As City Council, city staff and the city’s consultants plow ahead with a plan to demolish City Hall and build a $50-million ballpark in its place, city Rep. Carl Robinson is providing a voice for the opposition.
When City Council approved the plan last month, Robinson was one of two reps to vote against the resolution and he’s been speaking out against the project since.
“I’m not a puppet on a string,” Robinson says.
He emphasizes that he isn’t opposed to bringing a Triple-A baseball team to El Paso. What irks him most is the proposed location of the ballpark and how the city has moved forward without giving El Pasoans an up or down vote.
Robinson’s worried the growing backlash could impact the success of the quality of life bond, which he supports.
The $468-million bond issue will go to voters in November and includes $190 million for parks, $180 million for a multipurpose center, $50 million for the zoo, $36 million for museums and $12 million for libraries.
Robinson has lived in the district he represents, Northeast El Paso, since 1977. He was elected to City Council in 2009.
He served in the U.S. Army for 25 years, serving in locations around the world, and is a decorated Vietnam veteran.
For the past 12 years, he has conducted the Martin Luther King Food Drive in El Paso and was selected as the Special Olympics Texas 2009 Community Leader of the Year.
Robinson sat down with El Paso Inc. in his office at City Hall, which may be rubble as soon as next year. Visitors notice that his desk is covered with papers, but there’s no computer. While his staffers have computers, he says he prefers to work without one.
“We get the job done,” he says, grinning.
He talked about why bringing a Triple-A baseball team to El Paso is a good idea but a downtown ballpark is not, what’s taking so long in the redevelopment of the Northpark Mall site, and the future of Cohen Stadium.
Q: Why do you oppose the plan to demolish City Hall and build a ballpark in its place?
Fundamentally, I am not opposed to a Triple-A baseball team – a Triple-A baseball team would be good for El Paso – but I’m concerned about how we are going about doing it. We have a team called the Diablos at Cohen Stadium and July 4 we had more than 14,000 people at Cohen Stadium.
Cohen Stadium was built to accommodate a Triple-A baseball team. Would we need to invest to upgrade Cohen Stadium to accommodate the wishes of minor league baseball? Probably so.
But retrofitting Cohen Stadium would cost a lot less than the $50 million to build a new ballpark.
Q: Hasn’t minor league baseball made it clear that retrofitting Cohen Stadium is not an option?
People have made statements that the Pacific Coast League has said we need to do this or we need to do that. I asked Mr. Paul Foster very specifically at the City Council meeting if it was in the Pacific Coast League rules or if anyone from the league officially made that statement. What was his response? No.
Q: What about the plan to demolish City Hall?
A statement I use all the time is: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I’m not a puppet on a string. I always study the issue and think about what impact it might have not just on Northeast but on the city has a whole.
As we speak, we still don’t know where City Hall is going to go and at what cost. We have spent millions of dollars to upgrade this building. There is nothing physically wrong with this building.
Q: Does it change your position if the city is given a new home? It’s been reported that Paul Foster is thinking about donating the Blue Flame building or Plaza Hotel to the city.
That’s rumored. Let’s talk about the Blue Flame building. The El Paso Independent School District occupied that building on a temporary basis. The question you need to explore is: “Why did they move out abruptly?” There are problems with that building. You talk about this building needing upgrading? That building is in much worse condition.
Q: But what if Paul Foster were to refurbish the building?
We made a commitment already to give up this building and you say, “If he makes a commitment.” It may be a rumor that Paul Foster could donate a building, but it’s not a rumor that we are going to tear this building down.
Q: Have you sat down with Woody Hunt and Paul Foster and expressed your concerns to them?
I would sit down with them. Is it going to change the picture? No. The majority of council has already made its decision. You tell me if this makes sense? You own your house. I come to you and say, “I’ve got a great deal for you. You’re going to give me your house and you’re going to pay to tear it down. Then, on top of that, here is my new design of how I want the new structure to look and you get to pay to build it. Then, when you’re done with that, I’ve got a building across the street I am going to rent you.” That doesn’t pass the common sense test.
Q: What if the new house was a quality of life investment that was going to revitalize the entire neighborhood, increase the value of the neighborhood and your household income.
That’s a lot of “what ifs.” Instead, what if a businessman were to buy the property and build the stadium?
Q: Would it change your opinion if the ballpark was built in the Northeast?
There is already one there that could be retrofitted. I’m not adverse to a Triple-A baseball team. I tell people, “It’s not what you do; sometimes it’s how you go about doing it.”
Q: But the city has made Downtown revitalization a priority. Plan El Paso for instance lists as a goal for the city to direct “public funding and private development of exemplary design to Downtown where it will have economic and social benefits shared by the entire city.”
I am not opposed to Downtown revitalization. What I am against is putting all your eggs in one basket. We can’t forget that there are other parts of town that need revitalization. What efforts has the city made to promote economic development in Northeast El Paso?
If I want to buy a suit, I have to go to the Eastside or the Westside. The people who live in Northeast El Paso they tell me they want to be able to shop in the Northeast.
We talk out of both sides of our mouth. We say we want to reduce the need for people to get in their cars and drive to improve the air quality, but what do I have to do if I don’t have a place to go shopping in Northeast El Paso? I’ve got to get in my car and go across the mountain to the Westside or take I-10 to the Eastside.
Q: It has been a long held sentiment in Northeast El Paso, going back to city Rep. Stan Roberts in the 1980s, that the city government has focused too much attention and money on Downtown. Do people in your district still share that view?
Yes, they do. Everyday I run into constituents and they say, “Mr. Robinson, what are we going to do? We need places to eat, we need places to shop. When are we going to get a Red Lobster? When are we going to get an Olive Garden? Why do I have to go to the Eastside or the Westside?”
Many Northeast residents feel that they are the stepchildren. What we need to do is change that thought process, and how we do that is we show we are concerned about Northeast El Paso and are doing everything we can to improve the quality of life there.
The thing that is lacking in Northeast El Paso is quality of life, but not only from a recreation standpoint. One person’s definition of quality of life may not be another’s. Not everybody likes sports. The elderly person or married couple may just be looking for a nice restaurant to go to eat or a nice place to shop.
Another issue in Northeast El Paso is our roads. I get that on a regular basis: “When are you going to repave my street?” In fact, the street I live on has not been repaved since my house was built in 1980.
What economic development effort has the city made in Northeast? I submit to you none. I believe we closed the deal to acquire the 30-acre Northpark Mall site, including a 7-acre parcel for a bus terminal, in November 2010. Now here we are in July 2012.
We’ve torn the property down but no construction has started. I’ve been constantly at city staff about getting the Northpark project moving because it’s a project that will prompt other developers to come into Northeast El Paso.
Q: I understand the plan to redevelop the former Northpark Mall site by Dover Kohl includes apartments and condominiums, shopping and a park, as well as the bus station. What is holding it up?
Some of the land was purchased with federal dollars but the location of the bus terminal has been moved since. So we had to go the Federal Transit Administration. We expect that approval to come in the very near future.
Once that is done, then we will be able to put the project out to bid hopefully. I am hopeful we will be able to get that process started before the year is out.
Q: Supporters of the ballpark point to Oklahoma City that has invested billions over the past two decades on projects, including a ballpark, that have been credited with reviving the city and spurring billions more in private sector investment.
Sometimes we want to be El Paso and other times we want to be somebody else. We have to make up our mind on who we are and who we want to be. We can’t be Oklahoma City, we can’t be Tucson and we can’t be New York. We have to be El Paso.
I went on a trip to Oklahoma City last year. One thing I learned is the citizens bought into the projects, voting to increase the sales tax to pay for the projects. Here we are forcing the ballpark project down El Pasoans’ throats and not giving them the opportunity to voice their opinion by voting the project up or down.
Q: How widespread and organized is the opposition at this point?
From what I can see, the opposition appears to be growing. People all over the city are becoming more and more displeased about how the city is going about this.
Q: Could the ballpark plan impact the success of the quality of life bond that does go before voters for an up or down vote in November?
It is a concern. I really do fear that the displeasure with the ballpark deal could spill over into the quality of life bond.
If you disrespect the citizens and you alienate them, they may not come out and vote or they may vote down the bond. This issue with the baseball stadium and tearing down City Hall could be a lightning rod and the lightning could strike down the quality of life bond.
Q: Do you think Woody Hunt and Paul Foster expect to make a lot of money on the deal?
I’m not adverse to anybody that is trying to make money. I want people to invest in El Paso. You go into business to make money. They are businesspeople and are in business to make money.
I have a problem with how we are going about doing the baseball stadium and tearing down City Hall.
Q: But people familiar with minor league baseball say owning a minor league team isn’t typically something that makes you rich, and Hunt and Foster have insisted their focus is to make El Paso more competitive by improving the quality of life.
Come on, let’s be real. Nobody goes into business with the intent of not making money. At the same time, let’s look at the big picture.
What is this really all about? It’s about real estate. The price of real estate is going to go up and who is going to benefit?
Q: What happens to Cohen Stadium if all this works as planned?
It all depends on who you talk to and you may get a different story from one day to the next. Right now they have baseball at Cohen but they also have concerts, monster truck shows, motocross and other events.
Some have also suggested that soccer fields could be built on some of the property adjacent to Cohen, between the community college and the stadium because we have a shortage of soccer fields throughout the city.
If it were not for Cohen Stadium, we would not have the new hotel built there. That’s the first hotel that has been built in Northeast El Paso in the last 30 years.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.