By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
The big news at the mayor’s “State of the City” speech Thursday night was … no news.
Following last year’s politically charged performance in the annual address, San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz eschewed campaign rhetoric Thursday night in favor of happy talk built around a boilerplate jingle of “tradition, transformation and transcendence.”
Rather than campaign, Narvaiz let the setting speak for her. The State of the City speech served as a soft opening and trial run for the hospitality staff of the new San Marcos Conference Center and Embassy Suites Hotel, which is set to open officially in December. San Marcos City Manager Rick Menchaca said Thursday night that the facility already has booked $3 million of business before opening.
At $71 million between the conference center ($21 million) and the hotel ($50 million), the project represents a major investment in the city, not to mention a trigger for further investment on the south side of the city’s Interstate-35 frontage. Down just a stone’s throw to the south, the city’s signature outlet malls are visible, and, between the malls and the hotel/conference center is, perhaps literally, a wealth of possibility. The city paid for and owns the conference center and Springfield, Mo.-based hotelier John Q. Hammons the hotel.
“Today, we follow the path of former Mayor Kathy Morris and her colleagues when they looked over a cow pasture and saw an outlet mall,” Narvaiz said in her speech.
Narvaiz allowed the conference center to rule the night as a victory for the city and, by implication, her administration, though she alluded in her speech to the ire of vocal citizens when it was originally proposed for the headwaters of Spring Lake.
Hearing the criticisms back in 2005, Narvaiz worked to move the center and hotel to its location on the east side of I-35 at McCarty Lane, where the 15-acre site features a ten-story, full service Embassy Suites hotel with 283 suites, a spa, a swimming pool, fitness rooms and other venues for relaxation. The attached 77,000-square-foot City of San Marcos Conference Center includes 40,000 net square feet of conference space in six flexible ball room and meeting areas with a catering center and the capacity to accommodate high tech-related events.
The conference center even created its own usefulness Thursday night by drawing a larger crowd for the speech than could be seated by its former location at the San Marcos Activities Center. The conference center had to open a second room so the throng of 650 people could witness the mayor’s oration. The activities center can seat 400.
The conference center also won praise from Narvaiz mayoral opponent David Newman, whose reticence about the facility has often been spoken.
“I congratulate her for her role in putting this hotel and conference center together, and everybody else for that matter,” Newman said. “It took the community to do it. I hope we can pay for it, but that remains to be seen. I’m glad that it turned out as beautiful as it did.”
Narvaiz used the speech to cast her usual list of plaudits for various community heroes she has identified, public works projects undertaken by the city government, and the nuts and bolts of city demography.
The city snapshot: Population is up to 50,373, while Texas State enrollment nears 30,000, giving San Marcos a daytime population of 85,000 people. Texas State’s growth in numerous fields is “creating excellent educational opportunities for our community,” Narvaiz said.
According to the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG), Narvaiz said, San Marcos has added 6,900 jobs since 2004 and per capita income in the area has increased $10,000. In the last year, violent crime in San Marcos is down 23 percent, property crime is down 22 percent and new fire stations in town have compelled the Insurance Service Office (ISO) to drop the city’s fire hazard rating from a four to a two, resulting in a ten-percent reduction in homeowners insurance premiums.
Inasmuch as Narvaiz is up for re-election on Nov. 4, and early voting begins Monday, many citizens expected some kind of appeal for her future at City Hall. But Narvaiz never hinted about the election, and even went so far as to tell at least one campaign worker wearing a campaign T-shirt to cover it up.
“There’s a time to be the mayor and a time to be the candidate,” Narvaiz said after her speech.
As the mayor, Narvaiz noted in last year’s State of the City address that “I have not been successful in securing an agreement by the elected body on what our shared vision should be, at this important juncture in the life of our city.” She added later that friction on the city council was “more about getting what we want for our small group of friends and less about what is in the best interest of the larger community. More about hanging on to anger from yesterday and not letting it go for tomorrow.”
The mayor’s critics saw those remarks as campaign shots at city council incumbents Gaylord Bose and Betsy Robertson, who were up for re-election at that very moment. Robertson wound up losing her race by 30 votes to Kim Porterfield, while Bose barely defeated Jude Prather by three votes.
During one of the new council’s first meetings later last year, Bose and Councilmember John Thomaides called for public discussion of the speech’s timing. Thomaides at the time pondered running against Narvaiz and argued that this year’s speech should be delayed until after the November election. However, after Thomaides and Bose spoke, Narvaiz asked if anyone else wished to add to the discussion, and no one took her up on it.
“In that case, I will proceed with my plans at this time,” the mayor said.
Thursday night, the city learned that those plans didn’t include a political discussion. This time.