SAN ANTONIO — A century ago, when this was the biggest city in Texas, the San Antonio River, which runs through the middle of town, was one of its biggest problems.
When rains came, the river could inundate the city. A 1921 flood killed more than 50 people.
When rains didn't come, which was most of the time, the river could slow to a trickle. Once managed by a public official called the ditch commissioner, the river became so polluted and overgrown that civic leaders considered trying to bury it.
The river "really was a drainage ditch," said Richard Perez, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "And a very unsightly drainage ditch at that."
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Then, with some creativity and New Deal "stimulus" money, the ditch was transformed in the 1930s into River Walk, now the second-biggest tourist attraction in Texas behind the nearby Alamo.
A 185-member delegation from Commerce Lexington began its 73rd annual Leadership Visit on Monday with a boat tour of the River Walk, which is in the midst of a $358 million expansion on its north and south ends.
"This river project has been an amazing jewel for our community," said Lori Houston, an official with the San Antonio River Improvements Project, which is helping oversee the public-private effort.
The downtown section of the River Walk has been a tourist destination since the 1950s. It was lengthened to more than three miles for the 1968 World's Fair, called Hemisfair '68.
During the past decade, the River Walk has been extended north and south. These sections, though, are designed more to attract local residents than tourists.
The four-mile northern section, called the Museum Reach, connects several museums and ends at the old Pearl Brewery, a former beer factory that has been transformed into a successful mixed-use commercial development. The Museum Reach has attracted $256 million in private investment to the area since its completion in 2009, Houston said.
The project included $10 million worth of public art, funded with private donations, installed mostly beneath bridges crossing the river. "This is how we turn an ugly underpass into a work of art," Houston said.
The eight-mile southern section, called the Mission Reach, will connect the Alamo to other Spanish colonial missions in the area. When completed, it will be more of a natural park, with hiking and biking trails. Much of the work involves restoring the river ecosystem destroyed during years of "modern" water- management efforts.
San Antonio officials said the River Walk is a great example of how local, state and federal governments have worked together with private businesses to create the infrastructure necessary for private commerce to flourish.
Commerce Lexington's annual Leadership Visit is designed to get Central Kentucky leaders away for three days to network with one another and gather ideas for improving Lexington. The trips have sparked initiatives such as bike trails, Thursday Night Live at Cheapside, a small- business loan program and facilities- improvement funding for Fayette County Public Schools.
This year's trip began at Pearl Brewery, where Perez and San Antonio's city manager, Sheryl Sculley, discussed a dizzying array of local initiatives that include street improvements, recreational trails, libraries, museums and a new performing arts center. Many of those initiatives are being funded with $1 billion in recent bond issues approved by local voters to provide the public infrastructure for business growth.
Despite the borrowing, Sculley said, San Antonio is the only one of the nation's 10 largest cities that has a triple-A bond rating from all three financial rating agencies.
Sculley said much of San Antonio's infrastructure focus recently has been on improving public schools and the "livability" of downtown. That includes a goal of adding 7,500 new housing units in the center city by 2020. "We all know that great cities have great downtowns," she said.
Before returning to Lexington late Wednesday, the Lexington visitors will be looking at San Antonio's accomplishments and strategies and trying to scale them to their own city, which is only one-fourth the size.
The Commerce Lexington trip is funded by several Lexington banks and other companies and the people on the trip, who paid almost $2,000 each to attend.