When the city of El Paso proposed building a multipurpose arena as part of a proposed bond issue that could run up to $855 million, top officials at the University of Texas at El Paso were concerned.
Non-athletic events held at UTEP’s Don Haskins Center and the Sun Bowl stadium – like the recent Monster Jam show and performances by Cirque du Soleil and Gabriel Iglesias – boost the budget for UTEP athletics.
But a $150 million city arena would compete for those kind of events, possibly harming that revenue stream.
City officials tell El Paso Inc. that UTEP approached them with that concern, explaining that the 50-year-old Sun Bowl stadium is in need of major improvements – if it is going to be competitive with other stadiums nationwide and continue to attract top-ranked teams for the annual Sun Bowl game.
“With all the bowls out there, we have to upgrade and modernize our facilities,” Sun Bowl Association executive director Bernie Olivas told El Paso Inc, “For the age of the Sun Bowl, UTEP has done a great job of maintaining it. However, things get old and they need upgrading.”
But first city officials had to determine if it’s even legal for bond money to be used to upgrade the university-owned stadium.
That question was answered when city attorneys pointed to Chapter 1434 of the Texas Government Code, which allows cities of at least 25,000 to issue bonds to make improvements to buildings used by institutions of higher education.
So elected city officials proposed spending up to $50 million to upgrade the Sun Bowl, contingent on UTEP opening the stadium to more events that benefit the community and hosting major league soccer tournaments.
“I would like to see an increased expectation for concerts, shows, etc., so that there is a quid pro quo,” city Rep. Steve Ortega said.
UTEP and the Sun Bowl Association have thrown their support behind the proposed bond.
“We’re all behind it,” said Olivas with the Sun Bowl Association.
But there was another benefit to the city of El Paso.
The city has made the construction of its proposed multipurpose arena contingent on a commitment from a major league soccer team. But a major league soccer team is probably not going to commit to El Paso without testing the market first, said city manager Joyce Wilson.
However, with some upgrades and repairs, the Sun Bowl stadium could allow a league to come in and test the market before an arena is built, according to Wilson.
“There is a win-win partnership with UTEP there,” she said.
She added, “The university is a major institution and employer in this community, it is also the lead college athletic program we have here, so we certainly want to be supportive of that.”
The proposed bond deal was complicated last Tuesday when the chancellor of the University of Texas System canceled a major boxing match that was to be held in the Sun Bowl in June. Francisco Cigarroa’s action was against the wishes of city, state and federal elected officials, and resulted in an uproar that got national media attention.
Late Friday, Cigarroa issed a video statement saying he had “heard the united voice of El Paso,” and gave the go ahead for planning for the event to proceed, but with several restrictions, including no sales of alcohol at the Sun Bowl.
The UT System also said it would require letters of assurance from local and federal security officials that risks could be mitigated to routine levels, and a security plan from UTEP’s police chief would be reviewed and affirmed by UT’s security director, Michael Heidingsfield.
Before the reversal, Wilson wrote in an e-mail that the UT System canceling a major event without input from city officials raises “questions and concerns.”
UTEP’s athletic program does not generate enough income to make the kind of investment required to modernize the Sun Bowl, and there is no funding available from the state to do the upgrades, according to Richard Adauto, UTEP’s executive vice president.
“The focus is really that this is a community asset and the benefits are pretty important for this community, and hopefully we can keep it going for another 50 years,” he said.
Adauto did not immediately know how much revenue the Sun Bowl and Don Haskins Center contribute to the athletics program.
“We are trying to put together a full-blown financial statement that will show what we do on an annual basis in each of those venues,” he said.
The bond money could be used to modernize the press box suites, upgrade seating, modernize the concourse, refurbish bathrooms, repair crumbling concrete and build new private executive boxes in the Sun Bowl.
“We are still evaluating the needs of the stadium,” Adauto said.
The city could pay back the debt by increasing the rental vehicle tax, Wilson said. Also on the table are a small surcharge on ticket sales and new parking fees.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.
Proposed city bond expenditures
Street reconstruction: $150-200 million
Multipurpose sports and entertainment facility: $150-180 million
Parks, recreation and open space: $100-125 million
* Major league soccer stadium: $100-120 million
* Triple-A baseball stadium: $45-55 million
Museums: $30-40 million
Sun Bowl upgrades: $25-50 million
Zoo modernization: $25 million
General Downtown improvements: $10-20 million
Neighborhood improvement projects: $10 million
Library upgrades: $10 million
Total: $655-835 million over 15 years
* Contingent on league commitment Source: City of El Paso