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Truth Matters with John Cook
It’s been years since I’ve sat in Council Chambers for 11 hours, but that’s how I spent last Tuesday. The big difference is that this is the first time I’ve spent that much time in the audience rather than on the dais. The reason I was there was to speak for a little less than three minutes and to listen to the public and the council discussion regarding the controversial multi-purpose and performing arts center. The controversy was not so much about the project, but rather the location in an area which has become known as Duranguito. Three hours of the meeting were in the executive center chamber.
The original concept for the Multi-purpose Center was to serve as an annex to the Convention Center so we could attract larger conventions. The business community was excited and invested in renovating old hotels and building new hotel projects. We went from less than 500 available downtown rooms to over a thousand today. In 2016, the project evidently morphed and council put out a request for qualification to build a mid-sized arena of 15,000 seats for basketball. I guess the thought was to build it and they will come – they meaning a basketball team. I doubt UTEP would make this the new home of the Miners and it’s doubtful that El Pasoans could support an NBA team
One would think that at the end of such a long meeting, there would be few questions left unanswered. What we do know is that the council decided to change the location from Duranguito to another yet to be identified location. We do know that the facility should be near the existing Convention Center. We also know council has decided, at least for the time being, to reallocate the remaining $155m to renovate or expand existing city facilities. That leaves the Convention Center itself and the Abraham Chavez symphony hall. Is the Abraham Chavez on the chopping block?
But there are many questions that remain unanswered. The city has spent $17 million to purchase properties in Duranguito, relocate residents and business, and on consultant fees. They’ve also spent $3 million in legal fees defending the project location. I’m not sure about the legal fees, but the $17 million came from the bond proceeds and those can only be used for the project itself. So, the question is how does the council intend to pay back the money it has already spent? The next question is what is to become of the city owned buildings in Duranguito? These old structures have now been vacant for years. Many of them are already in dire need of maintenance. Left unmaintained, will they become demolished by neglect? Does the city intend to keep them? Or, to sell them? Bring the old residents back to tenement apartments? Restart the old indoor flea market? Try to put everything back to the way it was before? Is the private sector willing to invest in developing the properties knowing that demolition of any of the structures is off the table? Will the city redevelop the properties and if they do, where will the money come from?
And the big question is: Was there ever a Plan B?
Disclosure: John Cook runs a political action committee named Truth Matters.
About Truth Matters:
John Cook served as mayor of El Paso between 2005 and 2013 when many of the public policy was made for downtown El Paso. Previously he served as the city representative for the northeast. In Truth Matters, Cook brings our readers his perspective on the politics and history behind El Paso’s current public policy issues.
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