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Technology & Entrepreneurship

San Antonio Power Plant To Be Sold, As Nonprofit Cuts Project

The  power plant south of downtown dates back to 1909.
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
The power plant south of downtown dates back to 1909.

The Mission Road power plant, a massive brick structure alongside Roosevelt Park south of downtown San Antonio, will no longer become the energy innovation hub as had been mapped out by the nonprofit EPIcenter. 

The power plant dates back to 1909, but was vacated years ago. The three building, 4-acre compound sat behind razor wire as nature tried to reclaim it. In 2017, inside its brick walls, the innards were removed, tall natural grasses sprouted 3 feet high from the seams of the husk’s roof. 

Credit Courtesy EPIcenter
A rendering by Lake Flato and Associates of what organizers had hoped the campus would become.

EPIcenter and CPS Energy planned to transform the former gas-fired plant into a beacon of green energy housing a startup incubator, innovation center, fabrication lab and 15,000 square feet of exhibition space. They would turn a smaller nearby building into a cafe overlooking the San Antonio river and Mission Reach trail. CPS Energy committed to giving the building, valued at more than $6 million, to the nonprofit back in 2016. 

That plan officially changed Monday.

“As cherished and as important as that Mission Road Power Plant property is, it needs to go on to have an incredible life, but it won’t be where EPIcenter puts its resources,” said Kimberly Britton, executive director of EPIcenter. 

In 2017 the renovation project was estimated to cost nearly $74 million and the staff at the time — which was only two people —  said they had to raise $53 million. A “best-case scenario” would see a completion in 2021. Event at the time, the project seemed like a heavy lift for a young organization with just two employees.

EPIcenter, which stands for Energy, Partnerships and Innovation, for years promoted the former gas-fired plant as its future home, but the money to fund such a project just wasn’t there, unlike for more traditional investments like education or children’s issues. 

“Funding for innovation programs, specifically energy innovation programs is very, very narrow,” Britton said. 

This fact also occurred to CPS Energy, who is a founding sponsor and has executives on the board. 

"We ultimately realized that asking their team to focus on a big capital campaign was not the best use of their talents," said Paula Gold-Williams, CPS Energy CEO, in a statement. Gold-Williams and Cris Eugster, CPS Energy COO, are both on EPIcenter’s board. Gold-Williams expressed support for the ongoing work of the nonprofit. 

For tax purposes CPS never deeded the property over to the nonprofit. 

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
The inside of the 65,000 sq ft facility in 2017

According to the most recent public records, EPIcenter entered 2018 with about as much money as it had in the bank in 2015 — $2 million.

“It’s not an easy space to operate in,” said Rene Dominguez, COO of VelocityTX, in an interview last month. 

VelocityTX is renovating four historic buildings east of downtown San Antonio into a space for biomedical research and innovation. They are expected to open building one of the multi-million dollar complex this month, but it was funded largely from other property sales by its parent organization the Texas Research and Technology Foundation.

"The community needs to rally and get behind these kinds of innovative ventures because they are critical to economic growth," he said. 

CPS Energy now says the property is to be sold. They expect to list it in the next six to 18 months.

Despite the announcement coming Monday, Britton said they have known since last summer the building wasn’t part of its future. 

The funding gap meant the organization has had to shift from a philanthropic model to one driven by earned-income. 

EPIcenter contracts with utilities to advise on innovation programs. It began its startup incubator at the end of 2017. It currently has around a dozen energy efficiency and green energy companies — a little over half of which are in San Antonio. It has a global lecture series and has hosted three summits on topics ranging from the Internet of Things to grid resilience. It will announce the topic for its fourth summit soon. 

Britton said the nonprofit was seeing good momentum from these projects in terms of revenue, following and people. 

“Our first year in 2017, we reported about $60,000 in revenue over and above that startup capital, this last year was $750,000,” said Britton. The organization is within 25% of being self-sustaining. 

EPIcenter’s narrative has been tied to the building since the beginning. Britton worked to ingratiate the nascent organization with the surrounding Roosevelt and Lone Star neighborhoods, hosting well-attended community gatherings at local bars to explain the project.

Now the organization must make its mark another way. 

“We realized our mission is much bigger than a building. And it’s greater than that,” Britton said. 

Still, some of the neighbors for the structure are saddened by the news. 

“When they showed us all the plans and it would have been a place where you could have paid your bills and had a coffee. Now for it to stand their vacant is a little disappointing,” said Susan Powers, president of the nearby Lone Star Neighborhood Association.

For the area, the deal comes after years of dealing with the faltering plan to redevelop the Lone Star Brewery, which sits across the river from the power plant. That project had been billed as another big-ticket redevelopment. Financiers of the project compared it to the Pearl, which transformed midtown.  The company that owns the property recently declared bankruptcy. 

“It just looks ugly, and I wish someone would do something. The CPS power plant doesn’t look as bad and I think they could lease it out,” Powers said.

Despite both these setbacks, Powers remains optimistic about the two large properties that hang round the neck of the area like an albatross.

“We’re always hopeful,” Powers said laughing. “We’ve been hopeful for a long, long time.”

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.