How exactly did El Paso chart a path from economic powerhouse of the southwest through the 1950s to low wage capital of the nation by the end of the century? My hunch: we traded in our ambition, getting hooked instead on an economic model where business feasted off of low wage labor with an eye towards retiring out of town. Guys that retire out of town with their loot aren't likely to want to invest big in the town that they are planning on leaving behind. Pretty soon El Paso became a city that was all too easy to leave behind.
I have seen many fits and starts of El Paso leadership trying to dig a way out from the bottom, and I have learned one very important thing: the public dollar can't do all the digging. If we move forward, if we increase wages, if we invest in the dynamo that we want downtown to be, if we build ourselves back into the role of economic powerhouse of the southwest, we only do it with private capital taking as much risk as public capital. Every city with a great story of economic re-birth had private investors and business leaders lined up along side public, civic and non-profit leadership.
We started this century ready to recapture our ambition for our community with elected and civic leaders making a case for big change. Why resign ourselves to low wages and poor quality of life? Why export our most talented and educated young people? We didn't lack for hope or vision or ambition or ideas on how to dig ourselves out, but we fell short on developing those critical partnerships with business leadership and private investors that create competitive cities.
Developers hoped that talk of smart growth and development paying for itself would be cured with the next election cycle, rather than figuring out how to move towards a development pattern that met the community's goals. Heavy public investment in the Union Entertainment District was not matched with similar enthusiasm from the private sector. Beautiful new tree lined streets with new park benches and historic street lights only seemed to amplify the meager private investment and the vacant buildings. The Border Health Institute turned Medical Center of the Americas that was supposed to grow into a transformative economic engine churning out high paying jobs languished and at times seemed on the point of collapse with only elected officials championing the business case.
That's changing. In the last five years, business leadership and private investors seem more willing than ever to take a chance on El Paso and the vision for change that the public has been mapping out through the last decade. Richard Aguilar and EPT bucked the development trend and all the naysayers (most of them developers) and are investing big in Smart Code with the 292 acre Montecillo Development. Other landowners and developers are starting to follow suit. The Medical Center of the Americas can now count on many private sector champions lined up to invest time and money and heartache in a dream of high wage, high value economic development for our region.
And then there is downtown. In a bolt of frenzied civic process, the public rallied for and railed against a Downtown Plan proposed by the Paso del Norte Group. The plan was adopted in 2006 and ever since the private sector has worked with the city to implement. While implementation looks nothing like the adopted plan, it certainly meets the public spirit and even some of the concern that shaped it. Investors big and small, private and non-profit have been building housing, night life, restaurants, events and offices. It is a work in progress but I have much more confidence that it will get done because the private sector is all in.
Which brings me to the baseball park. The hotly debated downtown plan envisioned five economic drivers that would bring people from all over the region to Downtown. One of these drivers was an arena or large event facility. People would come from Juarez, the Northeast, Las Cruces, the Mission Valley... to enjoy a great event hosted in the facility. Too early to go home, they would stay for a drink or dinner. Maybe they would hang out in the park, enjoy the El Paso summer nights. Downtown would become the great public gathering place that it was built to be.
The enthusiasm for a large event facility like this was tempered by others who wanted to make sure that new investment was inserted into downtown in a manner that was not disruptive of the existing economic, cultural or historic vitality of Downtown. People told us that an emphasis should be placed on reinventing the ambition of our history through the 1950s, rather than tearing down and starting over.
The private sector--Woody Hunt, Josht Hunt, Paul Foster and Alejandra de la Vega--went scouting for professional teams that they could buy and bring to El Paso's Downtown. As luck and good fortune would have it, a Triple A Baseball Team came up for sale. The ownership team agreed to buy the baseball team and operate it and asked the City to build the stadium. The deal has to be approvated by the Pacific Coast League in order for El Paso to get the team. The Pacific Coast League is looking for a city that could deliver a ballpark for the team to start playing in by April 2014. They wanted a deal where the City could guarantee that the stadium get built.
Much of what drove the decision about locating the Triple A Baseball Park on the City Hall site were cost, timing and a desire that the ballpark be located so as not to destroy the great bones of Downtown. Buying property Downtown to accomodate a ballpark be cost prohibitive, time consuming and would likely require eminent domain which would mean years in court. Because of this City staff reviewed only large city-owned parcels to find the best fit for a ballpark. Of the threee sites reviewed, the City Hall site is the only one that could accomodate the ballpark, and it is the most visible site from the freeway. As you know, the City Hall site is a supersized suburban block that was built at time when it seemed like the best way to deal with Downtown was to remake it in the image of suburbia. That is how we ended up with a City Hall stranded in a sea of parking and built in the image of a toaster oven.
For a couple years now, we have been asked by City staff to invest between $12 to $15 million to bring the building up to standard. I opposed this investment and asked that we look at other locations for our City Hall operations. It didn't seem wise to invest that much money in a building that is only valued at $13 million and on a site that could be more meaningful to Downtown redevelopment efforts.
The City Council voted in a 6 to 2 vote to enter into a binding agreement to build the ballpark for not more than $50 million dollars, to re-locate City Hall and to authorize City staff to put an item on the November election to increase the Hotel Motel tax by 2% to pay for the ballpark.
There are a lot of questions and concerns about the particulars of this deal. You can find all you need to know about the deal points at: http://home.elpasotexas.gov/downtown-sports-complex.php and I am glad to answer any questions but I mostly wanted you to know why I voted in favor of a baseball park for Downtown El Paso.
Bottom line: you don't pass up historic opportunities to rebuild your community, especially when the private sector is willing to pony up in a big way to capture that opportunity.