By Max Grossman
I am writing in response to the guest column by Andrea Hutchins of the El Paso Chamber about the City Council vote scheduled for Jan. 3 on whether to abandon building an arena in Duranguito and instead reallocate the remaining Quality of Life Bond funds to upgrading existing city facilities.
According to Hutchins, “a small group of loud voices suggest that the recent City Council elections are a mandate to end or curtail” the 2012 quality-of-life bond projects. In truth, this suggestion was proposed for only one bond project: the Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center.
The three candidates for City Council who just won their runoff elections by double-digit margins all campaigned very vocally on sparing Duranguito and reallocating the MPC bond funds for a more productive purpose while staying within budget and respecting the will of the voting public. Brian Kennedy, Art Fierro and Chris Canales will be sworn in Jan. 3, joining Rep. Alexsandra Annello, Rep. Joe Molinar and Mayor Oscar Leeser in their common opinion that no arena should be built in Duranguito.
To blame a “vocal minority” when in fact six out of nine of our city’s elected leaders disagree with her is to dismiss the will of the voters, who overwhelmingly oppose displacing our most vulnerable citizens and demolishing their historic barrio along with 12 buildings that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
She also discounts the opposition of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Texas, and even the city’s own Historic Landmark Commission and City Plan Commission, as well as the residents of Duranguito and groups such as Paso del Sur and the Community First Coalition.
Let us remember that it was on Oct. 13, 2016, that the city announced they would build an “arena” in Duranguito even though the November 2012 ballot never indicated the project’s location or intended function. Only five days later the City Council voted to empower itself with eminent domain authority over 11 acres of our historic Downtown, where El Pasoans have lived for generations.
The barrio residents and their supporters had only five days to react to the city’s announcement, and it is laughable that more than six years and hundreds of media reports later Hutchins has the audacity to complain that there is insufficient time for community input.
Our elected city leaders who oppose razing Duranguito, including the three who were just voted into office, are standing on principle. They are uncomfortable with displacement and eminent domain for an entertainment project and oppose the destruction of precious cultural assets that date to the early history of our city. They understand that our cultural assets are also economic assets, which have the potential to drive heritage tourism, one of the fastest growing sectors of the Texas economy.
Moreover, they are against spending more than the approximately $154 million that are left for the project.
That brings me to the city’s $798,611 arena feasibility study, which is not only an attempt to legitimize the city’s plans for displacement and mass demolition but also to go eight or nine figures over budget, potentially increasing our property tax. City staff will present the “prefinal” results at the next City Council meeting under agenda item 14 and the PowerPoint has already been uploaded as backup.
There we learn that the consultants are recommending either a 12,000-seat arena that would “incorporate” several historic buildings and cost $416 million, which is about $236 million over budget, or a “flexible hybrid venue” with a capacity of 8,000 costing between $143 million and $213 million, which is up to $59 million over budget. The consultants claim that these options will turn a profit but they intentionally omit the cost of debt servicing from their expenditures column!
There are only three representatives remaining on City Council who actually voted for this study on April 26 and it clearly does not represent the will of the voting public.
I will conclude by reminding Hutchins that the United States of America was founded by individuals with “loud voices” and I am proud to use mine in these pages and elsewhere.
Max Grossman holds a doctorate in architectural history from Columbia University and serves on the boards of Preservation Texas, The Trost Society, and Restore Sacred Heart Church.