It just makes sense.
Roll everything together and the inaugural year of baseball in El Paso has got to be the story of the year: the controversy, the demolition, the ballpark, the name people fell in love with, the sold-out ball games and the impact of it all.
It makes sense that the people who made it happen would be El Paso Inc.’s choice for El Pasoans of the Year: MountainStar Sports Group’s Woody Hunt, an owner and board member; his son Josh Hunt, who is CEO and an owner; chair and owner Paul Foster; and his wife, Alejandra de la Vega Foster, board member and owner; and one more, Joyce Wilson, former El Paso city manager.
Wilson, now CEO at Workforce Solutions Upper Rio Grande, wasn’t part of MountainStar Sports, but many doubt it would have become a reality without her.
“Joyce was an absolute key part of the whole process, and I don’t think it would have happened without her,” Paul Foster told El Paso Inc. “She took a lot of bullets and a lot of criticism.
“I think if people had it to do over again, they’d probably rethink some of that criticism. Joyce has great skills, and I think is largely responsible for the success of the whole project.”
Bringing the team to El Paso cost the MountainStar partners $20 million. That was just for starters. When the first-class amenities they wanted to see in the city-owned ballpark pushed the budget up, they put in $12 million to finish a stadium that belongs to El Paso.
Criticism of the project was heavy, focused on the early deal with MountainStar, tearing down City Hall and the cost of moving city government to new quarters, the ballpark financing and on Wilson.
Naming the team Chihuahuas didn’t help, at first. But the name caught on, the team arrived, the season started and that is when perceptions began to change, as one sellout led to another and another, 48 games out of 67.
The team name and the marketing behind it won awards. So did the merchandising, including the Humane Society’s recognition in the Bark in the Park promotion.
Southwest University won the naming rights, and Southwest University Park won Ballparks.com’s Ballpark of the Year honor. The Chihuahuas had a winning season, and more than half a million people filled the seats at home.
Former Mayor Larry Francis, who had loudly opposed the project and the process, was won over along with many others.
This year, the revitalization of Downtown that the city and business leaders had been trying to kindle since the 1980s has finally caught fire, evidenced by the new businesses, restaurants, apartment and hotel projects and the excitement.
Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Management District, sees the signs of that in little things. While there was only one more event Downtown this year than last, when there were 21, this year’s attendance attracted 60,000 more people, or 190,000 in all.
He also notes that the free Downtown circulator bus is running full during the day and that there are people on waiting lists for new apartments being built in former office buildings.
“I don’t think you can put a price tag on the impact the ballpark has had on our community,” said city Rep. Cortney Niland. “There is no doubt that this project was the catalyst everyone hoped for.
“All the metrics are up – hotel occupancy, sales taxes, $30 million worth of private investment. All the things we hoped for are coming to fruition.”
The Hunt and Foster families are deeply invested in El Paso and have been about changing the city’s image and prospects for years. Now, they have set their eyes on Major League Soccer.
MountainStar’s CEO Josh Hunt said getting a Triple-A baseball team took two years, and capturing a MLS team is likely to take longer. But that is their objective.
“This has always been about Downtown revitalization, economic development, quality of life and really making our city more competitive,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”
He spoke with El Paso Inc. about the year gone by, how the chase for Triple-A baseball began and what it and other Downtown projects mean to the city.
Q: How and when did the idea for bringing Triple-A ball to El Paso first come up?
The first time it came up would have been February 2010 when we found out that the Portland Beavers were for sale. That forced a discussion between me and my dad and the Fosters. We decided that this was something we were interested in. We looked at the other cities that had Triple-A baseball and felt that El Paso deserved a franchise as well.
We really viewed it from a quality of life standpoint to make our city more competitive. We also thought it would be a good opportunity to revitalize our Downtown.
Q: Ultimately, that was the team El Paso ended up with, but they went to California first, right?
Yes, it was owned by the Paulson family, and we attempted to buy that team and were unsuccessful the first time. The team ended up getting sold to a group that included several principals in the San Diego Padres, and they bought it planning to move it to a new stadium in Escondido, California. They had a temporary home in Tucson.
When that deal fell apart, they made a decision to sell it. The second time we were successful. There has not been another team that has moved in Triple-A baseball since we were able to bring the Tucson team to El Paso. The point is these teams don’t move that often.
Q: It became very controversial. Now that’s it’s all said and done, do you often hear from people who opposed the whole thing and have come around, like former Mayor Larry Francis?
I’ve gotten some of these comments. Most of them have fun telling us they hated the idea and now they like it. They say it in good humor, and the reality is, I think, it points to pride in ownership. People now love their Chihuahuas ball club and they love the city’s ballpark. I think to them, it’s a singular source of pride in their community.
Maybe they didn’t feel that before. But it’s a first-class facility that turned out to be beautiful, in the heart of our Downtown. It’s brought a lot of people Downtown through the season. Once it was built, I think we were able to move past some of the more controversial aspects of the process. I think people saw all these families coming out, enjoying their summer nights, and giving them something else to do all summer long.
Q: You probably heard some of the same kinds of things about the name Chihuahuas. People laughed at it and said it’s terrible at first. But women and children really liked it, which was probably what someone had in mind.
Most of the comments I still get are about the name. I still get many comments from people who hated the name Chihuahuas, and now they really love it, and their kids love it more. It’s been a lot of fun to see that transition. I still remember the night that we announced it. We fully believed in it but we had some thoughts, like “What the heck have we done?”
But we knew once we rolled out the entire brand and people saw the logo and how it tied in with the fun activities at the ballpark that it would be mightily successful, and that’s what’s taken place.
Q: What effect do you think this baseball adventure is having on El Paso?
As we said many times, this has always been about Downtown revitalization, economic development and quality of life and really making our city more competitive. We did a lot of due diligence, toured other cities and saw where this was very successful. Starting to see some of that activity take place is exciting. We’ve got to stay competitive as a community, and these are some of the things we need to do to be that.
We still have a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of other things we need to do as a community. Things like the arena, the children’s museum and the other elements of our quality of life bonds that voters approved. I think all those things will continue the progress we’re starting with these restaurants and bars and residential projects.
Q: So what you found in other cities seems to be happening here?
Q: What was the biggest surprise about the Chihuahuas first season?
I think it’s probably different for each of us in ownership. We all had high expectations, but they were exceeded by our wonderful citizens and fans. Selling out 48 games of 67, I would not have expected that. It was mightily exciting to see.
In addition to the 48 sellouts, I think we’re approaching 100 events through the season, everything from the Alzheimer’s Association having their walk there to having several thousand people there when Southwest University held their graduation there. And various corporations and nonprofits have had their meetings there, not just the people coming through the turnstile for a ball game.
It’s a community headquarters or asset that can be used for a lot of other things. I think we are touching people and will continue to do so by hosting other events at the ballpark.
Q: Is there anything new planned for the second season that you can reveal?
Alan Ledford, our president, and Brad Taylor, our general manager, and the Chihuahuas staff are working on that now. I can tell you that people who think our first season was successful just because it was our first season are in for a lot of pleasant surprises.
Our mission is to be the best minor league operation in the country. That means we’ve got to have continuing fan support. We have to make every game special, and that’s going to continue to happen in 2015 and beyond. That’s our goal, to always do things and fun things that everyone will continue to enjoy in a family atmosphere.
Q: Now MountainStar is looking at Major League Soccer. Where do things stand and what do you hope to see happen in the coming year?
Nobody knows really where Major League Soccer is on this and when they’ll take their next steps. I can tell you our ownership group is committed to improving the quality of life of this region through sports and entertainment. And one of those things we’ve identified is Major League Soccer. We view it as a very long-term process. From start to finish, it took us four years to get a baseball team here.
We think it’s going to take that long or much longer than that for soccer. We view it as a long-term initiative. We believe strongly that this community and region can support Major League Soccer, from sponsorships to advertising from both sides of the border, which is very unique for us compared with anyone else competing for these franchises. It’s a very competitive process with some very big U.S. cities going after them.
But we think we’re in a unique position to make us competitive just based off our significant Hispanic population and having one and a half million people in our sister city across the border.
While we’re going after Major League Soccer, which we see as our end game, I think we’ll continue to explore other opportunities, as well, to show our strong support for soccer in the region. That would be everything from exhibition matches to hosting MLS spring training here to being supportive of any efforts trying to get soccer in Juárez or even a Minor League Soccer team here, which several cities have done recently to wind up getting to the major league level.
For example, Orlando had a Minor League Soccer team and they ended up using that to springboard up to Major League Soccer. That’s the same thing Portland did and several other markets. All those are things we will investigate and look at, with our end goal of having Major League Soccer here. We’ve always said it’s going to be a long-term process, and we’ll do everything we can think of to get to that end game.
Q: Baseball and soccer have overlapping seasons. Would that be a problem in El Paso, given the city’s economy?
I think you have to look at other cities that have multiple opportunities for their citizens to attend and make choices like this. We’re confident that our community can support multiple different sports franchises in this region. Baseball’s much different from soccer. I think you have a much more passionate soccer fan and you have only 15 or 20 home games compared with 72 home games for baseball.
Q: It would be an expensive venture for MountainStar and for El Paso taxpayers if they had to pay all or part of the costs for the new stadium and the infrastructure to serve it. Critics of major league sports investments say the costs far exceed the benefits for a community. What would you say?
I’d say very few of those critics are actually looking at the real numbers and the hard and soft values that come with ventures like this. First, I think El Paso and the borderplex can make this happen through many financial means, and not just taxes. I think other cities have been very creative in how they finance their sports facilities, and they’re not all about taxing their residents.
Just for instance, the ballpark here was financed significantly through the hotel occupancy tax, which is charged to our visitors. I think there are a lot of those types of financing tools out there. I think there are a lot of other intangibles that need to be looked at, like business recruitment and retention, quality of life, jobs, economic development and broadening our tax base.
We want to move El Paso forward and if we don’t do things like this, like the ballpark, like the Downtown arena, like other types of ventures, we’re not going to be able to compete with other communities out there. People move and live where they want to live, so we’ve got stay competitive.
Go look at Denver and downtown San Diego and a lot of the other cities that have financed sports facilities and what they’ve done in terms of the economic development impact over time. You don’t just look at it in a 1-to-5 year period, you’ve got to look at it for a 10, 15, 20-year period and you can see what transformations have taken place in downtown Denver, which is now one of the most attractive places for young people to live.
That started all the way back when they built Coors Field and followed that up with a downtown arena and then followed that up with a football stadium, all 100-percent publicly financed. It’s now one of the most livable downtowns in the country.
Q: Are MountainStar, the city and county talking about possible locations for a soccer stadium yet, and what would you hope for regarding a stadium site if the chance to bring a team to El Paso or start a new team here arises?
We’ve had some very preliminary conversations with both the city and the county to see if they are interested and supportive of our pursuit. We haven’t really gotten into too many details on locations, but we do know it needs to be Downtown or very close to Downtown and close to the border. That’s sort of a starting point and we go from there. We’ll continue those discussions.
Q: What about the old Asarco site?
We’ve had no discussions with the Asarco trustee, and I really couldn’t comment if that’s a feasible site or not. I don’t think it meets the requirements that we’re looking for, so it’s not a site that we’ve really considered.
Q: I’ll bet the months after the ballpark was finished and the Chihuahuas started playing were a lot better for you all than the months before.
It was stressful at times, but it was a lot of fun and exciting to go through the whole process and see the end result.
Q: Looking back over the past year, is there anything else you’d like to touch on?
We’re very thankful for the fan support that’s taken place and we look forward to many future summers and years of people enjoying some great family entertainment that takes place with Minor League Baseball in the heart of our city.
Our city’s state of the art and national award-winning ballpark that will continue to entertain El Pasaons for decades to come would not have been possible without the strong and forward-looking leadership of our elected officials and the city manager and her staff.
Lastly, two of the best decisions MountainStar Sports Group made were to hire Alan Ledford as our president and Brad Taylor as our general manager. They have led the efforts on a day-to-day basis and provided the energy that helped our El Paso Chihuahuas set numerous records – from Facebook Likes to the Triple-A Promotion of the Year – in just our inaugural season.