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Would-be river barge operators pitch directly to City Council

City staff recommending second-place finisher in bid process as official choice

In an unusual turn in an already unusual bidding process, the top two finalists to operate the city's river barge fleet pitched directly to the City Council on Wednesday.

The strange step came about after a rare but not-unprecedented recommendation by city staff for council members to choose the runner-up in the bid process. While Go Rio San Antonio finished first by a little more than a point in the city's scoring system, it did so because of preference points for local and small businesses.

San Antonio River Cruises finished second in points, but was the favorite of two evaluation committees and therefore got the city staff's approval.

The two companies are competing for a 10-year contract beginning Oct. 1 to operate a new, city-owned fleet of river barges.

Go Rio San Antonio is majority-owned by former Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade and local restaurateur Lisa Wong, who say they have partnered with hospitality, dining and entertainment company Landry's, which runs a variety of restaurants and the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino chain, to operate the barges.

San Antonio River Cruises would be the local face of Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises, which offers cruises in several U.S. cities.

Background information on the Wednesday agenda item notes the presentation "is an extraordinary measure but warranted given the unique circumstances of the scoring results."

It isn't the first odd turn in the search for a river barge operator, either.

This is the second time around for the bidding process. Mayor Ivy Taylor scuttled the first process in February, saying she believed former Mayor Phil Hardberger improperly participated in the process as a lobbyist.

Hardberger said he was only acting as an attorney for the San Antonio River Cruises team at the time, but he has since registered as a lobbyist with the city to avoid any hang-ups this time around.

In the first go-round, San Antonio River Cruises was the top choice of an 11-member evaluation committee and also ranked ahead in points.

A new, 14-person evaluation committee was formed for the second round of the bidding process. It only looked at experience and qualifications and the quality of the plans for its recommendations.

Given just those criteria, San Antonio River Cruises was ranked first out of five proposals, with 52.31 points out of a possible 55. Go Rio San Antonio got 34.69 points.

"To me, it really embraced on everybody who goes on a river cruise - once they step off, they're an ambassador for San Antonio," said committee member Kim Biffle. "And I really felt Entertainment Cruises understood that and was really looking forward to taking San Antonio cruises to the next level."

The two proposals scored similarly on the "Economic Terms" portion of the scoring, but Go Rio San Antonio pulled ahead after it got points for the city's Small Business Economic Development Advocacy Program and the Local Preference Program. San Antonio River Cruises did not receive points for either.

Go Rio San Antonio and San Antonio River Cruises finished with 71.43 and 70.41 points, respectively, out of a possible 100.

Speaking to council members Wednesday, Hardberger claimed Entertainment Cruises would be the better operator and framed the choice as "local versus excellence."

"San Antonio needs to be open to new businesses, new citizens and new ideas — not closed to them," said the former mayor.

Meanwhile, the Go Rio San Antonio team made sure to hammer home its local appeal.

"This operation is not going to be one of many in other cities or one of many in our portfolio," Andrade said. "We live here, and we're not going anywhere else. So you'll know exactly where to find us."

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the contract May 25.

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