El Paso’s next mayor will be elected amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that has not only jeopardized the health and safety of residents, but has severely strained the local economy with potentially long-lasting effects.
The race has drawn six candidates, including incumbent Mayor Dee Margo. The other candidates are former Mayor Oscar Leeser, Veronica Carbajal, Carlos Gallinar, Calvin Zielsdorf and Dean “Dino” Martinez.
The decisions made by the next city leadership could have long-lasting impacts for a region that is facing minimal population growth and economic challenges beyond the immediate financial strain brought on by the pandemic.
Prior to COVID-19 and its impact on the local economy, El Paso has faced seven years of stagnant population growth largely driven by a substantial loss in “net domestic migration,” which is the difference between the number of people moving into El Paso from other areas of the United States and the number moving out, according to Census Bureau estimates.
According to the estimates, 53,000 more people moved out of El Paso to other U.S. communities than moved in between the 2010 census and July 2019, an El Paso Matters analysis found.
Meanwhile median household incomes in El Paso have shown slight growth compared to the rest of the country, but still lag compared to the rest of the state, according to the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates Program.
Carbajal, Gallinar and Zielsdorf shared where they hope to see El Paso in the next decade if elected on Nov. 3. Margo and Leeser did not respond to El Paso Matters requests for comment for this story. Martinez did not explain a clear vision for the direction of El Paso under his leadership if elected.
Carbajal, a long-time attorney with the nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said changes through her vision for El Paso include having thriving small businesses, a better grip on climate change, a city government that spends efficiently and is transparent, historical neighborhoods kept intact and thriving heritage tourism, among others.
“So for the next 10 years that means being honest about where we are spending our public dollars and how much we are getting back on that expenditure,” Carbajal said.
Carbajal said that means scrutinizing the city’s budget to find out where there is wasteful spending, cutting back on tax incentives for outside corporations and local developers to reinvest in neighborhoods and local small businesses.
To address climate change, Carbajal said the city will have to invest in more green spaces to reduce “heat islands” throughout the city.
Heat islands are areas where there is a concentration of structures such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure that absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat within urban areas compared to more natural landscapes. Carbajal also said there needs to be a shift toward increasing the use of solar energy in the private and public sector as opposed to relying on electricity which she has argued puts a strain on El Paso’s finite water supply.
Carbajal said in 10 years the city will not have demolished historic neighborhoods, but will have improved upon them and used them to increase heritage tourism from Fort Bliss and from other parts of the country.
As part of her vision for Downtown, Carbajal said the city will have abandoned its plans to build the controversial Downtown multipurpose and performing arts center and shifted the $180 million bond funding to improve the Judson F. Williams Convention Center and Abraham Chavez Theatre. Carbajal said reallocated bond funds would also go toward the Children’s Museum and the Mexican American Cultural Center.
Carbajal represented families in a legal battle aiming to prevent the city from building the multipurpose center in the Duranguito neighborhood in the Union Plaza in Downtown El Paso. Preservationists have argued that Duranguito has historic buildings that should not be torn down.
Beyond her vision for Downtown, Carbajal said by working with other local government agencies to pool resources, it may be possible to provide free access to wifi and public transportation for El Pasoans.
“These programs I’m talking about sound impossible unless you start to see how much waste there is in the city currently,” Carbajal said. “The money is there, it’s just not being used in a responsible manner.”
Gallinar, a long-time city planner and small business owner, said his vision for the city a decade from now includes being a leader in solar and renewable energy, ecotourism and in small business development as well as a large central park located in Downtown El Paso.
In order to transform El Paso into a leader in climate change, Gallinar said he wants to draw the solar and renewable energy industry to build the largest solar farm in the Southwest.
Gallinar said that includes manufacturing and installation businesses with high-paying jobs.
“I think we can get there. We have the location, we have the sun, we have a history of being a leader in manufacturing, so I think we can get there on solar and renewable energy,” Gallinar said.
Gallinar said he also wants the city to partner with University of Texas at El Paso engineering programs for high-tech manufacturing opportunities that will keep graduates from having to leave the city to seek jobs elsewhere.
In order to establish the region as a leader in ecotourism, Gallinar said he wants to create a regional hike and bike trail that connects every neighborhood to the Franklin Mountains.
He said part of the plan would involve utilizing infrastructure already in place such as acequias, arroyos and utility easements. Although Gallinar said using existing infrastructure would be a way to complete the project in a fairly inexpensive manner, he did not say where funding for the project would come from.
“All of this not only makes us healthier, but it improves our quality of life (and) it invites people to come to El Paso,” Gallinar said, adding that the trails would also likely spur new businesses to open that cater to the ecotourism industry.
The other key open space project Gallinar envisions is a grand central park in Downtown El Paso, an idea first proposed by then-Mayor Ray Caballero almost 20 years ago. Gallinar worked on Caballero’s campaign. He said the park would serve to beautify the city and the area while providing families more outdoor opportunities.
The project, he said, would be part of the Texas Department of Transportation’s expansion and remake of the Interstate 10 Downtown segment.
The estimated $750 million project does not include funding for proposed parks that could be designed above the sunken part of the interstate near the heart of Downtown. TxDOT officials have said the city and local agencies would have to raise funds for any proposed park projects.
TxDOT may require the use of eminent domain to acquire properties to make room for the expansion.
Gallinar said he supports the project and would work with the city and other local government agencies to find funding for it.
Zielsdorf, a former El Paso firefighter and current swim coach for Cathedral High School, said his vision for El Paso 10 years from now will have restructured city departments, increased renewable energy usage and district projects designed to engage residents.
His vision for how the city government would run involves limiting the time that employees, such as police and firefighters, would work for the city.
“They are not going to be career departments anymore. They are going to be shorter term civil service opportunities,” Zielsdorf said.
The change, he said, would allow the city to continuously have fresh ideas from new employees having more frequent opportunities to work for the city.
In order to balance the fact that city employees would not have pensions under this plan, Zielsdorf said they would offer other compensation such as paying off employees’ homes, providing them training for another professional trade, or living stipends.
“It’s a different way of thinking how to live in a community — at least within how a city government works,” Zielsdorf said. “It opens the doors of opportunity for more people, not just a small amount of people.”
Zielsdorf did not say how these types of alternate benefit programs would be paid for and acknowledged there could be resistance from unions and employees.
The city currently has 6,671 employees including 2,059 uniform employees.
Zielsdorf said aside from seeing changes to the way the city manages and retains staff, he said he wants to facilitate an increase in the use of renewable energy and wants residents to come up with innovative ideas to utilize recycled material such as plastics to build roads.
He said the idea would be to have the plastic roads built in sections from molds that are kept in a database that can be easily reproduced and replaced. Some European companies have started using recycled plastics to create asphalt for roadways.
“I really want to push our community and see how far we can go and I want to see if we can have innovative people come up with ideas,” Zielsdorf said.
Dean “Dino” Martinez
When asked what his vision was for El Paso in the next 10 years, Martinez did not directly identify a plan.
Martinez said he has been a volunteer Santa Claus for a long time and he thinks that helps as far is giving back to the community. He also mentioned the importance of young men learning a skill or trade such as plumbing or mechanics and connecting with close family members or friends that can teach them those skills.
Martinez also said he thinks it is important for El Pasoans to give and help one another without expecting anything in return.
“My case is to turn around and let El Pasoans know this: nothing is for free and if it is it’s about time you become like me and start giving it back,” Martinez said.