Gilbert Guillen

The sign over the door at 414 Durango says "Hernandez Gro.," and the cherry red Porsche in front seems out of place, unless you happen to know it belongs to Gilbert Guillen, who lives there.

He has always lived there, going back to when his grandmother ran the small grocery store, and his mother, an even smaller, five-table restaurant that catered to workers from the Hicks Ponder Co. jeans factory across the street.

The factory has gone the way of all jeans manufacturing in El Paso. After it closed in 1980, the area was in a nose-dive, until the establishment of the Union Plaza Entertainment District in the mid-1990s.

Guillen, 49, who had a big hand in establishing the district in 1994, owns the old store, now his home, with 960-square-feet of living space, along with four other properties in the same block.

They include the brand new Motel Bar next door, a small rental house, vacant lot and a duplex down the street near the corner of Paisano. All together, the Central Appraisal District values the five parcels at just $175,000.

"Union Plaza is the only mixed-use district in the city where you can have a bar next door to house," he notes.

His is a small, though promising empire. The modest circumstances belie Guillen's ambitions for the neighborhood and his role in the area's development.

He served on the first Union Plaza executive committee under Mayor Larry Francis in the mid-1990s, headed up the Border Health Institute in the early days, before that politically pock-marked name was changed to the Medical Center of the Americas, now home to the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine and, coming soon, the El Paso Children's Hospital.

Guillen also served in executive capacities with the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber.

A UTEP pre-law graduate who wanted to be a priest, he also started the irreverent Comedy Defensive School with comedian Patrick Candelaria that turned out to be a very profitable gig.

"But after my mother died, I didn't feel funny anymore and sold it to the employees for $1," he said.

Today, Guillen is still a funny man and his big concern is developing the block he owns - that one block.

"I do it for my kids so that they may know that their dad not only made a difference but was the difference," he said. "When my old man died, all he left me was the bill. I figured I would leave my children a bit more."

But he keeps close tabs on what's happening just up Durango Street and down The Alley, where the heart of Union Plaza beats loud at night from seven old brick night clubs, bars and restaurants: Black Pearl, Brick and Mortar, Plumb City, The Garden, Tabla, 1914 and Rock House.

In an interview with El Paso Inc., the always outspoken and opinionated Guillen talks about how Union Plaza got started, what held it back, where it is today, and the 56-cent rule that few entrepreneurs understand.


Q: You have been involved with Union Plaza for a long time. How did that begin?

Union Plaza actually started in 1968 as an idea. In the mid-‘70s, they even gave it the name Union Plaza. It wasn't until the late ‘80's that things actually started to happen. About that time, I had gone to visit my niece in Sacramento. We drove through San Francisco, and I remember being at the Wharf and thinking "what a great scene. Wouldn't it be great if we had it in our city?"

In the ‘89-91 timeframe, the Chamber of Commerce had the Community Development Division. In their last ditch effort to stay alive, they started this excitement about Union Plaza. "What if we could do something? What if this really happened?"

By then, I was at the chamber, and I thought, "Oh my God, that's my neighborhood, why don't I get involved in this stuff?"

In the beginning Union Plaza was only going to be the quadrant in the back where The Alley is, where The Garden and the 1914 club are.

Q: What happened?

There were three schools of thought about Union Plaza. The first was from the chamber. Mayor Larry Francis said, what are you going to do with this area? The Greater Chamber wanted honky-tonks and restaurant bars. The tourism committee wanted to do a Wild Wild West-style thing with shady ladies, saloons, a San Francisco steakhouse and gun fight re-enactments at noon.

The third group said what if we did a mixed-use district that merged retail, business and residential all in one? By that time, I had already visited San Antonio's Riverwalk District. The Riverwalk only takes in eight blocks, but the Riverwalk District is 20 blocks around.

When we did the Union Plaza District, we changed the boundary and took it all the way down Paisano and up Santa Fe with the help of the Goodman Group, and we added the neighborhood.

That's the current 240 families and 650 residents you have in Union Plaza. We used those demographics to leverage money from the federal government. The government had money to renovate inner-city neighborhoods and that's what paid for this whole development, though not the bars and restaurants.

Mayor Francis said, "I don't want this to be another Downtown plan." In our history there have been 54 Downtown plans and only five have ever come into fruition, Union Plaza being the most recent.

Q: But wouldn't the most recent be the 2006 Downtown Plan involving Bill Sanders?

That hasn't kicked in yet. It's still in process. That one got shot down. The Downtown Plan was Bill Sanders. That was his plan. That has not been adopted, to the best of my knowledge, by anyone Downtown. That was the one time in El Paso when everyone went against something.

None of what that called for has happened. The three most recent Downtown Projects of any value are the Loft that the Karam brothers have taken over, the art loft that Carlos Mendoza took over on El Paso Street and my favorite, the Mills Project. None of them has anything to do with the Downtown Plan.

Q: You have an ongoing relationship with the residents around here. How do they feel about the changes, the noise and the traffic?

The residents have really come together because most of us have always lived Downtown and this is par for the course for us. This new idea of living where you work? We've always been here. These families have been here since I was born. We just sit here and laugh.

Q: Wasn't the idea that the people who have been living Downtown in Segundo Barrio were largely poor, but what people talked about was attracting professionals, Downtown workers, students and artists - a more diverse group living where we haven't had people living, such as former department stores and lofts?

That was a grand idea, but it doesn't work in El Paso. We already have artists living down here. We already have lofts and professionals living Downtown. In other cities, lofts work because of supply and demand. You simply don't want to be in New York and have to commute two hours from the suburbs to come to work. You'd rather live downtown and you'll take whatever you can get and you have to pay the going rate.

In El Paso, lofts are not economically sound. For example, the Popular annex was turned into apartments that they touted as lofts, the Union Annex Project. But those are going for $900 a month for a single, $1,200 a month for a double. In El Paso, nobody with good business sense - emphasize good business sense - is going to do that.

You can go to the Westside and buy a cardboard house for $865 a month with three bedrooms and a two-car garage - and it's your property.

The Loft that the Karam brothers have: the mom lives in one, the brother lives in the other and the other brother lives in the other one and that's it.

Q: Someone else bought a unit for $200,000 and then left town. Now, he can't sell it.

Who's going to be dumb enough to do that in El Paso?

Q: Are the Downtown residents around here working in these clubs and restaurants?

Not many of them, just a few. But so far we haven't displaced anyone in the Union Plaza District.

Q: Union Plaza got off to a slow start and many thought it would never get off the ground. Why?

Our first challenge in Union Plaza was greed. We started off great; everything was fine.

Then, greed took over and all of a sudden these buildings that were falling apart weren't falling apart anymore. They tripled in value.

There was one building, for example, that before we started the project, was up for sale for $89,000. When we finished the project and didn't even touch the building, it was up for sale again for $210,000.

The Hicks Ponder Building across the street, when we started the project, sold for $300,000. The last time it sold with very little work to it? $2.1 million.

So what held Union Plaza back in the beginning was greed. All of a sudden everybody went ape because they thought, "We're going to make money!"

Q: But nothing happened.

Right, nothing was happening, and finally Mayor Joe Wardy said you've got to talk to these people because we're getting too crazy on these leases and rent. When the property owners finally came back to reality, then Union Plaza began to gain a little bit of speed.

It gained tremendous speed when the cartel stuff in Juárez started. When it hit, no one was going to Juárez, and all of a sudden, everyone was partying here and the investors came this way - the Mexican investors came here and started throwing money.

Q: How is the area doing now?

We're doing good. The neat part is at the beginning a lot of people thought Union Plaza wasn't going to make it. We haven't made it to the point where people thought we should be, but that doesn't matter because we own it. So, it doesn't really matter what people think. But if you look at Union Plaza, we're steady. Every year, we've done something different. Steady and sustainable.

Q: Isn't there a lot of turnover among the clubs?

The Union Plaza got really sexy. We did physical counts and we average about 5,200 kids on a good Saturday night. What happened at Union Plaza is that all of a sudden, partly because of Juárez, we got a lot of young, young entrepreneurs. Very few guys, maybe three or four, have got solid business experience. The rest we've had come, they open up and they go.

Q: Why is that?

A dollar walks into your bar and you're going to take out 8 cents for your sales taxes, then 14 cents for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Then you might as well pull out your 18 cents for your federal taxes and 16 cents in Texas for your self-employment tax. That's 56 cents.

So 56 cents of every dollar that walks in to your bar goes out the door on taxes. Then with the rest, you have to pay for your product, your napkins, your Cokes, glasses, employees, your rent.

But for the young kids that don't know this, a dollar walks in and they've already spent $1.25. That's why we have such a huge turnover in the Union Plaza District.

Q: Is there a problem with high rents as well?

The rents are a problem because the average rent is somewhere around $8,500 a month. Most are $7,000, some are $9,000 up to $13,000. So those are really, really hard to hit.

Q: What do you own here and what are you doing differently?

I own about 70 percent of the 400 block of Durango, on the east side. What I'm doing different is, No. 1, keeping the rents low. I'm a little bit different because most of my properties are almost paid for, all but one.

No. 2, I want the right entrepreneur. I get hit about once a month by some young man that's got a dream of opening the best nightclub in town. Or, if it's a girl, "I wanna open up a coffee shop and sell flowers." So, I sit here thinking, "Here we go again."

But when you come across a really good entrepreneur, he knows about the dollar and the 56 cents that's going out and can sustain that.

No. 3, I want to develop Durango Street where we have a bar and then we have a restaurant and a bistro and a mix of nice things. That's so the bars are not killing each other like they are over there in The Alley.

There, one puts up $1 Corona, and the other one says, "Mine's gong to be 89 cents and $2 you-call-it," and the only thing they're doing is kicking each other's butt.

George Cisneros, who's over at Cincinnati and who I've known since first grade, will just sit there and laugh at me and say, "Man, you guys can't even be in the same elevator together, you Union Plaza idiots."

Can you imagine if we all sat down together and talked to each other and asked what are we all going to do and had street festivals and great things?

Q: What kind of rents are you charging?

The commercial will be about $2,800 a month, and there won't be any deposits because the people who come in will remodel my property. So if someone doesn't make it, I keep everything because I'm the landlord. It also adds value to the neighborhood.

Q: Your latest project here is the Motel Bar. Who's running it?

The property next to my house that was residential is now the Motel Bar, a sexy little bar started by a young man from Ciudad Juárez, Juan Flores. I had a bunch of kids who want to rent that space and all of them wanted to do nightclubs. I'd tell them I've got a self-imposed noise restriction here, so I can't do a nightclub with outside noise and blasting music. Some offered to pay me more but I said, "Thanks anyway, but no thanks."

When Juan Flores got here, he said "You know what? I'll take that, because I have a family, and I have a mom and I understand that."

He's one of those great entrepreneurs. He's always done construction. His father and uncle do construction. They built this place for less than 50-grand. No one else could have done that.

Q: They literally built it themselves?

Absolutely, which is why it was so cost effective. And their rent is one of those really inexpensive rents. He doesn't have to worry about coming up with $7,000 a month.

Q: A lot of it is outdoors. What about the neighbors?

When we had the grand opening week, Wednesday night was a friends and family night. Thursday was the elected officials' night and public VIPs. Friday was the VIP party night, and Saturday was the grand opening.

But that Tuesday evening was the neighborhood party.

Juan did an entire party before all of this happened with hot dogs and sodas and let the neighbors come by and the kids and served everybody. Then we did a sound check with the DJ here and four guys with cell phones with property owners at their homes saying, "How's that sound level?"

That's the first thing we did. The second was we gave everybody Juan's cell phone number and told them, "If the music is too loud, please call us, and we'll turn it down." Sunday through Thursday, his lease stipulates that amplified noise will be shut off at 10 for the outside speakers. Fridays and Saturdays, it should run until about midnight at a 50-decibel level. You can still hear it up the street, but it doesn't blast you.

Q: Why have you chosen to live here in a little house with a grocery sign over the door when you could afford a big house on the West Side?

Because I love the sense of neighborhood. On the West Side, you don't know the neighborhood, you don't know the neighbors. Downtown, everybody knows you.

Q: What do you see here in 10 years? Will the clubs and restaurants take over or will people still live in the area?

I think in 10 years, we'll see a small, mixed-use district because there's not enough clubs and restaurants to go around. There are other areas in El Paso that are developing.

We're Downtown. Brent Harris and Paul Foster have the Mills project. They want to be called Uptown. When they do their Uptown, with bars and restaurants on the ground floor of the Mills Building, that's going to pull a little bit from Union Plaza. Then, you've got Cincinnati and Far East El Paso. They all compete with the Union Plaza District.

I think we'll get a few more bars and restaurants, we'll taper off and remain a mixed-use district.

Q: Will it make a big difference if things settle down and the Juárez kids who are coming over here now don't have to come over?

We know Juárez is not gong to settle down, that Juárez is still going to be corrupt because that's what Juárez does.

Q: But it was a great town, before the cartel wars. So what happens if the shooting stops?

If! If the shooting stops, we'll still be OK. But it's going to be decades before Juárez settles down.


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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