Happy New Year to our readers!

Tomorrow city council will again revisit the controversial downtown sports arena project. However, before the sports arena controversy is taken up, three new members of city council will sit in council chambers for the first time. They are Art Fierro, Brian Kennedy and Chris Canales. One of the major issues in the election was the arena controversy with Fierro and Kennedy opposing building the arena. It is unclear what support, if any, Canales has for or against the proposed sports arena, although it has been suggested by his supporters that he opposes the sports arena project as envisioned by city officials. In addition to Fierro and Kennedy, Joe Molinar and Alexsandra Annello have been against the sports arena. The four votes represent half of the city council votes which would allow Oscar Leeser a tie-breaking vote on the agenda item. Kennedy and Leeser are political allies and Leeser is opposed to the sports arena suggesting that tomorrow’s agenda item will likely pass – killing the sports arena. Or, will it lead to the destruction of another historical building in El Paso – the Abraham Chavez Theater.

As reported by us during the election, Houston historian preservationist J.P. Bryan contributed the second largest political campaign contributions to the candidates running for city council seats in the last election. Only Woody Hunt contributed more than Bryan in that election. Readers should note that one of the items in tomorrow’s city council meeting agenda is the notation that Joe Molinar, who was not running in the last election, accepted a $1,000 political campaign contribution from Bryan recently. Bryan has funded the lawsuit led by Max Grossman against the city.

In 2012, El Paso voters approved $473.25 million in bonds for quality-of-life projects. Voters voted on November 6, 2012, on three city bond propositions. Proposition one asked voters to approve $245 million in general obligation bonds for parks and zoo improvements. The second proposition asked voters to approve $228,250,000 in general obligation bonds for a “museum, cultural, multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment” facilities “to include library facilities improvements, including new children’s museum, cultural heritage center and interactive digital wall.” This is the controversial sports arena. The third proposition asked voters to authorize the city “to designate” the Chihuahua’s stadium “as a sports and community venue” for El Paso to be paid by hotel occupancy taxes. This is the bond that demolished city hall to make way for the baseball stadium the Chihuahuas play in.

All three bonds were approved by the voters. The bond for the parks and zoo passed 75% to 25%. The bond for the controversial downtown arena passed 72% to 28% and the Chihuahua’s bond was approved by voters 60% to 40%. The Chihuahua’s stadium, officially the Southwest University Park, opened in 2014 after much controversy in the community. It cost $74 million. El Paso taxpayers paid $64 million and MountainStar Sports Group, the team owners paid the remaining $10 million. MountainStar Sports Group is owned by Woody Hunt and family, and Paul Foster and his wife, Alejandra de la Vega.

At a price tag of $74.7 million and a fixed seat capacity of 7,200, the El Paso baseball stadium cost $10,384 per seat.

The City Council Agenda Item And Plan B

The city council agenda item (13) asks city council to vote on “repurposing” the remaining quality-of-life funds for the sports arena to build an entertainment venue outside of the Duranguito neighborhood.

Although officially it has not been established where the proponents of moving the so-called sports arena to has not been established, several reports suggest that “plan b” for the arena is the Abraham Chavez Theater, next to the convention center. In an email sent to his mailing list, Max Grossman suggested the Abraham Chavez theater is the location for “plan b”.

Earlier today we spoke to former mayor John Cook who plans to be at city council meeting tomorrow to urge the members to have a better understanding on what it is they are voting on. Cook told us that when the voters approved the funding for a Multipurpose and Performing Arts Center it was “intended to serve as an annex to the existing convention center,” not a separate sports venue.

Cook argues that the language, “existing City facilities” in the proposed agenda item can be used to demolish the Abraham Chavez Theater to make way for a new entertainment venue.

The Abraham Chavez Theater was built in 1974. It was originally known as the El Paso Civic Center Auditorium Theater. It cost $19 million to build it. In 1992, city council renamed the theater as the Abraham Chavez Jr. Performing Arts Center Theater in honor of long-time symphony conductor, Abraham Chavez.

The renaming of the theater came after The El Paso Symphony Board fired its conductor, Abraham Chavez in 1984. Chavez had been an assistant conductor for the symphony since 1957 until he was named the permanent conductor in 1975. After the symphony board fired Chavez, tensions within the Hispanic community threatened to boil over in the community. Fearing an “explosion in the community,” several bankers agreed to put pressure on the symphony board to rehire Chavez.

On January 9, 1985, the symphony board capitulated and rehired Abraham Chavez.

Cook told us that in recent days he held a conference call with 16 members of the chamber of commerce and downtown groups. Last week, Andrea Hutchins, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber published an editorial in El Paso Matters and the El Paso Times. In the editorial, Hutchins wrote that a “small group of loud voices” will lead city council to “vote to abandon the Downtown arena” in tomorrow’s vote. Hutchins argues that city representatives Joe Molinar and Alexsandra Annello “purposely” scheduled tomorrow’s vote when it was “least likely to have community input” because of the holidays. Hutchinson goes on to argue that the voters expect the city council to deliver the promised quality-of-life projects.

Hutchinson concluded her editorial with “it’s particularly galling given that there has yet to ever be a ‘plan b’ presented to address the needs of the quality-of-like bond projects.”

In addition to speaking to members of the business community and downtown business owners, Cook also spoke to incoming city representative Brian Kennedy as well as to Joe Molinar. Cook told us that Molinar told him “not to worry” about delivering the promised quality-of-life projects promised to the voters because they “have a plan b.” Cook told us that Molinar would not elaborate what “plan b” was.

However, Cook told us Kennedy told him that “plan b” is the Abraham Chavez Theater. We asked Cook to elaborate on the theater. Cook told us that Oscar Leeser and Kennedy “are in favor of renovating the Abraham Chavez but avoided using the term, ‘demolish’ the theater” when they discussed it.

In a telephone interview to today, Brian Kennedy told us that his “stance throughout the entire campaign is to upgrade the Chavez Theater and expand the convention center.” This is “plan b.”

As Cook explained, the intent of the multipurpose entertainment venue was to be placed next to the convention center. The Abraham Chavez Theater sits next to the convention center.

However, the design of the Abraham Chavez Theater is such that the engineering to repurpose or enlarge the theater may be overly expensive. The bonds used to build the theater were approved by voters in 1969. Originally budgeted at $15 million, it ended costing $19 million because of the “delay bred in controversy” over its construction. Construction of the “sombrero” portion of the facility was delayed because of welding issues with the ring girder that holds up the unique roof.

We asked Cook what happens if “plan b” is not adopted and the project remains in the Duranguito footprint? Specifically we wanted to know how can the opposition be addressed. Cook, echoing Hutchinson, told us that the taxpayers have “already invested so much money” in the project and that “this guy from Houston has prevented use from developing our own property.” According to Cook, the city has already “purchased the majority” of the properties in the Duranguito area.

When we asked Cook what should be done about the property owners who have refused to sell their properties, he told us that “the holdouts can be blended” into the project. We then asked Cook about the use of eminent domain on the holdouts.

The 2006 Eminent Domain Controversy

We were prompted to ask Cook about the use of eminent domain because of the 2006 downtown controversy.

In 2006, two community groups organized to oppose the downtown redevelopment efforts led by the defunct Paso del Norte Group (PDNG). Leading the community opposition were downtown business owners. Then PDNG executive director, Myrna Deckert told the El Paso Times on May 6, 2006, that she believed “with all my heart that the opposition” was “not as great” as people believed.

Hutchinson’s editorial also alludes to a small opposition group.

According to Deckert, there were “less than 20 business and property owners” who opposed PDNG’s Downtown plan. Although Deckert argued there was little opposition to the plan, the executive director of the 250-member Central Business Association, Michael Breitinger admitted to the El Paso Times that his downtown business group was “divided” about the plan, adding that it was “an emotional issue” for the membership.

The driving issue in opposition to PDNG’s downtown plan, which included a sports arena, was the threat of the use of eminent domain – the taking of private property. Then-mayor John Cook told the newspaper on November 1, 2006 that although there was strong opposition to the plan, he planned to resolve the issue by removing eminent domain from the project.

Cook told us that in this controversy, the use of eminent domain was unlikely because the city can blend in the holdouts or negotiate a financial settlement with the holdouts because of the large amount taxpayer funds already spent on the project. Cook added that “everyone has a price for their assets.”

Cook told us that Brian Kennedy told him that they have the votes to kill the proposed sports arena tomorrow, however Kennedy denied this. Kennedy added that he does not know how he will vote tomorrow telling us he will not make a decion until he listens to the debate.

Nonetheless, it is likely that Brian Kennedy will vote to move the sports arena out of the Duranguito footprint as he consistently opposed building it there. It should be noted that Kennedy did not accept any campaign contributions from J.P. Bryan.

The current ongoing sports arena controversy is not the first for El Paso. The Chihuahuas stadium was controversially built after the city council building was destroyed to make way for it.

In addition there have been at least five other sports arena controversies in El Paso over the years, including a 1938 Arroyo Park Stadium that was stopped by Rim Road residents.

Is Plan B The Demolition Of The Abraham Theater?

Although “plan b” was alluded to by Grossman as the Abraham Chavez Theater in his email on January 1 and a second email today, the existence of a “plan b” has not been reported until now. The “plan b” is the Abraham Chavez Theater, according to both Kennedy and Grossman. However, Cook argues that the Abraham Chavez Theater cannot simply be renovated to meet the requirements of the voters leading to its possible demolition. Kennedy told us that the demolition of the theater is not on the table and has not been discussed. Cook will argue that the voters were made a promise and he believes that a solution can be reached that both meets the will of the voters in collaboration with those who oppose building it in the Duranguito community. Grossman has been rallying support for voting in favor of ending the construction of the sports arena in the Duranguito footprint.

Stay with El Paso News for more information about the controversy and what city council votes on tomorrow.

You can now share your thoughts about this issue on Reddit.

Martin Paredes

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