Downtown business owners and investors are breathing a sigh of relief now that the controversial $180 million multipurpose facility is cleared for construction.
The project hinged on the decision of Austin Judge Amy Clark Meachum, who ruled Tuesday, July 18, that the city can build the facility and locate it in the Duranguito neighborhood.
However, a temporary injunction remains in place that prohibits the city from demolishing or purchasing buildings in the neighborhood. And questions remain about whether the city is prohibited entirely from having sporting events in the proposed arena.
“We are now four-and-a-half years after the bonds were approved. It’s not serving the best interest of the taxpayers of this community to have this project delayed longer,” said Richard Dayoub, president of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.
Several business and property owners in Downtown who asked not to be identified said they were pleased that the arena project can move forward. But they were also concerned that the judge’s decision that the city cannot build a sports arena could hurt its chances of success.
The arena, formally called the multipurpose performing arts and entertainment facility, is one piece in a broader effort by the city and private investors to revitalize Downtown.
Three signature projects from the 2012 quality of life bond, including the arena, are planned to help bring that vision into fruition. None of them have been constructed yet.
Eric Pearson, president of the El Paso Community Foundation, which led the effort to restore the Plaza Theatre in Downtown, said El Paso needs a venue larger than the 12,000-seat Don Haskins Center to attract the largest performances in the country.
The arena would not be in direct competition to the Plaza Theatre, Pearson said.
“People talked about the presence of the Plaza Theatre and the Abraham Chavez Theater,” Pearson said. “More is more in the world of entertainment.”
The arena was authorized by voters in the 2012 bond initiative. The controversy stems from the proposed Downtown location, which would displace residents, although many tenants have already left. Opponents say it would also demolish a historic neighborhood.
The city of El Paso sought a declaratory judgment in order to move forward with building the arena in the Union Plaza neighborhood. And a two-day court hearing was held Monday and Tuesday to decide the project’s fate.
Before the legal parties could deliver closing arguments, Meachum said she had already made up her mind and that it was time for a ruling. Meachum ruled the city could not build a “sports arena” but the city could use bond money to build a new “multipurpose performing arts and entertainment facility.”
The city’s outside counsel, M. Scott Incerto of Notron Rose Fulbright, asked the judge to clarify.
“The court rules that we can build a multipurpose performing arts and entertainment center. Is that including sports?” Incerto asked.
“I have said you cannot build a sports arena, so no,” Meachum replied.
The city has said it is pleased with Meachum’s ruling since it allows for construction of the facility with no limitations to the proposed location.
Mayor Dee Margo released a statement Thursday afternoon, which stated the city is “looking forward” to the final judgment that will be issued August 1 in Austin’s 201st District Court.
“Out of respect for the process and our standard practice, we will wait until this litigation matter has been fully resolved before making any additional comments,” the statement says.
During the hearing, the judge also decided not to get involved in a legal dispute over a petition to create a Duranguito Historic District.
Arena opponents said they are pleased with Meachum’s ruling and hope it will discourage the city from continuing the project. Opponents also argue the judge’s decision not to rule on the petition dispute keeps alive another option for preserving the Union Plaza neighborhood.
Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Management District, said if sports are not included in the arena, it will impact what kinds of investments businesses are willing to make near the Downtown convention center. And early interest in the area by investors has slowed down because of delays.
“When you pull out an option, it impacts what you can build and how it operates,” Gudenrath said.
Hotelier Jim Scherr and the Miami-based Meyers Group have received tax incentives from the city for their projects near the convention center and proposed arena site.
Scherr’s 151-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel at the corner of Santa Fe and Missouri should be complete by the end of the year, and the Meyers Group is leading the restoration of the historic Hotel Paso del Norte, formerly the Camino Real Hotel.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105. Twitter: @aaronmontes91