While progress on the Downtown arena project that voters approved as part of the quality-of-life bond election in 2012 remains frozen by legal action, it won an endorsement of sorts Tuesday by the El Paso City Council.
Two city representatives placed an item before council to officially suspend the controversial arena and Mexican American Cultural Center projects to “diminish the financial impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal from city Reps Alexsandra Annello and Claudia Rodriguez would have been something of a ceremonial act if passed since work on all of the city’s bond projects is at a halt anyway.
The council easily rejected it on a 6-2 vote after a good deal of debate among council members and El Pasoans who called in to comment on it during a meeting that everyone involved attended remotely.
But that wasn’t the end of what has been an unending controversy at City Hall, at council meetings, in the courts and on the streets of El Paso for years now.
El Paso billionaire Paul Foster, a major backer of many projects – from the medical school named after him and the city’s Triple-A baseball team to the renovation of historic Downtown buildings – stepped into the debate after the fact with a letter of thanks to City Council.
In it, he expressed his appreciation of them “for standing up against the loud and vocal minority who are constantly trying to drag our city down, and who are doing everything in their power to override the will of the fine people of our great city.”
He also went after UTEP professor Max Grossman, who has led the litigation against the city to stop the arena project, because of the original ballot language and because it would mean the demolition of the historic Duranguito neighborhood to make way for a 12,000-to-15,000 seat arena.
“Under the guise of historic preservation,” Foster wrote, Grossman “has apparently made it his life’s work to destroy the redevelopment and revitalization of Downtown El Paso.”
He was also critical of retired Houston oilman J.P. Bryan, who has bankrolled Grossman’s legal actions, because he has done so even though he has no ties to El Paso.
“We don’t want him here and we don’t need him here, and thanks to your collective courage, you sent that message loud and clear at yesterday’s council meeting,” Foster’s letter read.
Foster, who has invested about $100 million restoring the historic Plaza Hotel that is awaiting a better time for a grand opening and the Anson Mills Building before that, said El Paso needs a Downtown arena and entertainment center like other ambitious cities.
Not unexpectedly, Grossman responded with a statement noting that the city has furloughed 400 employees and cut salaries because it’s looking at an $86 million budget shortfall and has a pension system with a $58 million problem.
“There are plans to cut funding for street repair, police academies and dozens of other core services,” Grossman said.
Suspending the arena project, he said, would save El Paso taxpayers $500 million because that’s how much it would cost today to build the multipurpose facility voters approved in 2012.
“The item was backed by City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, who understands that the city is straining under more than $2 million per year in bond interest from projects authorized by Proposition 2 of the 2012 QOL bond election.” Grossman said.
He also said the six council members who voted down the proposal to halt the bond projects “have squandered the opportunity to place our city on a sounder financial footing and chosen a path that will significantly increase the strain on our budget, raise property taxes even higher and potentially lead to more furloughs.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 630-6622