A small steering committee will gather Thursday evening to meet with the design firm hired by the city on future plans for the embattled Downtown multipurpose cultural and performing arts center.

An email obtained by El Paso Matters shows that the city invited a group of about 15 individuals to participate in two meetings that will “kick off the feasibility and programming study” for the Downtown arena. The first meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursday on the second floor of the Visitor’s Center across from San Jacinto Plaza in Downtown. The email doesn’t say if the  meeting is open to the public.

The move to push forward with the feasibility study comes while the two deteriorating buildings that were supposed to be safeguarded by the city from further damage in the Downtown arena site remain untouched.

“We are partnering with Gensler to lead the effort of gathering input from key community members. Because of your passion and expertise, you are being invited to be on the Steering Committee for this project,” Daniela Quesada, the city’s chief architect, said in the email sent June 6 to the chosen participants.

City spokeswoman Tammy Fonce said in an email response to El Paso Matters late Thursday that the steering committee is the first step in what will be a “robust public engagement” process related to the feasibility study.

“The public engagement process will include ample opportunities for the general public to provide input both in-person, virtually, or online,” Fonce said in the email. “The first public meeting is expected to be held in late June. Meeting details are still being coordinated and will be made public and shared widely once finalized.”

The committee is made up of various community groups, including Creative Kids, Rio Bravo Group, Underserved Communities Foundation, El Paso Downtown Management District, El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and El Paso architect Martina Lorey.

Max Grossman, who has spearheaded legal challenges to plans to build the facility in the Duranguito, will be offered a one-on-one meeting with the consultants, Fonce said.

Fonce said the participants were selected by city staff because they all are active in the community and can bring different perspectives to the steering committee.

“I haven’t really received any information in advance so I’m interested to hear what they’re planning, or what the process is,” said Sito Negron, an aide to El Paso County Commissioner David Stout who was invited to participate in the two meetings. “I think one measure of their sincerity is going to be looking at the transparency of the process and the inclusiveness of the process starting from the very beginning.”

Negron said he is not opposed to the Downtown arena, but has advocated for the preservation of the Duranguito neighborhood where the city plans to build the project.

Two meetings will be held with the group according to the email.

The first meeting will be held to gather thoughts and input to help “define the various uses and character of the new building and adjoining spaces.”

The second meeting that will take place June 22 will be to further elaborate on what the design firm interpreted from the initial meeting.

In April, the city hired San Francisco-based M. Arthur Gensler & Associates, Inc., for about $800,000 to conduct the feasibility study.

Part of the study is supposed to include public engagement.

The study was part of a request council made in November to determine the cost for the Downtown arena project, ways to protect damaged buildings, how existing buildings may be incorporated and to negotiate an end to a years long legal battle that has halted the signature bond project approved by voters in 2012 from moving forward.

The City Council approved about $29,000 in March to secure the Chinese Laundry building at 212 W. Overland Ave. and the Flor de Luna building at 300 W. Overland Ave. in the Duranguito neighborhood where the city plans to build the project. The buildings showed no signs of recent major work on Thursday.

Fonce said the city is still in discussions with “the opposition” regarding the work to be done on the two buildings. At the direction of City Council, city staff has been negotiating with Grossman’s attorneys in an effort to settle the ongoing litigation.

The city and Grossman have entered into an agreement that the city will not proceed with an archaeological survey under a Texas Historical Commission permit until either there is a settlement among the parties or until 30 days after the conclusion of an appeal at the Texas Supreme Court. The survey is required before the city can begin to build the project.

9 a.m. June 10: This story has been updated to include comment from the city government.

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper...