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Believe It or Not, Upgrade Planned for Alamo

The state's most venerated shrine has been swallowed by downtown San Antonio, and its neighborhood resembles a cross between carnival midway and Bourbon Street. Plans for an upgrade are in the works.

Tourists crowd the entrance of the Alamo in San Antonio on Dec. 3, 2015.

SAN ANTONIO – Consider the Alamo.

Arguably the most notable historic site in the state, the modest Spanish mission's stone facade is nestled deep in the heart of San Antonio, beckoning history buffs and proud Texans alike.

And across the street tourists can see the world's largest Hawaiian shirt, or take photos next to a likeness of the man who holds the world record for balancing the most beer kegs on his head (11).

As part of San Antonio's Mission Trail, the Alamo recently joined the list of United Nations World Heritage Sites, an honor bestowed on just more than 1,000 landmarks worldwide, placing it in company with the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and the Great Wall. 

But its immediate neighbors are more a cross between carnival midway and Bourbon Street, complete with a Pat O'Brien's bar. Tucked into the bottom floor of the three buildings directly across Alamo Plaza, sound and color spill from the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and Tomb Rider 3-D. 

On Thursday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and members of the Alamo Endowment Board toured three buildings that the state purchased this week – including the two housing the colorful attractions owned by Phillips Entertainment Inc.

The purchase marks the first serious move by the land office, the endowment board and the city of San Antonio to revamp the presentation of the historic mission and the surrounding area. In October, the three signed an agreement to develop a master plan for the district, the first time each group with a stake in the mission’s future formalized their collaboration.

The General Land Office purchased the Woolworth, Crockett and Palace buildings – an area totaling 98,557 square feet – for $14.4 million.

“It’s really important for the state, the citizens of Texas, to own this,” said Gene Powell, who serves on the Endowment Board. “And it’s something that’s been talked about for probably seven years but there just has never been a convergence of money and commitment and an effort to get it done.”

Officials have emphasized the need for the Alamo to undergo a makeover of sorts. It has long underwhelmed visitors, increasingly overshadowed by the growth of the surrounding city. Only a few elements of the original compound remain.

The state will likely finalize a master plan in a year, but Powell said the long-term leases held by the existing businesses afford more flexibility and mean “we don’t have to decide it tomorrow.” 

Although you wouldn’t be able to tell now, the museum, haunted house and indoor ride are situated on land that was once within the boundaries of the Alamo Mission compound, said land office spokeswoman Brittany Eck. The compound’s original walls would have cut through the center of the buildings.

The fate of the existing storefronts has yet to be decided, although current tenants will be able to stay through their existing leases.

Davis Phillips, president and CEO of Phillips Entertainment Inc., said he's had frequent discussions with state and city officials about their intentions for the buildings and has encouraged them to consider an “entertainment district” in their master plan.

“One of the dangers right now is that they are designing a space to please, potentially, history professors,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to be careful about that. We need them, history professors, to tell us what happened, what the facts are. You want people in the industry that we’re in to help bring it to life in a way that makes it relevant and engaging and exciting.”

According to Powell, Phillips’ push for an entertainment district is certainly reasonable, but there is a discussion to be had about its location. “Maybe it doesn’t need to be across from the Alamo, but it needs to be nearby,” Powell says.

Phillips said he is open to having that conversation, as long as he would not have to foot the estimated $17 million bill of moving the three attractions elsewhere.

“If I could push a button and move me someplace else where I would be just as successful, I would have already done it,” Phillips said. “The discussion of whether or not development should have been allowed is a legitimate one, but it was had and decided 108 years ago.”

Disclosure: The General Land Office was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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