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The opera sings for supper, TX shops its nuclear dump



“Whatever Lila `Cockrell` wants, Lila gets,” Nelson Wolff once told a roomful of San Antonio politicos, and it was still true at Thursday’s press conference celebrating the defeat of the University of Incarnate Word’s proposal to transform a neglected 2.5 acre corner of Brackenridge Park into a fine-arts center, gallery, and fencing studio.

Under a full head of eternally auburn hair and a spring-green jacket, the steely former Mayor Cockrell reminded us that the plot of land was promised to the adjacent Zoo three decades ago. Friends of the Parks President Marcie Ince introduced a new park mascot, Squirreletta, brainchild of the same Lila Cockrell, and announced that it was time for us to put our differences aside and come together ... at the upcoming kite festival. AIA San Antonio President Bob Wise assured us that this was a triumph for “public spaces, green spaces.” Only then did Zoological Society President Gilbert Vasquez admit that the Zoo, which rents an adjacent 56 acres from the City for a nominal sum, would eventually incorporate the area into its Africa Live exhibit — making it neither particularly green nor free to the public.

Yes, the City approved a Brackenridge master plan in 1980, that essentially promised the lot to the Zoo when the City was done with it, but our current leaders could revisit the question with a fresh slate of stakeholders — who might question who was part of the decision-making process in the late ’70s (besides then-Mayor Lila Cockrell and then-Councilman Henry Cisneros), and whether zoos are the paragons of virtue a less-jaded public once imagined them to be `ask Lucky the lonely elephant, for starters, then peruse the Current’s article on zoo waste in the SA river, “San Antonio returns to its ailing Yanaguana,” February 25, 2009`. But the fast and final resolution of this flap means that debate will never be aired.

Former City Manager Lou Fox represented UIW in its negotiations with the City, but if he was wounded by the speed with which the University was tarred with the evil-forces-of-privatization brush, he hid his feelings well. In a phone call Friday, he noted that the Zoo has promised to beautify the former vehicle-maintenance lot while it awaits its “Africa” makeover. “So, we got some good news out of it,” Fox said, graciously.

UIW’s proposal included a passage under Hildebrand connecting the park trails with the river’s headwaters, and $1.1 million rent. The University suggested the money could be used to improve and maintain adjacent Miraflores, the pocket park next to Brackenridge that contains the remains of an eccentric doctor’s ersatz sculpture collection, which is currently out of renovation cash. Fox said UIW thought their plans would suit the arts-and-culture focus of the Museum Reach of the River Walk, which includes the Witte, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and (a little stretch) the Southwest School of Art & Craft. (The QueQue notes that university programs also suit a city that’s perennially undereducated.)

Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez characterized the Zoo’s triumph as “the lesser of two evils.”

“I’m glad that `UIW President Lou` Agnese didn’t get it,” Sanchez said, but admitted that letting the Zoo have it is part of a City pattern of ceding public land to private nonprofits to get them off the books.

Back at the press conference, Cockrell wrapped up with an officious-sounding letter from Cisneros and a command for unity. “SA is a hugging city,” she said. “If Dr. Lou Agnese were here, I would give him a big hug, too.”

In for a penny ...

In a wee-little corner of Texas — so far west in the armpit of the Panhandle it’s hardly even Texas anymore — Waste Control Specialists are gearing up for big things. Sadly, for the people who believe in Free Enterprise so much that they not only erected a sign saying so, they voted to loan a Dallas billionaire $75 million for his toxic dump’s expansion, all sorts of little things (such as alleged voting irregularities) keep getting in the way.

To make up for all of said billionaire Harold Simmons’s troubles, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission is working out the exact language that would open the dump to radioactive waste beyond the Texas-Vermont arrangement. But don’t let the QueQue ring fictitious bells in your head, commissioners will say: Like, dude, this isn’t a rule change, this is just a preparation for a rule change. Something like buying a new bottle of cologne, a box of condoms, and Cheap Trick tickets, but waiting till the day of the date to clean out your car.

File-shuffling Eliza Brown of the SEED Coalition, a regular fixture (however unwelcome) at the Commission’s meetings, said, “They shouldn’t even be doing the rule, because right now they only have space for 2.3 million cubic feet, and the estimate of what Texas and Vermont needed was 6 million total cubic feet over the life of the thing.” You have until April 13 to lodge your comment on the rule change at

The radioactive wastewater that’s leaking from Vermont’s soon-to-close 620-MW reactor means our cross-country partner will be ready to bury the reactor in a few years — a windfall in the wings for WCS, if Vermont had the money. Though the Vermont Senate voted to shutter the plant before 2013 because of its operational “challenges,” Brown said they expect it’ll be another 40 years before they have the cash on hand needed to dispose of it in West Texas.

But WCS is ready for some income-generating action now. A lawsuit brought by local residents who alleged voting infractions around the bond election (a squeaker that passed by three votes) is on appeal in El Paso and hindering a planned dump expansion.

Meanwhile, the problem of industry’s extremely hot, extremely toxic spent fuel rods being stored at reactors around the county (including San Antonio’s atom-splitting engine on the coast, the South Texas Project nuclear facility) is intensifying. In the next few months, the amount of “high level” waste being stored in the U.S. is expected to outpace the amount of room carved out for it in Nevada — 77,000 cubic feet. Of course, funds to Yucca Mountain are being choked off since serious environmental concerns were raised there (read: earthquakes, magma plumes, water, Harry Reid). Obama’s recent pledges of federal loans for new nukes are a gamble that not every state will have a Senate Majority Leader on its side.

Things the pre-nup didn’t cover?

What’s going on at the Museo Alameda, our in-the-red pink monument to Latino arts and culture? After a brush with bankruptcy and the unceremoniously rapid departure of its most recent leader, the Alameda umbrella organization is negotiating a new memorandum of understanding with the City under the leadership of determined board Chair Margarita Flores. Or should we say the City is negotiating a new understanding with the Alameda, the crux of which is likely to be: We’ll help you out by taking responsibility for the Casa de Mexico, Alameda theater, and museum buildings, but you must run and fund the arts entities. The Office of Cultural Affairs is currently sitting on the remainder of the Alameda’s two-year City arts funding — approximately $250,000 of a $359,000 total — while it awaits restructuring and programming plans.

“We are close to finalizing an agreement with the City and will be happy to discuss this once it is finalized,” wrote Flores in an email. That could happen as early as the April 1 City Council meeting, although Jim Dublin, who’s handling PR for the Alameda, thought that date sounded optimistic.

Too big to fail?

The Alameda isn’t the only local arts organization that isn’t receiving its current City-funding allotment. The San Antonio Opera, which postponed its winter production of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, is also in timeout to the tune of $60,000 while OCA awaits assurance that they’ll be providing future operas to the community. Verdi’s Rigoletto is scheduled for mid-June, but Jim Ireland, the Opera’s new director of development, won’t swear on his mother’s grave that the show will go on.

“But then, at my age I can’t definitely say I’m going to get up in the morning,” he said with a laugh.

Perhaps we need a sense of humor about arts funding these days. Ireland, a 20-year veteran of the Houston Grand Opera, most recently led the now-defunct Orlando Opera. Last spring, the half-century-old company filed bankruptcy and left season ticketholders holding tickets to phantom productions. This in turn led to critical coverage in Current sister paper the Orlando Weekly, which reported last year that board members had nonetheless sent Ireland and his partner on an ocean cruise. According to the Orlando Weekly, before the curtain fell some longtime patrons were also miffed that the opera had eliminated the cheapest seats and dramatically raised the prices for others.

Ireland says the Orlando Opera’s attempt to put together a 2009 season despite its dire financial status at the end of 2008 was “not a decision taken lightly.”

“The board thought and hoped surely someone would come forward,” Ireland said, but in a Florida hit hard by the housing crash and the ensuing recession, no one did. Of $1.7 million pledged in a 2007 fundraising drive, would-be donors reneged on some $900,000, Ireland said, but in the end, when the opera’s accounts were all settled, the only creditors left were patrons who’d bought tickets. “Anyone who says anything to the contrary is lying.”

San Antonio Opera Founder and Artistic Director Mark Richter acknowledged that the organization is in a tough spot financially, but he’s confident in Ireland’s abilities. “He’s a machine; he’s real good,” Richter says, noting that Ireland was in Orlando “during the hardest recession of our generation” — a recession that’s sunk arts organizations across the country. The San Antonio Opera is still pursuing its educational program with this spring’s production of Douglas Moore’s Gallantry in local middle schools, as well as its June 17 concert with famous tenor Jose Carreras — the latter a successful fundraising formula the opera has used in the past. But as Richter notes, and many local arts groups are learning, productions that used to be surefire moneymakers are often now break-even propositions. “We’re all just trying to get past this hump.”

Charlie’s right hook

The QueQue talked to Congressman Charlie Gonzalez Monday, shortly after his post-Obamacare triumph phone-in on KTSA’s Jack Riccardi Show, so he was still in pugilistic form (a trait the QueQue likes in our progressive representatives).

“So I said, what’s the alternative?” Gonzalez recalled telling the Catholic-Libertarian Riccardi. “What would you do with all those people? Have them keep showing up only after they really get sick?” Under the pre-reform system, he said, those of us with insurance pay for folks who don’t have it (and businesses that choose not to offer it) through higher premiums.

Many benefits contained in the new legislation are set to kick in this year, including an end to rescissions, a kibosh on lifetime and annual caps on expenditures, and a national high-risk pool for individuals with pre-existing conditions, but Gonzalez says increased funding for community clinics that provide primary and emergency care on a sliding scale is “the most obvious thing for me — in my district I cannot begin to tell you how valuable a service they provide.”

Gonzalez acknowledged that the Republican fall-payback rhetoric could prove true in some “marginal districts,” and predicted a repeat of the insurance-industry ad spending that accompanied the health-care debate, especially in the wake of this year’s Citizens United case, which makes it easier for corporations to spend directly to influence elections.

The Congressman is also happy with the student-loan reforms that were included in the bill, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will save $61 billion over 10 years by cutting out the private lenders in the middle, who assumed no risk in the government-guaranteed program but made money. More than half of the savings will be redirected toward the Pell grant program; the remainder will go toward deficit reduction and support for community colleges and historically black colleges and universities, and caps on loan payments. “Do you need a middle person not just to administer the program, but to lend the money?” Gonzalez asked. “I understand that you might have a private-sector administrator that is cut out, but I’m just saying that the beneficiary is supposed to be the college student.”

Fightin’ Charlie reserved his biggest swing for the Republicans who’ve embraced the tea-party movement, but then distance themselves when racist rhetoric or hate speech pops out of the so-called populists’ mouths. “You do not reward extreme behavior in whatever form it presents itself,” Gonzalez said. Sure, it’s tempting to appeal to people’s baser instincts, especially when hot-button topics like abortion (paging Congressman Neugebauer) and immigration are on the table, but “true leaders know you don’t pander. You resist the temptation because the harm far outweighs the temporary advantage.” •

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