Readers may be surprised to learn that there was another sports arena, before the current one, that was proposed for El Paso. Unlike the one in 1938 and the current one, the one proposed in 1999 was envisioned by a group of Latino business leaders. They wanted to boost the downtown economy by building a downtown arena. But their proposal led to an “arena wars” between three competing groups that became the catalyst for today’s Duranguito controversy.
Building a downtown sports arena as a catalyst for economic development had been proposed as early as 1996 while downtown was undergoing $100 million in redevelopment. Although several sites were proposed by city and county officials in areas they already owned, downtown was being pushed by businesses in land development. Architect Eugenio Mesta argued in a 1996 editorial that “progressive cities that we admire so much,” have “looked beyond the ticket office revenue and into the overall advantage” a downtown arena would bring to the community.  Mesta and others were arguing that to be successful, El Paso had to emulate other cities like Phoenix and not worry about whether the taxpayers could afford a sports stadium.
Latinos Take The Lead
The El Paso Times labeled them: “new business group steps into the limelight”. The Community Action Group was a group made up of 22 individuals. Their mission, according to the El Paso Times, was “looking at ideas to give Downtown and Central El Paso a boost.” What is notable about the group was that of the 22 individuals, all but four individuals were Latinos. Among the membership included individuals like Lorenzo Aguilar of Perspectiva, Fermin Dorado, Joe Lopez of the Lopez Advertising Group, Luis Mata of the Tejano Democrats, Chuy Reyes, Martin Silva and Cesar Viramontes.  Sonny Garcia, who was a member of the group, was jailed for four years on public corruption charges in 2013. Garcia was part of the Dolores Briones and Chilo Madrid county corruption scandal involving the Border Children’s Mental Health Collaborative.
Another member, Hector Villa, was indicted along with his sister on charges of defrauding the City of El Paso of more than $685,000. Villa was sentenced to five years in federal prison in April 2005.  Prior to that, Villa had been convicted of illegal dumping in New Mexico in 2002.
And then there was Ramiro Guzman, who would come to play a significant part in the arena wars. Guzman pleaded guilty to public corruption in 2009. It was Guzman who started the Community Action Group in July 1999, along with Joe Tarin and Lorenzo Aguilar. Although not officially members of the organization, Presi Ortega, Larry Medina, Miguel Teran and Carlos Aguilar helped the group formulate their plans. 
In September 1999, Community Action Group proposed adding a $37.5 million bond measure to the November 2, 1999 city bond election. They wanted to build a 25,000-seat sports stadium next to the County Coliseum. In addition to the arena, the group also wanted to build a cross-border light-rail system. It was Lorenzo Aguilar’s architectural firm that drew up the plans for the proposed sports complex.  However, not everyone was on the same page. Soon after the announcement by the group of Latinos, two other groups began competing for putting a bond measure to voters to approve building a sports arena.
Competing Arena Projects
By early 2000, there were three groups competing to build a sports arena. The three were then-mayor Carlos Ramirez, the Hispanic group and the Buzzards Hockey team. Ramirez proposed building a $144 million downtown sports and entertainment district. The Buzzards wanted a westside arena for $46 million and the Hispanic group wanted $37.5 million for their arena. All wanted the taxpayers to foot the bill.  Ramirez and Guzman’s group wanted an arena in downtown El Paso while the Buzzards wanted it built on land they owned on the westside of town.
But another interloper appeared in the arena fray. It was Woody Hunt.
At the time that Community Action Group, made up mostly Hispanics, was lobbying for a sports arena, another group of 51 chief executives was also launched. The Leadership and Research Council was started by Woody Hunt. Unlike the Hispanic group, Hunt’s group was interested only on making “policy recommendations but not on investing money.” Ramiro Guzman had been invited to join Woody Hunt’s group but declined due to time constraints he told the El Paso Times in 1999. Instead, Guzman formed the Community Actions Group. 
In 1999 when talk of an arena started up, Woody Hunt’s company, Hunt Building Corporation, was trying to build a residential complex with a golf course near Transmountain Rd. The Buzzards owner was proposing to build their arena on land they owned next to Hunt’s proposed golf course development.
The City Arena
In 1998, the city ordered a rendering of a proposed $113 million development for northwest El Paso. The plan included a 20,000-seat multipurpose arena. It also included a tennis stadium, tennis courts and football and soccer fields and an indoor swimming pool. Carlos Ramirez, who was pushing the proposal told the El Paso Times that he was cautious about the proposal because he did not want the taxpayers to feel that they were going to benefit “any private group or organization,” including the Dallas Cowboys, who had shown an interest in putting a spring training camp in El Paso. Ramirez added that the city would move forward only if “private investors are committed to putting up a very large share of the cost.” 
Ramirez’ proposal called for a Sportsplex Neighborhood Concept on the westside of El Paso.  The proposal called for building an 18,000 to 20,000 seat complex  for $144 million in downtown El Paso by 2000. Ramirez’ plan was based on a 1998 study.  City council established a committee in early 2000 to study Ramirez’ proposed $144 million to $196 million arena project. Except for west-central representative Rose Rodriguez, each city council member and Ramirez, the mayor, appointed two members each to the committee. Rodriguez had not yet named her appointments. Ramirez appointed Pat Goff and Paul Enger. Jan Sumrall appointed David Marcus and Pat O’Rourke. Charles Smith and Jaime Velasco were appointed by Larry Medina. John Cook appointed Mike Dipp and Rick Parr. Presi Ortega appointed Joe Tarin and Jesse Alvarez. Luis Sariñana appointed Ted Houghton and then-county commissioner Miguel Terran to the committee. Chip Johns and Enoch Kimmelman, who were appointed by Elvia Hernandez, rounded out the list. 
The committee elected Ted Houghton as the committee chairman and Pat Goff as the vice-chair on February 9, 2000.  Houghton told the local newspaper about the arena debates, “I think we all get wound up with euphoria of ‘Phoenix has one, Denver has one, Los Angeles (has one).’ But we’re not those markets.” 
The decision to build a downtown stadium was “spurred by the success of some downtown arenas and stadiums in other major cities,” according to Carlos Ramirez. Pat Goff was the one that prodded Ramirez to look at developing a proposal for an arena in downtown El Paso. Critics of Ramirez’ downtown plan proposal argued that it needed to be tied to a major league sports team for it to succeed. The Ramirez administration wanted their proposed arena in the Union Plaza entertainment district, but they could not place it there without refunding the federal government $3 million in grant money used to landscape and for streets. 
On June 29, 1999, city council had approved $20,000 for a sports-marketing feasibility study. Council wanted the county commissioners to contribute another $20,000.  The money was to be used by city committee. The El Paso Sports Council was made up of 25 members.  It was headed by Jimmy Rogers, Jr., was formed sometime in 1999 by the Greater Chamber of Commerce. By April 2000 the council had ceased to function. 
But there were critics of a downtown facility. The Buzzards hockey team owner Lisa Huzella-Wheeler argued that her $150,000 study showed that an arena in downtown El Paso “would take too long and would be too expensive because of land acquisition.” The Buzzard’s study added that a downtown location did not “have adequate road access” to the arena.  Lisa Huzella-Wheeler wanted a taxpayer-funded arena built for her Buzzards team on the westside of town  on land owned by her and alongside a Woody Hunt planned development and golf course.
The Buzzards Arena
The Buzzards Hockey team was the second proposal on the table. Buzzards team owner, Lisa Huzella-Wheeler offered $7 million for an 8,500-seat stadium to be built at Artcraft Rd. and Interstate 10. Huzella-Wheeler already owned the land.  In 1999 Huzella-Wheeler acquired majority interest of the Buzzards from Jim Burlew by paying off the Buzzard’s debt. Huzella-Wheeler’s goal for the Buzzards was to build an arena on the land she owned on the west side. Woody Hunt was planning on building a golf course with housing in the area.  The Buzzards arrived in El Paso in 1996. In 1998, Huzella-Wheeler took over the team by paying off its debt. However, by 2000, Huzella-Wheeler shut down the team unwilling to foot the bill any longer. The Central Hockey League tried to revive the team after that only to permanently shut it down in 2002. 
The Buzzards proposal was simple, the city’s taxpayers build the $40 million stadium on the westside of town and the Buzzards team would pay $7 million into the project, which included the land owned by Huzella-Wheeler. Huzella-Wheeler also offered to pay $300,000 annually to go towards construction costs. The annual fee would come from team revenues with Huzella-Wheeler paying any shortfalls. The city would own the arena. 
Hunt and Buzzards’ owner Lisa Huzella-Wheeler wanted the city to partner up with them to take the city’s 1998 “Sportsplex neighborhood concept” and place it on land owned by Huzella-Wheeler and next to Hunt’s planned golf course community. 
Readers should note that when Hunt was trying to build a golf course on Artcraft, it was only two years before Hunt started to take control of El Paso’s water resources via the Public Service Board and about four years before Ray Caballero tried to declare a water emergency for El Paso because of an erroneous report alleging that El Paso was about to run out of water.
On September 12, 2000 Carlos Ramirez persuaded city council to delay making a decision for three months before committing to building a multipurpose arena. The delay was to allow the city to continue negotiating with the Buzzards team owner and to allow for the completion of two ongoing studies. 
The Buzzards were now offering three options to city council with all three putting the arena on land owned by Buzzards owner Huzella-Wheeler.   The difference between the three proposals was the number of seats and the price tag. The first option called for a 6,000 to 8,000-seat arena for a price of $36 million. The second option was $50 million for an 8,000 to 10,000-seat arena.  And, the third option, which was introduced to city council on September 12, 2000, now included 12,000 seats and a price tag of $71 million.  The three options called for the city’s taxpayers to pay for the arena from revenues from a tax-increment financing district and a one percent hotel-motel tax increase. The city’s financial officer explained that although a tax-increment district is supposed to raise enough money through the development to pay off the city bonds, the taxpayers would still be liable if enough revenues were not generated. The Hotel-Motel Association opposed using hotel taxes to fund the arena. 
On April 4, 2000, El Paso city council reversed direction on who would perform the city’s feasibility study for a downtown sports arena. Instead of their original choice, the El Paso Sports Council, the city council instead directed Ramiro Guzman’s Community Action Group to conduct the feasibility study. Community Action Group assured city council that it would convince county commissioners to match the city’s $20,000 contribution for the study.  The city’s funding came from revenues collected from hotel taxes.
The Hispanic proponents for a central El Paso sports arena were now leading the city and county’s effort for a downtown arena project.
Huzella-Wheeler pulled her proposal in late 2000 after she was rebuffed by most of the city council. City representatives Elvia Hernandez and Presi Ortega did not want to commit to the Buzzards proposal until two ongoing studies into the arena were completed.  The two studies had been prompted by the competing arena proposals. But the underlining driving force was to ensure that any arena be in downtown El Paso.
But another interloper was now vying for the voters to fund an arena.
The County Arena
On May 6, 2002, the county commissioners asked for proposals “from potential investors for a new multipurpose arena.” Two investor groups expressed interest in putting $10 million to partner with the county. Although the county was looking to build an arena for the Buzzards hockey team, the county commissioners heard that the Dallas Cowboys were interested in placing an arena football team.  But the county was not interested in downtown El Paso. It wanted one at the Ascarate Park.
On July 11, 2002, 20 contractors and other construction firms gathered at the County’s conference room to learn about the $50 million multipurpose arena that the county was considering letting them bid on. The county was looking to float a bond in the upcoming November 5, 2002 election to let voters decide if they wanted a 10,000-seat multipurpose center. The county was looking for a partner to put together “a competitive project that would include specific plans for building, operating and investing in the project with money and, possibly, land.” The County was in a rush to get the proposal off the ground in time to make the November election because they feared that waiting until the elections in May 2003 would create problems for the project by including the city elections in the mix. 
On October 7, 2002, the county picked Ascarate Park as the location for the proposed 10,000 seat arena that they took to the voters on November 5, 2002. The originally price tag was $45 million. A business group composed of SamCorp, Moore, Nordell, Kroeger Architects and SMG had been selected by the county commissioners to design and build the Ascarate Park arena. The business group had promised a $200,000 advertising campaign to encourage voters to pass the bond issue.
During the county commissioners meeting of September 17, 2002, Steve Sambrano showed up to the commissioners meeting carrying a briefcase of New Arena Vote Yes buttons. Sambrano told county commissioners that his get-out-the-vote group was going to “run a grassroots campaign” to get the voters to support the project. 
A marketing blitz was needed to convince the voters to vote yes on the measure. To convince the voters to approve the bonds, the El Paso County Arena Committee was formed to fund the get-out-the-vote campaign. Ramiro Guzman was appointed the treasurer. 
The El Paso County Arena Committee was made up of Samcorp, Moore Nordell Kroeger Architects, SMG and Hunt Building Corporation. The committee funded the bond marketing with $50,000. Guzman was tasked with media and fundraising for the group. To raise the $200,000 goal for the media blitz, Guzman said that he was “concentrating on people doing business with the county who have a vested interest in the project.” 
As it was a county project, it seems that Guzman was hoping to use continued access to county contracts to encourage businesses to fund the arena bond marketing blitz. Steven Sambrano, who showed up at the September 17, 2002 county commissioners meeting with buttons supporting the bond measure and Ramiro Guzman would later plead guilty to public corruption in an unrelated case.
On October 9, 2002, county officials ended contract negotiations with Samcorp, SMG and Moore Nordell Kroger, the group they had selected on September 9 to design and build the proposed $45 million arena. Although Ramiro Guzman had promised county commissioners that he would raise $200,000 for the media blitz, he was only able to raise $9,000. He blamed the failure on the Ascarate location.
The group led by SamCorp was trying to convince the county commissioners to leave open the possibility of building the proposed arena on one of ten other locations that did not include Ascarate. However, the county commissioners voted on Ascarate Park as the location for the proposed arena because they wanted land that the county already owned.  According to Guzman, the county commissioners were to blame because they selected Ascarate Park as the location of the proposed arena. Individuals that could afford to donate to the media blitz wanted a downtown sports arena. 
The county was now looking to their second choice made up of CF Jordan, Portal Architects and the law firm of Delgado, Acosta, Braden and Jones to take over the project from the first group because of delays in starting the advertising campaign. 
The county’s bond proposal went to the voters on November 5, 2002.
Voters Say No To County Proposal
On November 5, 2002, El Paso voters rejected the county’s bond issue for an arena at Ascarate Park. Over forty-five percent of those who cast votes were in favor of the $45 million county bond proposal. As a result of the county’s failure to pass the bonds, El Paso city council asked for a joint meeting with the county commissioners to discuss trying again. However, only four of eight city representatives showed up to the meeting. One was west-central representative Rose Rodriguez, who “angrily walked” of the meeting leaving the city without a quorum, according to the El Paso Times. The other was Larry Medina. 
Voters had rejected the county’s $55 million bond issue for an arena at Ascarate Park. But the County still wanted a sports arena. On February 24, 2003, county commissioners voted 3 to 1 to create a sports and community venue district to put to the voters another arena bond measure. Commissioner Dan Haggerty offered the motion and commissioner Miguel Teran voted against it. Commissioner Charles Scruggs abstained from the vote. For the arena district to become live, at least one other city in the county needed to sign up to it within 30 days. Any city not signing up within 30 days would opt-out “permanently”. 
Ray Caballero, then the mayor of El Paso, told the El Paso Times that he was surprised by the county’s vote. Caballero had hoped that the county would wait before forcing the city to vote on participating on the proposed district. Then-city representative Larry Medina told the newspaper that the “city may not have a choice,” but that the city “needed a place at the table.” 
It should be noted by readers that during the time that the county was proposing its sports arena measure to the voters, the Ray Caballero administration was mired in controversy over the BHI TIF districts. The controversy involved the gentrification of the poor Latino community around the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC).
The El Paso Times Steps Into the Fray
In 2000, the El Paso Times took sides on the competing arena projects through an editorial by Bernadette Self. In the editorial, Self argued that the proposal by the Hispanic group “fell out of the sky” and should not be included in the upcoming May 6, 2000 city bond election. Self added in her editorial that the city’s taxpayers were “already skeptical…voters who are tired of rising property taxes, sick of project delays and fed up with the political machinations of some elected officials who are more interested in advancing careers and political agendas than championing what’s best for the majority of El Pasoans.” The newspaper’s editorial also argued that upgrading the coliseum, although needed, “is only jeopardizing a bond issue that’s been relentlessly studied for 18 months.”  The El Paso Times was squarely behind the proposed sports complex that would be the catalyst for Woody Hunt’s residential and golf course development near Transmountain.
Then the El Paso Times, in an editorial on August 25, 2000 argued that “a new arena in El Paso would have a tremendous impact” on the city’s “economic development and quality of life.” However, the El Paso Times urged the construction of an arena without arguing for a specific location. 
There have been several studies over the years looking into the feasibility of a sports arena or complex funded by the taxpayers in El Paso. A March 1998 city plan included sketches of a Sportsplex Neighborhood Concept in the westside of town. Lisa Huzella-Wheeler, the Buzzards owner, commissioned a $100,000 study that showed that the “best place for an arena is Downtown, but it would be 25 percent less expensive if built” off Transmountain. 
In 2016, the City of El Paso in a presentation about the 2012 Quality of Life bond made it clear that “since 2000, El Paso has studied and recommended a downtown arena project,” leaving no ambiguity in the unspoken reason behind the rejection of the Buzzards arena proposal and the two studies ordered after Huzella-Wheeler offered her proposal to city council. 
In 2000, city council approved spending money on two studies to investigate the best size and locations for an arena in El Paso. Officials expected the results of the studies to be released in December 2000. One study, a $40,000 study was funded by the city and the county. The other study was being conducted by the Central Business Association. The downtown association reported committing $300,000 to develop the Downtown Redevelopment Study. The study included studying the feasibility of building an arena in downtown El Paso. 
The Central Business Association paid Christopher Leinberger $188,000 in 2000 to complete a downtown study but did not pay him to develop the strategic plan the association had intended to. 
In October 2016, city council approved the 2015 HKS study, which according to city officials, was “generally the same as those identified in previous studies completed in 2001 and 2006.” 
Arena Projects Face Off in 2004
Two years after El Paso voters rejected the county’s arena proposal at Ascarate Park, two other proposals to build a sports arena in El Paso were put forth. Downtown was again on the table, but a new location was introduced, Bassett Center. In April 2004, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach proposed a 7,350-seat arena at Bassett Center. The land was being donated but the Staubach proposal again required that the city’s taxpayers to fund the $68.8 million price tag. 
But the group that put together the failed 2002 Ascarate Park bond issue asked city council to instead build the new proposed arena next to the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in downtown El Paso.  Downtown was back on the table.
The Staubach team argued that Bassett Center was ideal because it offered existing amenities, was central and had easy access via Interstate 10. But Michael Breitinger, representing the Central Business Association argued that building an arena at Bassett would be “a big blow to Downtown redevelopment.” 
Mervin Moore, of Moore Nordell Kroeger architectural firm teamed up with Samcorp’s Steve Sambrano to revive the defunct downtown plan. The Union Plaza Arena Partnership proposed a 10,000-seat arena at a cost of $69 million. 
Paso del Norte Group
On June 16, 2004, city council held a special meeting to discuss the Bassett Center arena proposal.  The downtown proponents told city council that they were already contacting property owners in a four-block area targeted for the proposed arena. But landowners, like Bernie Rosenblum, who worked in the middle of the targeted area told the El Paso Times that the idea for a downtown arena in his neighborhood “was crazy” because there was no space for it and the necessary parking needed was not available. The Union Plaza was to be the footprint of the proposed arena. 
Parking, traffic and congestion were the concerns brought up by those opposed to a downtown arena. Bassett Center offered a viable alternative some argued. However, Ramiro Guzman, representing the Union Plaza Downtown Arena Partnership, countered that a downtown arena complex would “lure conventions and benefit more people than the Bassett site.” 
As opposition to a downtown arena increased in the community, a “newly formed group of 100 business and community leaders, as the El Paso Times described them, asked city council to delay a decision for about six months so that the Central Business Association could contract a “world-class” planner for a downtown redevelopment plan. 
The El Paso Times identified the new group as the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG). The PDNG told city council its planner could identify a downtown location for the proposed arena by the end of 2004 and have a Downtown plan completed by June 2005. 
On February 15, 2005, city council approved the downtown redevelopment plan. It called for a multipurpose arena in downtown El Paso. Downtown was now the city’s official location for any future arena. It is from here that the current controversy over the Duranguito footprint began. By 2016, it was clear that Duranguito was targeted for gentrification to make way for the latest incarnation of the downtown sports arena that had caused so much controversy over the years.
But the underlining problem of access to downtown and parking has yet to be resolved. Very little in terms of access to downtown from Interstate 10, the major arterial from all sides of town, surrounding communities and Cd. Juárez has changed leaving adequate access to a downtown arena unresolved. Without easy access and parking to an arena, filling it with ticketholders remains difficult. Thus, the ongoing public policy discussion over the downtown I10 expansion.
In 2000, the El Paso Times published a poll about whether El Pasoans wanted an arena. According to the El Paso Times/KVIA-ABC 7 poll of 301 registered voters, 62% of those polled wanted an arena. However, only 29% of those polled were willing to pay taxes for one. 
- David Crowder, “Arena vote expected in November,” El Paso Times, July 12, 2002.
- David Crowder, “County Commissioners OK plan for sports district,” El Paso Times, February 25, 2003.
- David Crowder, “County chooses Ascarate for arena,” El Paso Times, October 8, 2002.
- David Crowder, “County sees progress on arena talks,” El Paso Times, May 7, 2002.
- Louie Gilot, “New business group steps into the limelight,” El Paso Times, September 5, 1999.
- David Crowder, “Diligence closed door on waste fraud scam,” El Paso Times, March 21, 2005.
- Vic Kolenc, “Competing projects seek tax money,” El Paso Times, February 20, 2000.
- Joe Muench, “Buzzards take on new leadership,” El Paso Times, July 28, 1999.
- David Crowder, “City cautious on sports complex,” El Paso Times, April 11, 1998.
- Joe Muench, “Pro hockey in the desert flawed idea,” El Paso Times, July 18, 2003.
- Joe Muench, “Buzzards arena plan real simple,” El Paso Times, August 2, 2000.
- Joe Muench, “El Paso trio earns title of Sportsketeers,” El Paso Times, June 23, 1999.
- Bernadette Self, “11th-hour ideas threaten bond issue,” Editorial, El Paso Times, February 18, 2000.
- Joe Muench, “City has sights set on study,” El Paso Times, April 8, 2000.
- Vic Kolenc, “Mayor envisions major-league arena,” El Paso Times, February 20, 2000.
- David Crowder, “City, county join forces to talk about reviving failed arena issue,” El Paso Times, December 19, 2002.
- David Crowder, “Blitz for arena is picking up steam,” El Paso Times, September 19, 2002.
- Emily Jauregui, “Council: New group to study arena plan” El Paso Times, April 5, 2000.
- “New sports arena,” El Paso Times, April 7, 2000.
- “New arena needed,” El Paso Times, August 25, 2000.
- Patrick C. McDonnell, “Committee concerned about arena’s price tag,” El Paso Times, February 11, 2000.
- Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “Mayor asks for feedback on sports arena,” El Paso Times, September 11, 2000.
- Eugenio Mesta, architect “Put new arena, entertainment complex Downtown,” El Paso Times Guest Editorial, December 1, 1996.
- Vic Kolenc, “Arena Proposals Face Off,” El Paso Times, June 20, 2004.
- Daniel Borunda, “Pros-cons of arena sites focus of council meeting,” El Paso Times, June 17, 2004.
- “A sporting chance,” El Paso Times, July 1, 1999.
- David Crowder, “County negotiations with arena team die,” El Paso Times, October 10, 2002.
- Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “El Pasoans want arena, but not if taxes go up,” El Paso Times, November 1, 2000.
- Vic Kolenc, “Downtown revamp stalled until expert is found,” El Paso Times, November 2, 2002.
- Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “Sports arena put on hold for 90 days,” El Paso Times, September 13, 2000.
- “Multipurpose Cultural and Performing Arts Center (Arena) Project Overview, The City of El Paso, 2016.
Who is the current Hispanic leader in El Paso? Héctor Lopez was a Lightning rod a few years back when he ran, and another kid followed with the same fire. Where are they?
I live in Dallas now, but I’m pretty sure I worked with the guy you’re referencing from my day’s at the chamber. He was young and just different. Sadly, I think he passed away over the weekend.
Comments are closed.