George Salom Jr.

With things moving faster than ever in Downtown El Paso, the longtime president of the Central Business Association, Mike Dipp Jr., decided it was time for a change. In June, he stepped down from the position he’d held for 20 years.

The CBA board picked George Salom Jr. to succeed him. As it happens, Dipp’s father and Salom’s father were the founders of what was originally known as the Downtown Development Association.

“I think you’ve got a young, dynamic individual who knows the Downtown and who was born into the Downtown,” Dipp said of Salom. “I’m very excited because I believe his tenure will be full of exciting new ideas and a completely new thought process because of the dynamic changes in our new Downtown.”

Salom, 40, heads Salom Investments, the family’s business. Its offices at 807 S. El Paso Street are close to the Paso Del Norte Bridge used by thousands of Mexican pedestrians each day to enter El Paso.

He’s high on Downtown but less than excited about Downtown baseball and some of the other changes brought by the eight-year administration of Mayor John Cook. Salom has higher hopes for a business-friendly administration of Mayor Oscar Leeser.

There are two economies intertwined Downtown. One has relied for decades on traditional Mexican trade; another is emerging with millions in private investments, such as Paul Foster’s renovation of the Mills Building, residential projects and public spending.

The demolition of City Hall in April meant moving 600 city employees into private office buildings, a remodeled newspaper building and two historic properties that are still being refurbished.

Meanwhile, new clubs, restaurants and businesses are popping open Downtown, at least 10 of them this year, with nine more under construction or planned.

This week, the 18-month long reconstruction of San Jacinto Square will begin. Other Downtown projects financed with bonds that voters approved in November are on the way.

But, down on South El Paso and Stanton streets, businesses have been hit hard by one bad wave after another, discouraging or redirecting Mexican shoppers. They include a succession of bridge security measures, bridge construction and a new passport requirement.

When Sun Metro opened the Bert Williams Downtown Transit Center on Santa Fe Street between 4th and Fr. Rahm in 2009, that meant bus riders no longer walked by shops along El Paso Street on their way to bus stops at San Jacinto Plaza.

Careful about some of his responses, Salom swings away at the transit center, calling it a disaster for businesses north of Paisano and especially around the plaza.

“When the buses were moved, that area became a ghost town,” Salom said. “All the businesses suffered, many closed.”

South of Paisano, the streets are still busy with shoppers among the 14,000 pedestrians who cross into El Paso weekly.

Things may change, but Salom doesn’t believe anything will stop the people and the trade going between two major cities with such strong ties.

“We have to look at El Paso and Juárez as a long-term relationship,” he said.

Salom met with El Paso Inc. in his office overlooking El Paso Street to talk about business, baseball and changes Downtown.

Q: Citywide, the El Paso Central Appraisal District raised commercial property values by 35 percent. Have the reappraisals hit Downtown businesses hard and is there any kind of organized effort to roll the increases back?

Talking as an individual, yes. They have hit Downtown property owners extremely hard. It’s a constant, and there doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason because you could have a property on the same block that goes up 70 percent, 30 percent, and the property right next to it there’s no increase and there’s been no change in the property itself. No paint. At the end of the day, the people who carry that burden are the consumer and the tenants.

Is there an organized effort to address it? No, there is not, and I think that is part of the problem. I think that people are starting to realize that if you really want to address the situation you are going to have to get organized.

Q: Would you tell us about your business, Salom Investments?

We own and manage commercial property, retail and office. It’s kind of the evolution of the family business that started in the ‘60s in furniture and used clothing.

Q: How about your family background, the Salom family?

My grandparents emigrated from Syria in the 1920s to Mexico, made their way up to the United States. My father and his two brothers and one of the sisters, I believe in the early ‘60s, decided to come together and start a business, and that was the clothing business, which over time evolved into different investments.

Q: Where did you go to school?

I graduated from Cathedral in 1992, went off to study, ended up in San Francisco at the University of San Francisco. Came back in 1999 thinking I would leave within a few months, but I ended up staying here, and little by little opportunities presented themselves.

Q: Mike Dipp was president of the CBA for 20 years. Why so long?

That’s a good question. I’m sure you know Mike; he’s one of those El Paso icons.

Q: How is it that you’re the one to follow him as CBA president?

My father and Mike and others were the founders of what became the CBA. I feel like I grew up on this street. I’ve always been around Downtown El Paso. My dad’s involved in different organizations and he said, “It’s time for me to get out and others to come in.” And I said, “Well, no, they need stability and they need experience.”

I started attending CBA meetings regularly. Our business is a member, and over time I just started to get acquainted with the issues and the workings of the association. Little by little, I found myself wanting to participate a little more actively. Next thing you know, I’m on the board and they’re nominating me for president.

Q: What are your immediate and long-term goals for the CBA and Downtown El Paso?

My goal is to focus on the strengths of past leadership and moving towards new focus, if you will. I think there’s a need to look at our strengths.

In this area, you have approximately 1,500 locally owned businesses in the Downtown area, and when I say Downtown I mean South El Paso, San Jacinto, Union Plaza and Texas Avenue.

One of the things we want to do is to make sure that the CBA is the main advocate for locally owned businesses whether they’re small or large corporations. We need to work on helping to meet their needs whether it be security or sanitation or transportation. Any sort of activity that has immediate effect on this area, everyone needs to be aware of that. We want to be the voice for those needs and a link between city government and a good partner with other organizations, like the chambers of commerce, and build on that.

Q: How many members does the CBA have?

About 220.

Q: That’s doesn’t seem like a lot out of 1,500 businesses. Will you be looking for more?

Doors are open, but I think it’s more a matter of quality versus quantity. I would love to have every business that’s in the immediate Downtown area. If everyone wanted to be a member they would be welcome. But I’m looking for people who have been here for a while or who are new to the business area and want to actively participate and keep Downtown El Paso unique, active, healthy and welcoming.

This street right here, sometimes people take it for granted. Having grown up here, they think it’s just El Paso Street. But people come over from Juárez, and this is the gateway to El Paso. It’s a gateway to Texas, and a gateway to the United States. We have anywhere from 12,000 to 14,000 pedestrians a week crossing, so that’s a lot of visitors. Some are repeat visitors and some aren’t. It’s important to capitalize on that and be sure that whether it’s Downtown, Cielo Vista or the outlets, the people that come to shop and eat in El Paso are welcomed.

Q: Ten new businesses have opened Downtown this year, including several restaurants, a bank, a tea house and a Starbucks, plus nine more in the works. There are also plans for new apartments in the Martin Building and for a new hotel.

Is this the Downtown revitalization El Paso’s been waiting for, and why is it happening now?

I don’t know if that’s what revitalization looks like, but what we’re seeing now is part of a process that began years ago.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Q: But what are investors and developers seeing in Downtown today that we weren’t seeing 15 years ago?

Good question. I think that where we’re at now has been in movement for quite a few years. It’s just taken a while to get there. If you look at Union Plaza, the initial investment in that area happened a long time ago. It took a while for private enterprise to go in and start developing. If you look at it now, people are always comparing it to 6th Street in Austin.

Now, we have the Cincinnati area, and Union Plaza. It shows that if you have a good relationship between public and private, it can work.

Q: Do you see a change that may attract more shoppers from this side of the border, more El Pasoans?

It is already happening. The number of American shoppers, sales, is up for U.S. side shoppers. I think it’s going to take some time to see more El Pasoans come, but they’re there.

At the same time, I think we have to be able to accommodate everyone. They say trash on the streets is a bad thing, but it also shows that there are a lot of people shopping, and there’s a lot of movement. You look back on the old El Paso, my mom used to go to the department stores Downtown.

Now, our competition is all the other shopping centers in El Paso. We have to deal with the reality that we have parking meters here. You go to Cielo Vista Mall, and it’s easy access. To answer your question, I think that 10 years from now, we’re going to see a fuller and more diverse Downtown. But its success will be dependent on whether we can accommodate everybody.

Q: How is retail business Downtown these days?

I heard at one of the CBA meetings that within a five-minute drive from El Paso Street, there’s approximately $340 million in actual sales. All the businesses on El Paso, Overland, Stanton, are locally owned. The money stays here. The people who are employed there are part of our community, living that American dream. It is a healthy Downtown.

Is there room for change? Of course there is. And again, the best way to affect that change is for everyone to be in communication with each other, to make sure that we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot or cutting our hand.

Q: The question has always been whether the kinds of customers El Paso Street draws would eventually change. Then came 9/11, new security and passport requirements. All that has slowed down Mexican traffic a lot. Meanwhile, Juárez has become more competitive. So the question is whether that trade is going to change?

We have to look at El Paso and Juárez as a long-term relationship. This area has been a trading commercial hub from the 1880s on, when the railroads came and it became a nexus for the whole United States and Northern Mexico. The products that people are buying, maybe that’s changed, but that commercial relationship hasn’t really changed. Competition is fierce.

Certain groups in Juárez or Mexico prefer that the shoppers stay over there, but there’s still something that El Paso or the United States offers to the Mexican shopper that makes them willing to wait in long lines.

Q: What is that?

Customer service and competitive prices.

Q: To what extent do you think the city’s new incentive packages are responsible for the development that we’re seeing Downtown?

I don’t have too much information on that, but I believe it is helping, at least from a philosophical point of view. Maybe it’s not the same thing we’re talking about, but all these businesses were part of the Downtown Management District. Part of our taxes goes directly there, we voted to do that years back, and now there’s the incentive program and I think that’s been a success like anything. The more people who know about it, the more they see it, the more they’ll be willing to participate.

Q: Is the city being helpful? I know they’ve been trying, but you still hear about people going through hell trying to start a business. Would you call the city business friendly these days?

We have a new administration: a new mayor, new council. I think that we’re going to see, hopefully, a greater increase in that. At the core, the idea, the willingness to be business friendly, is there. But you need people who understand how to make that happen. I think we’re finally getting to that point.

Q: It seems a lot of development has come from outside Downtown, including Paul Foster’s Mills Building renovation and Plaza Hotel as well as Lane Gaddy and Octavio Gomez’s residential developments and the Union Plaza.

What about the long-time owners of major Downtown properties? What are we seeing from them?

El Paso is a large city and it’s a small city at the same time. We know about that. I think in all places, all cities, you have people who take pride in their property, in their businesses. There are some who may not, at least according to some. You see families who have owned property for a long time, and you have newer owners. Some are Chinese, some are Korean and some are Mexican.

You see that they are taking a little bit more pride in their properties. You see them fixing them up, painting them, making sure that the streets are cleaner.

At the same time, there is an educational process that takes place. There’s accountability and even something as fundamental as saying “don’t litter.” Those are things that happen throughout El Paso. I’m sure there are issues with industrial sites on the East Side of El Paso. You’re starting to see that change.

Q: How does the CBA feel now about the Triple-A ballpark?

Speaking for the CBA, it is something that is now part of our Downtown. We all just have to make sure that we all benefit, that the baseball stadium is also part of this Downtown shopping district and that everybody who comes to a game or to shop or to eat, that we have the infrastructure and mechanism to make it all work.

Q: What impact will it have?

I don’t believe, at least in terms of the baseball field, it will have a negative impact, so any positive impact that it will bring is good. Hopefully, the people that will benefit from it will be locally owned businesses.

Q: It has been said that the Bert Williams Downtown Transit Center hurt businesses north of Paisano when it opened in 2009 because pedestrians didn’t have to walk to San Jacinto Plaza to catch buses anymore.

What do you think the impact of the transit center has been and how are Downtown businesses doing now?

In my personal experience, it did affect business. I think you see it in terms of what happened to San Jacinto and the businesses that were around it. When the buses were moved, that area became a ghost town. All the businesses suffered, many closed.

Q: Has the transit center had a positive impact on businesses in the Santa Fe area?

Not really. I think of it as a disaster for north of Paisano. It was a true death knell for that area. But this being the gateway, people still walk up El Paso Street. It did impact Downtown overall, but specifically north of Paisano.

Q: The teardown of San Jacinto Park starts this week. Are you concerned about the impact that will have on Downtown businesses?

Any time you have destruction, it’s a concern. I think that the CBA, prior to my coming to its presidency, has taken the lead in trying to facilitate how that destruction will affect businesses. An example right now is the sidewalk improvement on San Antonio Street. They say they’re seven or eight months behind schedule. As it was, that street was hurting from the economic downturn.

We need to avoid those kinds of situations. We understand that construction is always a reality. But at the same time, Downtown is kind of like a body. When it goes into surgery, if you’re working on one part of a body, you have to be sure you’re not overlooking the heart or the next thing you know, the heart stops.

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E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

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