The Alamo Is Trying To Eminent Domain This Man’s Bar to Make Way for Museum Honoring Alamo Defenders
January 25, 2023 | Tags: constitution, Eminent Domain, REASON, Texas
For the past 12 years, Vince Cantu has owned and operated the Alamo-themed Moses Rose's Hideout bar, just a few blocks from its historical inspiration in downtown San Antonio, Texas. For six of those years, Texas government bodies undertaking a massive expansion of the Alamo grounds have been telling him the same thing: sell us your bar, or we're going to come and take it.
Tomorrow the San Antonio City Council is set to vote on an ordinance authorizing the use of eminent domain to seize Cantu's bar. It's a drastic move, which the city, the state, and the nonprofit Alamo Trust (which operates the site) all claim is necessary given Cantu's repeated refusal to sell his property at a reasonable price. His obstinance puts the entire $400 million Alamo expansion in jeopardy, they say.
Cantu, meanwhile, says he's eager to participate in the expected economic success from adding a new Alamo museum, visitor center, and shops. The efforts to cut him out of the coming downtown boom by seizing his property are both unjust and laced with historical irony, he says.
"This was not run-of-the-mill eminent domain 'we're going to put a pipeline or a road through this property,'" he tells Reason. "This is property on the grounds of Texas liberty. This is blood-stained soil that we fought against this very thing, this whole idea of a government coming in and taking away your way of life."
When Cantu purchased the building that is now his bar, it had been vacant for eight years and was in rough shape physically. Its primary virtue was its location just a block from the historic Alamo Plaza and within walking distance of the San Antonio Riverwalk.
With an eye toward its potential, Cantu poured the money he'd made from selling the last bar he owned into creating Moses Rose's Hideout—named after the likely apocryphal legend of the one Alamo defender who deserted the fort instead of fighting and dying with the other defenders.
"With very little money I got it painted and passed city codes and got it open. All my first customers were homeless people. A homeless guy on a guitar was my live entertainment," he says. "It was probably a couple years before I was breaking even."
But the investment paid off, and those first lean years gave way to a booming business.
As Moses Rose's was becoming a downtown fixture, the various government entities and nonprofits with a stake in the Alamo were also plotting a business venture of their own. In late 2015, the City of San Antonio, the Alamo Endowment Board, and the General Land Office (GLO), the state agency that owns the site, inked an agreement to restore and expand the Alamo grounds.
Their initial plan called for restoration work on the existing church and barracks buildings and the construction of a new "world-class" museum and visitor center in the place of the buildings bordering Cantu's bar.
In 2016, Cantu says he received an email out of the blue from the GLO, signed by then-Land Commissioner George P. Bush, to purchase his building for an appraised value of $1 million.
At the time, Cantu said that he wasn't particularly interested in selling a successful, money-making business for the mere value of the building. A deal whereby Cantu would swap properties with the city for another one a little further away from the Alamo also fell through in 2017.
Several years passed without Cantu receiving any offers on his property. But plans for the Alamo expansion continued to develop. A June 2018 rendering for the site shows the Moses Rose's building replaced by a new museum.
In 2020, Cantu was once again propositioned to sell his property.
Cantu again expressed opposition to selling his property at the appraised value. "I can't afford to sell it for appraised value and not have any money. After I pay my note and everything else, I'd have to go find a job somewhere. And I like this job," he says.
In response, then-Alamo Trust CEO Douglass McDonald asked him to name a price that would allow him and his wife to "celebrate" the construction of the new Alamo museum. After thinking it over for a week, Cantu proposed a purchase price of $15 million.
That asking price was almost 8 times what the government offered him for the building. Cantu says it represented the "generational wealth" he'd be walking away from if he sold his building.
The new Alamo Museum, he reasoned, was going to be a huge tourist attraction. It would contain a new 4D theater and display new artifacts acquired and donated to the Alamo by its biggest fan and amateur collector, musician Phil Collins. The value of his property and the number of customers coming through his door would only increase.
"I'm walking away now from what is developing into a nice part of downtown. Things are finally starting to turn. I'm making money," he says. "Now, all of the sudden, they're asking me to walk away from it after I've built it up."
The GLO and Alamo Trust didn't respond to that offer.
According to both Cantu and a timeline provided by Alamo Trust, the next two years were dominated by an unproductive back-and-forth between Cantu and the various agencies involved in the Alamo expansion. These agencies made repeated offers of $2 million for Cantu's property, which he repeatedly rejected.
Throughout these back-and-forths, Cantu says he was frequently told that his property wasn't being considered for eminent domain, but that it was a possibility if he didn't sell.
Irritated and stressed by the implicit threats of eminent domain, Cantu started tacking on a $1 million "fee" each year the city pursued his property. In December 2022, Cantu rejected a final $3.5 million offer to buy his property.
With their efforts to voluntarily acquire the property at an impasse, the San Antonio City Council will now vote on an ordinance giving the city the power to eminent domain Cantu's property on behalf of the GLO.
The Alamo Trust has consistently argued Cantu's business is needed for a planned 4D theater that will be included in the new visitor center. Without the ticket revenue from the theater, the entire project becomes unviable, they say.
"After years of planning and community input, construction of The Alamo Visitor Center and Museum is scheduled to commence in June 2023, fulfilling a promise to the State of Texas and the City of San Antonio," said Alamo Trust in an emailed statement. "Having reached an impasse with Mr. Cantu, we have no choice but to urge the City of San Antonio City Council to explore the option to acquire his property so the Alamo Visitor Center and Museum can move forward without unnecessary delay."
*San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia told the San Antonio Report that the city's seizure of the property was justified by the immense public benefit of "having a world-class Alamo campus that has a visitor center, that has a museum, has all the historical resources that allow the community to learn about not only what happened in 1836, but the whole history of that area."
If the city council authorizes eminent domain, Segovia said that the next step would be negotiations and appraisal of the property's fair market value. That's expected to take 120 days.
Cantu says that he's reached out to all the members of the city council but hasn't received any commitments of support from them. He describes the effort to forcibly take his property as "sacrilegious" and the "most Untexan thing you could do."
If the city does vote to go forward with eminent domain, Cantu says he'll continue to fight the seizure.
"I'm going to fight it all the way. I think in principle, it's ridiculous to have to deal with this eminent domain bullshit on the grounds of the Alamo," he says. "It taints the reputation and legacy of these people who you want to build a museum to supposedly honor. You're actually just shitting them."
UPDATE: San Antonio City Attorney's Office did respond to Reason's request for comment. A spokesperson said "we anticipate negotiating a resolution before we go far down the condemnation process."
UPDATE: On Thursday, the San Antonio City Council approved an ordinance authorizing eminent domain of Cantu's bar, reports San Antonio Express-News. His property can now be condemned by the city if negotiations to acquire it fail.
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