48 million project on its own. It ain’t sexy, but you got to have it and that’s the first project because you can’t do improvements in the building with a roof that can’t protect what you’re going to be investing in.
What is the timeline to have the major renovations to the building done?
A: The good news is that we did get a lot of the capital work done during the pandemic. So, I think early 2026 to be done with most everything.
For the longer-term riverfront vision, what will that look like and is there a firm idea of converting part of it to a sports stadium, maybe for soccer?
A: I don’t know about the sports piece yet. I don’t have anything like that on the table today. But we’ve got to get the main components first.
It’ll be like its own little city on the river next to the convention center and next to what’s probably going to be a very exciting entertainment complex at the power plant. [The Market Street Power Plant’s owners, which include several of the partners in the separate River District project, have laid out a plan to build a complex that will include a boutique hotel, apartments, retail, office and an entertainment venue].
These are great aspirations that are in the plan. If we deliver on the base programs that are in the master plan — the housing, retail, office space — then others will want to be part of that.
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