Although readers may be tempted to believe that pitting El Paso businessmen’s economic interests against preservation and rising taxes to build sports arenas is a modern problem, the fact is that El Paso voters have been wrestling with this issue for almost 100 years. The public debates and accusations of today are the same as before. “There are some who believe the bonds should be defeated because the City cannot take on more indebtedness,” said one individual who added, “El Paso is standing still while other cities go ahead.” [1] Sound familiar? The meeting was held to discuss a bond election, to fund in part, a stadium to be in an arroyo at Kern Place. The proposed stadium was to seat 18,000 people. Among the “eleven El Paso business men [sic]” assuring the public how everyone was behind the project included El Paso familiar names like Maurice Schwartz, and the representatives of the chamber of commerce, the Sun Carnival Association and the school board. [2]

D. M. Wiggins, representing the College of Mines, now UTEP, told the audience “This is the time to get the money while the getting is good.” [2] What they were discussing was holding a bond election for $1 million in 1938 to build several projects. [3]

In 1938, El Paso property owners were funding $6.5 million in city debt. Adding the proposed $1.3 million of public debt would hit city’s bond limits according to the city auditor. [3]

The Projects

Among the proposed 1938 bond projects was a $400,000 storm sewer construction project, a new police station and jail for $130,000, expansion of the library ($75,000) and $150,000 for the Arroyo Park Stadium, a facility for seating 20,000 people. [3] To make the new city debt more palatable to the voters, the proponents added upgrades to ten existing city parks and the addition of two new parks totaling $302,000. The total for parks, including the proposed stadium was $575,000, “a per capita expenditure of approximately $5.75,” according to the El Paso Herald-Post. As additional enticement, the proponents argued that the “federal government would supply $273,500 more for proposed expansion of municipal recreation facilities.” [5]

The voters were not allowed to pick and choose which projects they wanted to fund. “Voters must take the whole plan or nothing,” read the El Paso Herald-Post report. [5]

The Stadium

Although Dudley Field existed and UTEP had a stadium, not to mention high school stadiums, there were those who proposed building the 20,000-seat stadium in Kern Place in the upcoming August 13, 1938 bond election. Instead of the initial $100,000 proposed for the project, the amount had grown to $302,000. This included $75,000 for a gymnasium and $150,000 for the stadium. [3]

Of the $302,000 proposed for park improvements, $162,000 was for the Kern Place stadium which was now $225,000. [5]

Instead of the glossy posters and websites used today to showcase the proposed stadium, in 1938, the City Recreation Department built a clay model of the proposed stadium to entice the voters to vote for it. [7]

Newspaper Image of Clay Model, 1938

Proponents of the proposed stadium included names such as Maurice Schwartz (Popular Dry Goods) Sam Young (El Paso National Bank) and other business owners and banking officials. [1]

Newspapers Push Stadium Bonds

Like today, one of El Paso’s newspapers, the El Paso Herald-Post, was accused of pushing the proposed sports arena. W. T. Wilson in a letter to the editor at the Herald wrote that he has “noticed with interest your newspaper propaganda in favor of the proposed bond issue by which the City’s bonded debt is to be increased approximately $1,3000,000.” The letter writer wrote that the newspaper, was caught “in the prevalent feeling that public money lavishly expended will bring prosperity” to El Paso. Wilson pointed out in his letter that the “enormous sum for a new stadium” ignored the “very adequate stadium at Austin High School, at El Paso High School and at the School of Mines (UTEP).” [6] The letter writer went on to point out that some of the proposed city debt was needed but the need to vote for all the items made it impossible for the voters to choose which they were willing to support. Wilson added that he noticed that the “Mayor has a high pressure committee of big business men to assist in putting over these bond issues.” Wilson poignantly closes his letter to the editor with the bond election “will be decided by the little taxpayers who say nothing but go quietly to the polls and vote.” [6]

Although Wilson meant that the voters would override “the ballyhoo of the prominent citizens” pushing forth the public debt, his description of the El Paso voter at the time describes today’s voter and stadium issue in that monied proponents for public debt push projects to the quiet voters.

An editorial in the El Paso Herald-Post on August 10, 1938 argued that proposed $302,000 for parks, which included the stadium, was money to be spent on “all sections” of El Paso and that the stadium was “necessary because the addition to the College of Mines Stadium (UTEP) for which money is in hand, will enlarge that beautiful bowl to its limit.” The newspaper editorial added that “there were no seats left” and that “more could have been sold” at the last Sun Carnival football game “if the people of the territory had not known the game was a sell-out.” [8]

The editorial page of the other local newspaper of the time, the El Paso Times, also supported the stadium. “One of the most important of the 13 bond issues on which El Paso property owners will decide by their votes Saturday is the park bond issue,” blared the Time’s editorial. [9] Voters were to either approve all or none of the proposed bond projects. They could not choose the ones they were willing to support.

The Times editorial continued that the “stadium is seriously needed.” It added that the “Sun Carnival Assn. is apprehensive that El Paso will lose the annual Sun Bowl game” without the proposed stadium. The editorial continued that the proposed stadium “will not be used ‘only one day a year’ as some of the opponents of the bonds have tried to mislead the public into believing.” “The stadium will be rented” and would become “a steady source of income” for El Paso. The Times editorial concluded that it “believes” that the proposed Kern Place stadium “will be as dependable a money-maker as the Municipal Golf Course.” [9] The Times editorial goes on to tell readers that the bonds will benefit every voter in the city because each part of the city gets a part of the bond money for their neighborhoods and that the proposed Arroyo Park Stadium project “is planned for high class tourist and resident patronage” instead of the “place swarming with undesirables” that some Kern Place and Rim Road owners were concerned about.

Letters to the editor and political advertisements littered the pages of both newspapers as the election grew closer. Many editorials were unsigned and appeared throughout the pages of both newspapers.

Stadium Advertisement in local newspaper, 1938.

Interestingly one letter writer in the August 11, 1938 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post wrote that Bowie High School would benefit from the proposed stadium. Austin High School and El Paso High School had their stadiums, but the high school dominated by the city’s Hispanic community would not get its own stadium, instead it would benefit from a taxpayer-funded stadium in the Rim Road-Kern Place neighborhoods. These were the same neighborhoods that were concerned about “undesirables” coming into the neighborhood because of the proposed stadium. The letter, like others, in that edition of newspaper were unsigned.

Opponents Threaten Court Action

The most vocal of the opponents to the proposed arena in Kern Place were attorneys Maury Kemp, William H. Burges, Thornton Hardie and Paul Thomas. The lawyers threatened to file suit to prevent the issuance of the bonds should voters approve them. The El Paso Herald-Post decried the threat of the lawsuit in its editorial pages. The editorial argued that a lawsuit would “tie the matter up in court efficiently and expertly” regardless of the will of the voters. “Since time is the essence of the Government’s spending program, delay would be fatal,” read the editorial, adding “sixty days from now there may be none, and El Paso would be left holding the sack and fighting a lawsuit.” [10]

The newspaper editorial then insinuated that approval of the bonds were essential because “we want our jobless people to go to work next month, not next year or never.” [10]

The legal issue facing the voters two days before the election was who was eligible to vote for the bonds. The city attorney requested an opinion from the Attorney General over whether “that all persons on the tax rolls” were eligible to cast a vote, or if only property owners whose property was “rendered for taxation” could vote on the bond issue. [11]

The four lawyers threatening a lawsuit opposed the issuance of the bonds. In their letter threatening the lawsuit, the lawyers wrote that the election judges had been advised by the mayor pro-tem “advised you to do what you can for the passage of these bond issues.” [11]

The Bond Measure Failed But The Stadium Was Still On

The 1938 bond measure for the stadium failed but the stadium project remained on the table. City leaders gathered to reevaluate the bond issuance on September 7, 1938. [12] “We voted three or four to one against that damnable stadium…now they are trying to ram it down our throats again,” said R. E. Cunningham at the meeting. He added that “it’s nothing short of a dictatorship.” [1]

The committee of 19 individuals was tasked with analyzing El Paso’s financial condition “with respect to resubmission of any or all of the 12 failed bond proposals,” including the Arroyo Park Stadium. The El Paso Times called for the elimination of the stadium from a future bond election. The Times called out the city for “getting employees and others to render their gold watches, silverware and radios for taxation so as to qualify themselves to vote for the bonds.” [12]

The El Paso Times editorial board was arguing that city leaders should have been better at persuading the voters to vote for the bonds, instead of stuffing the ballot box with voters that may not have qualified to vote in that election.

Depression Era Programs

Readers should note that part of the debate over the city’s debt bonds in 1938 involved Works Progress Administration (WPA) federal dollars enacted by the Roosevelt administration to revive the national economy after the Great Depression. The WPA program, part of the New Deal, was created by executive order. It provided federal dollars to local governments to fund projects to employ unemployed residents. The federal dollars were leveraged with local monies to fund the public works projects. Congress began cutting funding for the WPA appropriations in 1939 with the program being shuttered by 1941.

Proponents of the stadium and other bonds argued that El Paso would lose out on the federal dollars if voters did not approve the proposed bonds, including the Arroyo Park Stadium. After the failure of the bond package that included the stadium at Kern Place, city leaders organized a committee to salvage some of the bonds for the federal dollars that were available.

One of the beneficiaries of the Works Progress Administration funds was Tom Lea. Lea was commissioned to paint murals in government buildings with WPA funds. One of the projects was the Pass of the North mural at the El Paso courthouse in 1938. [13]

Tom Lea Mural, 1938

Footnotes:

  1. “Bond Re-submission Survey Started,” El Paso Herald-Post, September 3, 1938.
  2. “Business Men Back Arroyo Park Project,” El Paso Herald-Post, July 1, 1938.
  3. S. A. Barker, “City Election To Be Set On $1,000,000 Bond Issue For Many Projects,” El Paso Times, July 6, 1938.
  4. Hal Middlesworth, “The Payoff,” El Paso Herald-Post, July 30, 1938.
  5. “Three New City Parks And Improvements of 10 Others In $302,000 Bond Project,” El Paso Herald-Post, August 5, 1938.
  6. W. T. Wilson Letter to the Editor, El Paso Herald-Post, August 9, 1938.
  7. “Proposed Arroyo Park In Clay,” El Paso Herald-Post, August 9, 1938.
  8. Bond Editorials, El Paso Herald-Post, August 10, 1938.
  9. Bond Editorial, El Paso Times, August 11, 1938.
  10. Editorial, “Lean Over Backward,” El Paso Herald-Post, August 11, 1938.
  11. “M’Craw Asked To rule On E. P. Bond Election,” El Paso Herald-Post, August 11, 1938.
  12. “A Few Of The Best,” El Paso Times, September 4, 1938.
  13. Tom Lea papers, 1875 to 2007, MS 476, C. l. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, The University of Texas at El Paso Library.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.