Despite pushback from the business community, two city representatives opposed to building the controversial Downtown arena in the Duranguito neighborhood want to vote to change the site – or abandon the project altogether – on Tuesday.
That’s when three newly elected city representatives who have also said they oppose the site will take office – likely giving council a majority vote on the issue.
The move to have the discussion during the first meeting of the year has spurred opposition from the El Paso Chamber.
“It appears the Jan. 3 City Council vote to abandon the Downtown arena project was purposely scheduled when we are least likely to have community input, right at the start of the new year, and at the tail end of the holiday season. Many are focused on other matters and cannot consider this issue fully,” said Andrea Hutchins, president and CEO of the chamber in a column published Wednesday.
Hutchins, who leads the organization of area businesses, said the move is “disconcerting” and that the majority of the chamber’s members oppose abandoning plans for the multipurpose cultural and performing arts center, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2012.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, who co-authored the agenda item, said the concern about the community not being prepared to have the discussion is “disingenuous.”
“(They) are scrambling right now to understand what’s going to happen, and they’re trying to gear the conversation their way,” Annello said. “The community has been a part of this conversation for six years.”
The agenda item by Annello and city Rep. Joe Molinar calls for the council to consider reallocating remaining bond funds from the stalled Downtown arena toward renovating or upgrading existing city facilities – essentially abandoning the project altogether.
The item also stipulates that the buildings within the site in the Duranguito neighborhood in the Union Plaza area, which have been at the center of a years-long legal battle, not be condemned or demolished.
Annello said this would not be the first time the arena is discussed at the first meeting of the year.
During the first council meeting in 2022, an item to discuss safeguarding the damaged buildings within the arena footprint was discussed, although city staff was not prepared to present recommendations.
That move came after the City Council in November 2021 approved directing staff to safeguard the buildings, determine the cost of the project in current dollars and incorporate existing buildings into the design. Staff was also directed to explore a possible settlement in the longtime legal battle over the arena site.
Annello said no one from the business community at the time complained that the project was being discussed during the first meeting of the year.
Molinar said the chamber’s claim that the community will not be prepared to discuss the issue Tuesday is “false.” The discussion has been 10 years in the making, he added.
In the 2012 city bond election, 72% of El Paso voters approved a $228 million proposition that included $180 million for a multipurpose cultural and performing arts center.
The city has about $154 million of that budget left. The spent funds have gone toward purchasing buildings, consulting, appraisals and engineering charges, as well as about $800,000 for a current feasibility study.
A separate item on Tuesday’s agenda calls for a presentation on the “pre-final” findings of the study. Part of the presentation shows the arena, depending on the type of facility and seating capacity, could cost anywhere from $143 million to $416 million.
The embattled project has been bounced around Texas courts since 2017 – not long after the City Council voted to build it in the Duranguito neighborhood. The city has separately spent about $3.3 million for ongoing litigation.
“If we don’t do it on the first of the year, when do we do it? In April? In May? Do we do it on August 16? What day do they want? What day do they select?” Molinar said. “It’s 2023 and we have new people coming on board and they should already be prepared.”
The three new city representatives will be sworn in Tuesday morning ahead of the meeting.
Brian Kennedy, who’ll represent District 1, said he is ready to go to work.
One of Kennedy’s campaign platforms was opposing the existing plans for the Downtown arena, stating that the remaining bond funds should be used toward improving the Abraham Chavez Theatre adjacent to the Judson F. Williams Convention Center.
“I’m ready for whatever discussion they’d like to have,” Kennedy said, adding he will decide how he’ll vote after he listens to all of the information presented.
Chris Canales, who was elected in District 8, also said during his campaign that he would be open to supporting a change in location for the arena. Canales could not be reached for comment.
Art Fierro, who defeated District 6 city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez for the seat, has said he opposes the existing Downtown arena plan. Fierro did not respond to El Paso Matters request for comment for this story.