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SAN ANTONION EXPRESS-NEWS, Front Page - June 22, 2006

Landmark Reborn
Tower’s reopening draws rave reviews
By Amy Dorsett and Tracy Idell Hamilton

As the sun set on the longest day of the year, hundreds watched from atop the Tower of the Americas while local dignitaries and members of the public celebrated the structure’s grand reopening.

Shined, buffed and polished, the 38-year-old San Antonio landmark threw its doors open Wednesday after a yearlong, $13 million makeover by Houston-based Landry’s Restaurants, and no one was disappointed.

“It’s just wonderful,” Mayor Phil Hardberger said. “It’s very well done. I think people who were worried about the state of the tower in the past will be very pleased.”

Hardberger was among dozens of local luminaries who nibbled on delicacies from the restaurant’s revamped menu as the sun slowly sank.

It was an especially poignant occasion for Councilman Roger Flores, whose parents met during the preparations for HemisFair, when she was a translator and he was a shy graphic designer.

“My father would be so proud of this,” Flores said.

Seared ahi tuna, beef tenderloin, spicy crab cakes and jumbo chocolate-dipped strawberries tempted the crowd as it oohed and ahhed over the view and the upgraded interior.

As VIPs hobnobbed, members of the public packed the elevators to get a glimpse of the redone tower, circling the outside observation deck as the wind whipped past.

Landry’s is betting the revamped tower will attract a new generation of tourists and locals after years of declining interest.

In addition to the invitation-only reception, the tower’s new Eyes Over Texas restaurant was fully booked – through Saturday.

Landry’s has a contract with the city until 2019 to operate the tower, a distinctive part of the San Antonio skyline since 1968.

Landry’s Chief Executive Tilman Fertitta said the ambitious remodel is likely to cost the company $13 million, which is $2 million more than expected.

The city kicked in additional money to improve the elevators, remove cracks from the tower’s façade and take off lead paint from its top.

From afar, the tower changes aren’t noticeable. But up close, the modernization is quite evident. The base space was increased by 200 percent and now features restrooms, a gift shop and a theater that combines a 3-D movie with moving seats.

Landry’s spent $4 million alone on the Skies Over Texas, which it touts as a ride.

It’s more of an enhanced 3-D movie, during which 50 seats are vibrated according to what’s seen on the screen, an eight-minute roundup of the Lone Star State. Blasts of air, mist and scent add to the experience.

The observation deck, above the restaurant at the tower’s top, now is called Flags Over Texas. It’s designed to educate visitors about the six flags that have flown over the state.

By far, the most attention was paid to the tower’s 250-seat restaurant, which makes one complete revolution an hour and offers menus for both lunch and dinner.

Fertitta said he thinks the restaurant will earn a place alongside some of the country’s most elite eateries.

“We didn’t just want to create one of the best restaurants for San Antonio, we wanted to create one of the best restaurants in America,” he said.

Visiting the restaurant Tuesday night, Fertitta said he was taken aback by the view.

“I’ve been all over the world and between 8:30 and 9:30, there’s no better view,” he said. “It’s as good as it gets.”

Fertitta, whose company has enjoyed immense success with multi-attraction venues in other cities, is setting his immediate sights on improving attendance at the tower.

In its inaugural year, the tower attracted more than 2.1 million visitors, but those numbers starting dropping by the 1980s.

From October 2003 through the closing of the tower for renovations in 2005, fewer than 438,000 paid the price of admission to visit the observation deck, and a fraction of that number dined at the restaurant.

Even with its new look, the tower reminded many of the iconic structure’s glory days.

“It sure brings back memories,” said civic leader Bill Sinkin, one of the key organizers of HemisFair ’68. “And it shows what the community can do when we get together.”

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