El Paso City Council votes to abandon arena in Duranguito, reallocate remaining funds.
By Adam Powell for El Paso Times
The El Paso City Council voted Tuesday to abandon the long-embattled Downtown arena project and reallocate the funds to upgrade and renovate existing city facilities.
Only hours after being sworn into office Tuesday morning, two new council members – Art Fierro and Chris Canales – joined city Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Joe Molinar, who brought the proposal before the council, in voting to abandon the project.
City Reps. Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera and Isabel Salcido voted against reallocating the arena funds.
Kennedy, an outspoken critic of the arena project throughout his recent campaign, abstained on the arena vote, saying in a statement that he abstained over a “potential conflict of interest” presented by El Paso City Attorney Karla Nieman.
“Out of an abundance of caution to ensure that this critical vote by council was not tainted in any way, I abstained,” Kennedy said in the statement.
A new plan will eventually be put forth to reallocate the remaining arena funds to improve existing city facilities, which could include the Abraham Chavez Theatre, the El Paso Convention Center or others.
Before casting their votes, council members heard a presentation on the pre-final results of a programming and feasibility study for the project, which found broad support for a modern entertainment venue in the area.
City of El Paso Chief Architect Daniela Quesada stated that 61% of respondents to an online survey support the project and 89% support the project in Duranguito as long as buildings in the area are restored and incorporated; 76% responded that it is important to preserve local history.
The plan would incorporate 12 structures in the Duranguito area, seven of which are independently eligible for historic designation.
Sam Rodriguez of the city of El Paso Capital Improvement Department stated that $163 million remained of the initial funds for the project, and one construction option would fit within the voter-approved budget.
Discussion over Downtown arena brings over 80 speakers
More than 80 people signed up to speak during discussion on the arena project. Realtor Michael Bray said that abandoning a project that El Pasoans “overwhelmingly” supported would “violate the public trust by abandoning the public will.”
Adair Margo, the former First Lady of El Paso, agreed.
“El Pasoans wanted an enlivened downtown benefitting everyone,” Margo said. “They still do.”
But for Sacred Heart Church Pastor Rafael Garcia, the arena project represents yet another effort that will be strapped to the backs of average citizens in a city that he said currently has more debt than Houston, San Antonio, Dallas or Austin.
“Gentrification is a real problem throughout the United States,” Garcia said. “Who defines quality of life? Who’s included and who’s excluded? It’s usually a small minority that ends up gaining and the people who end up losing.”
Oscar Martinez, a retired history professor, called Duranguito “hallowed ground for indigenous people” and called on the council to reallocate the arena funds to improving existing facilities. He also urged those who want to see the arena built to fund it with their own money.
El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said he believes a large part of his successful reelection campaign was based on broad opposition to the arena among voters. He said the same was true of the newest council members and their election represented a mandate to put a halt to the arena project.
“Please do the right thing,” Stout said. “Please listen to the voters…please pay no heed to the misinformation and gaslighting that has been spewed over the last six years. Please help us save Duranguito.”
Others supported staying the course with the project, including El Paso billionaire Paul Foster and Downtown business owners, who in a written statement called the multi-purpose venue a “critical piece of the (Downtown) revitalization effort.” Still, most speakers supported abandoning the project, saying voters never approved of demolishing Duranguito to construct an arena.
Soledad Muniz, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood that would be demolished if the arena is built, fought through tears to voice her opposition to the project.
“I am really worried about my family’s home and the well-being of my mother,” she said.
Others stood solidly by the project, with Leonard Goodman III, chairman of the 2012 Quality of Life bond issue, saying that abandoning the project would risk losing the people’s faith in future projects the council might propose.
“The multipurpose facility was something people wanted to have,” Goodman said. “I think most people feel that if the council does decide to abandon this project that you’re not listening to your constituents.”
Two former council candidates, Rich Wright and Deliris Montanez Berrios, both spoke in support of ending the arena project. Wright said he was in attendance to “advocate for the taxpayers of El Paso.”
“Unfortunately, most of those Quality of Life projects in El Paso have only benefitted a limited few,” Wright said. “El Paso has a very limited amount of entertainment dollars. We can’t afford it.”
For Berrios, the threat of future taxes being levied on El Pasoans is enough to oppose continuing with the project.
“If you think this project is (only) going to cost you $153 million, you’re out of your mind,” she said.
Max Grossman, the historic preservationist who has been at the heart of the battle to stop the arena, said the project will provide nothing more than “basketball and Beyonce concerts” at the expense of a historic community.
The council retired to executive session following public comments and, after roughly two hours, returned to debate the issue.
In the end, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser grew frustrated with the back and forth between the opposing sides, which included calls to take the issue up in 90 days after further vetting or bring it back before the voters and call for the vote.