Downtown El Paso will soon get a new public space available for use by nonprofits, neighborhood organizations and other civic groups as the city continues to find its voice amidst accelerating growth.
The Housing Authority of the City of El Paso will lease the 17th floor of its currently-under-renovation Blue Flame building to the city for a Center for Civic Empowerment. City officials said the center will give citizens more access to local government.
Nicole Ferrini, the city’s chief resilience officer and director of community and human development, said the city wanted an accessible space to create a better dialogue with El Pasoans. The Center for Civic Empowerment will be equipped with technology that allows El Pasoans to remotely submit public comment, she said.
“The center is exactly what its name implies,” Ferrini said. “It’s a place for this community to come together to access their government, learn about how to create impact and how to empower themselves to become more personally resilient.”
The project is supported by a $1.5 million Community Development Block Grant from the federal government and will be run by the city. Ferrini said the housing authority, which operates public housing for low-income residents in El Paso, is also contributing funding to the project.
Several other spaces around El Paso can be used as public meeting places, including libraries and recreation centers. But Ferrini said the new center is dedicated to increasing engagement and input from the most vulnerable El Pasoans.
She said the target communities for the new civic engagement center are the neighborhoods surrounding Downtown, including Segundo Barrio, Chamizal and San Juan. She said the space will be available to use for free by nonprofits.
The ultimate goal for the center is to get El Pasoans more involved in their community, whether that’s through volunteering, organizing or amplifying voices. She said the center is unique to the community and not something that other cities often have.
Civic engagement centers are often found on college campuses or are run by nonprofits. The University of Texas at El Paso has a civic engagement center to get more students involved in volunteering and other unifying projects.
“I was surprised to see how unprecedented this type of space really is,” Ferrini said. “Cities utilize their libraries or recreation centers, and we do that too. But to have a space that’s 100% dedicated to hearing the voice of our citizens is something we haven’t seen in other places.”
Historically, El Paso has had low levels of civic participation, including low voter turnout. But the tides have been turning over the last couple of years. Mark Weber, interim community development planning manager, said the city has seen public engagement numbers jump.
Weber said the city received about 18,000 responses related to discussions on Community Development Block Grant projects, which he said was an over 10,000% increase from the previous year.
The specific terms of the lease have not been finalized, officials said. The target opening date for the center is July 2020.
Now a state and national historic landmark, the Blue Flame building was once the headquarters of El Paso Natural Gas Co. It has long been vacant, but the housing authority is transforming it into 120 apartments for low-income residents and offices. It will also have a restaurant and retail space on the ground floor.
The 17th floor was formerly a maintenance room, housing authority officials said in a statement.
The 14th, 15th and 16th floors of the tower will also be used as office space. The housing authority will move its main offices into one of those floors from its current space at 5300 E. Paisano.
Housing authority officials said they are working with Workforce Solutions Borderplex to fill the other office-space floors.
The 17th-floor civic engagement center will also include a sky deck where, Ferrini said, El Pasoans can come and feel inspired by the panoramic views of the city.
“We want to inspire El Pasoans,” Ferrini said. “We want folks to want to come out, to be excited and inspired by what’s going on in our city.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.