The ongoing controversies over the downtown sports arena and gentrification in El Paso is not new to El Paso’s politics. Economic development through “vision” strategies go back to at least 2000 when the Caballero administration proposed putting economic development as part of the public policy agenda, one driven by “vision” and paid for by the taxpayers of El Paso with the added cost of gentrification to make way for the “vision”. The Border Health Institute (BHI) was part of the TIF district battles and downtown El Paso. Both shared a “vision” around economic development through eradicating poor Latino neighborhoods. The TIFs were not the only controversies. There is the “vision” of a central park in El Paso and an earlier version of a sports arena in downtown.
In 2002 El Paso county commissioners met to discuss a proposed sports arena for downtown El Paso. The similarities between the project almost 20 years ago to today’s controversy cannot be ignored. What can be seen is that the drive to build a downtown sports arena has been controversial for decades, a controversy driven by the “vision” of economic renaissance that sports arena proponents continue to push for today.
In October 2002, county commissioners voted down their version of the sports arena. What the community learned in 2002 was that the sports arena vision was hastily put together. Because it was rushed, the appropriate groundwork to gain the community’s support suffered as a result. Like today, the project did not have the necessary support of the community. In addition to the lack of community support, there were key problems with the proposed arena.
The first problem was scale. A 20,000-person arena was what most believed would attract major sports and entertainment events. In 2002, the seating capacity was to be 10,000. In today’s version, it is a 15,000-seat venue. Thus the 20,000-seat arena that is economically viable remains ignored. In 2002, the community was being asked to invest over $45 million but the arena project lacked a critical thing – being the cornerstone of a redevelopment strategy. Thus “smart growth” was added to the mix. The county was proposing a 10,000-person arena that did not seem to capture the imagination of El Pasoans and even less of the sports owners needed to build teams on it. Proponents of a downtown sports arena learned that they needed to go bigger for their dream to come alive. They needed “vision”.
The second problem was location. An arena needs ready access from thoroughfares and transportation systems. Locating the proposed county arena at Ascarate was a last-minute idea that was not popular. The location for such a major venue demanded consideration of how it would be accessed. As a result, Ascarate was not viable. Cohen Stadium, with access via the loop and US 54, not to mention its public ownership, has been feasible for a sports arena but proponents have continuously discounted it.
At the time of the county’s drive for a downtown sports arena, it was argued that Ascarate may one day be a fully built recreational venue. To do so required retooling its access to the Border highway and Trowbridge. Absent that, access was too cumbersome. Without a clear plan for access, the voters could not be convinced that it was a venue they could support. Access to a venue remains a problem even for the downtown location, although fast-transit and trolleys have been added since 2002. But the bottleneck of I-10 at downtown remains.
The third problem was political. There simply was no trust by the public about the motives, financing schemes and project oversight capabilities of the commissioner’s court. As evidenced by the corruption cases that sent over 40 El Paso officials to jail for public corruption between 2007 and 2014, few decisions made by the politicians did not seem to include behind the scenes financial motivations. The on again, off again participation of some private sector investors and the hasty decisions related to the arena all pointed to several conflicts-of-interest.
Fast forward to today’s arena controversy and many of the problems remain.
By the time the vote came before the county commissioners the voters were not convinced that they needed a sports arena in El Paso. Less than five years later, many of the proponents of the sports arena were implicated in the public corruption scandals that sent many individuals to jail. But proponents had not given up. As officials were being jailed for public corruption a new scheme was born – the 2012 Quality of Life bond election. Along with it came smart growth and Plan El Paso.
But the lessons were somewhat learned. Location and, to some extent scale – 10,000 to 15,000 seats – were now addressed. The next problem was the voters. The voters had to be managed for their support. Thus, the 2012 Quality of Life bond election was framed as more of a venue for all and less of a sports arena. Once the voters were secured, the problem remains access to the proposed venue. Thus, the trolley system was funded, major road construction for access roads, Mesa as an example, were intensified. But the fundamental flaw remains, access from the rest of El Paso and Cd. Juárez. Thus, the ongoing discussions over the expansion of I-10 that are intensifying. The local highway needs to improve its access to downtown for the downtown arena to work, and its “vision” of a downtown renaissance.
The Chihuahuas ballpark exposes how the lack of access is the fundamental flaw to the scheme. The scheme being Plan El Paso. For the downtown sports venue to be feasible, access to the local highway system needs to fundamentally improve, and, thus I-10 in downtown must exponentially grow. It is the same “vision” that envisions a cost-prohibitive Central Park for El Paso.
In 2002, El Paso taxpayers were being asked to invest $45 million for an entertainment and sports venue. In 2016, the city council set aside $200 million for a sports venue targeting the Duranguito neighborhood. (Max Grossman, open records W091113-062221, June 2021)
As of today, one of three lawsuits seeking to stop the sports arena remains pending. The city has prevailed in the first two. Nonetheless city council has spent $13 million for land out of $16 million it has spent in total towards the project. (Grossman) As many readers will note, there is ongoing concern today of what neighborhoods will be impacted by the necessary expansion of Interstate 10 to provide greater access to the proposed stadium and the Chihuahuas baseball stadium.
However, three fundamental problems remain, parking, seat capacity and community support. In 2002, it was argued that an entertainment and sports venue required a minimum od 20,000 seats. The current version only includes 15,000 seats. Clearly as evidenced by the ongoing litigation, the community has yet to buy into the “vision” of an arena.
What is the “vision”? As former mayor Dee Margo told Nightly News yesterday, “economic growth in this area will benefit the community more than preserving it.” Clearly, the “vision” is to gentrify poorer Latino communities like Duranguito to make way for the “vision”.
Martín Paredes extensively covered city politics from 2001 through mid-2005 for the online publications: El Paso Metro and the El Paso Tribune. Unless specifically noted, the information presented in this article comes from contemporaneous notes taken by the author at the time of the events depicted here.