SAN ANTONIO — When alt-rock group The Smashing Pumpkins raises the curtain on San Antonio’s newest concert venue at the Tech Port Center + Arena Monday night, Eric Blockie plans to be there watching.
At least for a bit.
Mostly he’ll be putting himself to work, chipping in to help direct traffic and emptying trash cans.
“I'll find my two, three minutes in the back of the house and take it in,” he says. “But it won't be more than two or three minutes.”
The 130,000-square-foot facility is Port San Antonio’s $70 million gamble at changing the way locals, visitors and companies view the south side.
Leading the way is Blockie, announced last fall by venue-management company ASM Global as general manager for Tech Port Center + Arena. Among the cities he’s helped open venues in over the last three decades: San Francisco, St. Louis, Albuquerque, Hidalgo.
“We’re in the guest-experience business here,” he says.
Blockie is confident Tech Port will soon have representatives from Portland, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles envious. The venue’s website promises it will “reshape entertainment.” Will that translate to consistent crowds and sold-out events when Austin remains just up the road, when it isn’t in as central a part of town as hotspots like the Majestic and the Aztec, when it’s balancing business and community?
The jury is still out.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 20 – less than two weeks before The Smashing Pumpkins were set to take the Tech Port stage – you could still smell the fresh paint inside the venue’s halls, hear the electric whir-whir-whirring of drills.
“Race to the finish, but we're excited,” Blockie said over the sound of workers’ conversations and ambient reminders of construction.
The facility’s final touches were being applied, he said, pointing out that while Tech Port’s debut as a live-music venue was soon, the eyes of the Alamo City would be on it even sooner.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s State of the City address was just six days away. It would give suited attendees a first look at the same modern features that T-shirt-wearing rock fans will get Monday night, including the ability to stream 4k video, a 60-foot-by-22-foot video wall and 7.1 surround sound.
“And really that was for the esport gaming component of it, which is hyperfocused where we're at, even though we have a large group of concerts that are coming in,” Blockie said, referring to Tech Port’s bid to become a marquee esports destination.
Inside San Antonio's Tech Port Center + Arena in the final stages of the facility's construction
Elsewhere in the massive facility, its versatility becomes kaleidoscopic. Tech Port will also feature an upstairs VIP area, a six-restaurant food court, a locally networked gaming center, a broadcast studio, meeting rooms, convention spaces… even a large hall that will eventually house the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology.
All this is to say, live music is just one part of the equation. As of now, that equation’s primary factor is the burgeoning esports business.
But the initial concert lineup is nonetheless a varied one: the Pumpkins will be followed in May by visits from rapper Kevin Gates, singer-songwriter Carly Morrison and fellow rockers Papa Roach. Rise Against, Boyz II Men and Julieta Venegas are among those set to perform later this year.
“A lot of promoters recognize that San Antonio is a hard rock town, and being that we're 3,300 people here, we're in a sweet spot where a lot of bands like Highly Suspect or W.A.S.P and Michael Schenker… we're the perfect fit for them.”
Tech Port’s live-entertainment space has a seating capacity of about 3,300, meaning the venue is closer in scale to downtown’s performing arts stages than the Alamodome. Sitting in southwest San Antonio on the corner of 36th Street and General Hudnell Drive, it resides in an area of town devoted to the industries of tech, defense and cybersecurity.
Blockie envisions the facility as a place not only for those workforces to frequent, but as a way to attract even more companies. In fact, he believes Tech Port is already living up to that potential.
“This venue, I think, was part of that story they told to get DeLorean here. We're hoping that this was instrumental in it so that they have a community place they can come to, along with StandardAero, Boeing, Lockheed Martin,” he said. “All those great clients here can now have a home base, a place they can call home. I don't want to call it their 'Cheers,' but they have that place.”
An underdog story?
The place has been built, but will they come? Stan Renard, director of the Arts Incubation Research Lab and someone who has studied the literal geography of San Antonio’s music scene, has trouble envisioning that, given what other parts of town have to offer.
“If you are hopefully attracting tech entrepreneurs, you need to give them that entertainment hook, because that's usually what they want,” Renard said. “However, if I think of San Antonio, and I think, ‘Where are the cool people going?’, I don't think about Port San Antonio and that part of town.”
Places like the St. Mary’s Strip and the Pearl (which will unveil a new, intimate music venue of its own in early 2023) provide competition, Renard says. He also says that when it comes to meeting spaces, downtown offers Geekdom in a more centralized location.
“In terms of (its potential as a) music venue, 3,000 seats feels high for San Antonio,” said Renard, who in his 2018 study observed that the local music scene was expanding north/northwest of downtown. “We already have the Aztec Theater, and in my experience they always had a hard time filling the space.”
Local tourism leaders, however, are more optimistic. That includes Bill Brendel, head of the San Antonio Visitor Alliance; for him, any new entertainment venue is another opportunity to show off what the city has to offer.
And while it can seem San Antonio is the David to Austin’s Goliath when it comes to live-music events, Brendel says there are ways for the Alamo City to overcome playing second fiddle to Texas’ capital.
“We have higher visitation to San Antonio than Austin overall, so if they coordinate concerts and events when there’s high visitation levels in town, there’s an accumulation of folks looking for things to do,” Brendel said.
Renard points to other disadvantages San Antonio faces.
For one, there’s the radius clause in contracts that makes it impossible for many big-name artists to visit both cities on the same tour. For another, he says, Alamo City music fans have a reputation for buying tickets to shows at the last minute – something promoters aren’t fans of – and they don’t create a “seven-day music scene” like our neighbors to the north.
As it turns out, that may not be as big of an issue for Blockie.
‘It’s their space too’
When it comes to the general manager’s hopes for Tech Port, being a local hub that serves local communities is top of mind. That extends to local artists.
“There's some opportunities for some of those Tejano acts to maybe break out of some of those places that they're playing at now, that's maybe between 1,000 and 3,000 people. Maybe this is an opportunity for us to enhance the experience for their guests.”
While no San Antonio-based groups are in the concert lineup as it stands today, he suggests conversations on that front are ongoing, and news could be coming soon. Marco Barros, a local tourism and hospitality consultant, calls the potential for that reality “a win-win.”
“If they can bring and help incubators of music and sound companies and event sound studios to record bands, it would be a great way to build and welcome more San Antonio bands,” Barros says.
The thing about Tech Port that really gets Blockie passionate comes down to the facility’s potential as an incubation center for new ideas and interests from San Antonio’s youngest minds.
Given the area of town, the sky may be the limit if south-side kids come to Tech Port.
“We're trying to appeal to the kids that live here on the south side that might not have the high speed internet,” Blockie said. “That might only have one device in their house and it's a phone.”
He eagerly points to the facility’s gaming center, featuring 60 computer stations visitors can use (it’ll cost $5 to enter for the day, and then $2 per hour to play). Not only will it be available until 10 p.m. most days, but it’ll also remain operation even as concerts play just down the hall, potentially giving parents a Plan B to hiring babysitters.
Accessibility also plays a major factor in Blockie’s Tech Port ambitions. In addition to local artists and companies, ASM Global has met with Texas’s boxing promoters.
“We're just trying to give the local community the opportunity to come in here and utilize this space, because it's their space too.”
In other words, Tech Port Center + Arena is envisioned as being a place for all people.
Though he hasn’t seen the facility for himself yet, Renard believes that such a comprehensive ethos could accomplish the opposite of inviting visitors.
“It doesn't seem to be very art-friendly,” he said, adding that “if you're trying to attract tourists, that's the wrong part of town to be in.”
On the other hand, Barros says, a place like the Tech Port could move the needle in the south side’s direction.
He envisions a scenario likening the facility to the Quarry or the Pearl, the latter of which has become a major hotspot for locals catering to an abundance of different tastes. The streets around Tech Port may be STEM-heavy now, but there’s room for new hotels, restaurants and retail to potentially pop up, spurred by the facility’s impact if the community buys in.
“I have seen a great interest in apartments, condos and housing developments all over the city by seeing the projects coming to the Zoning Commission. These developments attract a new boom,” Barros said, adding that such results would inevitably take a few years.
That’s on par with Blockie’s vision for Tech Port and the community it calls home, even as he expresses confidence that it will also be a model for other major cities to take inspiration from.
Even Renard, while admitting he’s skeptical about its potential as a music venue, sees how Tech Port can be a success story if it manages to become a go-to hub for curious San Antonians.
“This is how you shape minds,” Renard said. “If you bring in these high schoolers who are thinking about a career in STEM, but they don't really know what that is, you bring in these mentors and they tell you.”
For how futuristic parts of Tech Port may appear, it still can’t predict the future. If there’s something both Renard and Blockie can agree on, it’s that only time will tell what the facility can do for the neighborhoods around it, and the people who live in those houses.
“We built it to bridge a gap that Port (San Antonio) saw needed to be bridged, and we're that bridge,” Blockie said. “We're going to know our success here in 10 years, when that kid goes and he finds something that does well for the whole community the environment and mankind.”