Jonathan Rogers III, better known as J.W., is a fresh face in the Downtown development scene.
Rogers, 30, is one of a growing number of young El Paso entrepreneurs bringing life back to historic buildings in Downtown El Paso. He and three other investors are rehabilitating the historic Abdou Building at 115 N. Mesa.
He is the grandson of the late Jonathan Rogers, who was a former El Paso mayor and founder of WestStar Bank.
Rogers grew up in El Paso, leaving to attend college at Oklahoma State University, where he graduated in 2010. He worked in the culinary industry in New York before returning to El Paso in 2015.
An El Paso High School graduate, Rogers is also looking to breathe new life into a vacant warehouse on Texas Avenue and the old Fort Bliss buildings at the historic Hart’s Mill site.
“It’s very time consuming, and I enjoy it,” he said. “You get to discover new things, and you get to really get a feel for the region and what it was like.”
Rogers is preparing to launch a company called Wondor Eco:Nomics, which will distribute high-quality handcrafted serapes from the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. He has about 10 of the colorful garments hanging in his closet at home.
They will be sold for $500 each.
“We do sort of small-batch lines or capsule collections,” he said. “We work with indigenous communities in Mexico, and they are all fair trade.”
Rogers said his company works with the communities, building infrastructure like cisterns, roads and electricity.
“Not only do we get these high-end products, but we get a glimpse into the uniqueness of their individual cultures and what makes them get up in the morning,” he said.
But Rogers is not all about investing and development. He said he enjoys living in El Paso and appreciates the wildlife of the Chihuahuan Desert. Rogers has fond memories of growing up near the Billy Rogers Arroyo in Central El Paso.
“Our parents would let us go and kind of run around the arroyo,” he said. “With that kind of learning experience, we got to appreciate the natural flora and fauna of the area.”
Rogers sat down with El Paso Inc. at his house on Rim Road to talk about his upbringing, jumping onto the development scene, being in over his head and revitalizing neighborhoods – without gentrifying them.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105, or (915) 777-4154. Twitter: @aaronmontes91
Q: When you returned to El Paso, you must have noticed how much the city has changed. What did you think?
It feels like El Paso is rediscovering itself. I’ve noticed El Paso will jump on trends or see what other cities are doing and say, “We should do that here.”
The vibe I am getting right now is that El Paso is becoming proud of its heritage.
Q: When did you get interested in development?
I don’t know exactly where, maybe in New York, seeing Williamsburg developed and seeing historic buildings getting new life.
It’s a lot more difficult than I originally expected. Getting a dilapidated building, there’s a lot of construction that goes into it. Making sure it’s structurally sound and then there’s asbestos or historical stuff.
It’s definitely aggressive to jump into so many projects, but it has been a really good learning experience.
Q: Which project was the first one?
We’re moving forward with the Abdou Building first. That’s with Ben Marcus and Tyson Carameros. They have some experience in development.
It’s an old Trost-designed building and is one of my favorite buildings in Downtown. We had the opportunity. It’s coming along pretty well.
Q: What did you see in the Abdou building, specifically?
The location. It’s right in the middle of Downtown, located off of Mesa and close to where the trolley will go. The fact that it was a residential building is really important to me. Bringing more living space to Downtown is definitely helpful to revitalize the area. It was small enough that it felt obtainable.
I thought the Abdou would be a good entrance into how it would be to restore a historic property. It’s intense.
Q: What about the old warehouse on Texas Avenue? What was your interest in that property?
The Texas property is on an acre lot and also that warehouse has a lot of historical significance. There used to be horse stables in the basement. It was one of the first fireproof buildings. It was part of the Garment District in the 1980s and 1990s. There were a lot of women’s rights movements that happened in that building. It has some cool history.
It’s just such a prominent building on Texas. And I feel like Texas, the Magoffin area and the Chamizal area are all just great neighborhoods, right next to Mexico.
Q: You and your team are going to build the Lowbrow next door?
We are remodeling the little gas station or truck stop. They’re turning that into Lowbrow. We are putting some commercial spaces between Lowbrow and the warehouse. I am in way in over my head with that. I am pretty nervous about it just because it’s a huge project. But I am also really excited about it.
Q: What do you see in the area?
I love the fabric of old neighborhoods; I love the walkability of them – the architecture. I am really a proponent of revitalizing areas around Downtown.
There’s a big difference between gentrifying and revitalizing. I feel like El Paso is a pretty good place to have a successful revitalization, if done responsibly. That is a big concern.
When you start updating infrastructure and putting in all these new things to do, it drives out a lot of people in those communities.
Segundo Barrio, for example, is an insanely tight-knit community. And, I’d say, one of the more beautiful parts of El Paso. I think there’s a way to revitalize infrastructure in neighborhoods like that without negatively affecting the community. Do I have the answer off the top of my head? No. But I think El Paso is open to it.
It’s a lot about conversation, too – just being open and talking to the other side. I have friends on both sides of the issue.
Q: How do you fund the developments?
My projects are personal investments.
Q: Why are you interested in the Hart’s Mill property?
That area is fascinating. It’s right on the border. They are some of the oldest buildings in West Texas and, roughly, the Southwest and northern Mexico. It’s a really special place.
It’s definitely scary. But in my heart, there is just something about that area I am in love with. It’s kind of a shame it’s so far gone right now.
Q: What is it like to restore a historic building?
It’s really complicated, to be honest. My buddies Ben (Marcus) and Rida (Asfahani) are the two I have worked with the most. There are so many little details and a lot of hoops you have to jump through with the city historic commission. It’s very time consuming, but I enjoy it. There’s definitely a place for it, but I can also understand why other developers stay away from historic properties.
Q: You have signs on your front yard showing your conservation efforts. What is that?
If it rains two or three inches, we can harvest up to about 12,000 gallons of water on the property. My landscape is all native plants, and a lot of those plants have relationships; they attract certain birds, insects and predators.
Q: What sparked your interest in preserving the environment?
I got exposed to concepts like restoration agriculture, permaculture and carbon farming. Also, a lot of anthropological work got me interested, looking at tribal communities and how they observe their landscapes.
Being able to return to the Chihuahuan Desert, the place I feel is very overlooked by the rest of the world in regards to ecology.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up across the street from Madeline Park on Baltimore Street. I lived there till I was in middle school. We moved into this property, which is kind of a funny shift. This is where the old people normally live, in the Rim Road area.
Growing up, I was really upset about having to move away from the park and away from my friend group in the park even though it was not even a mile away.
We were still next to the Arroyo, which I would probably say is one reason why I’m into the environment.
Q: What high school did you go to?
I went to El Paso High, which was fun. A lot of my friends went to Coronado, but my parents didn’t really want me to go to the Westside for school. They gave me a choice between Cathedral and El Paso High. I got exposed to a lot of different people and culture.
El Paso High was really profound for me. I got to interact with a wide-variety of people and it was interesting to see how my Coronado friends’ social life was compared to my El Paso High friends’ social life.
To this day, I look at El Paso High, more so than my college experience, as a fortifying experience for me. That was the first time I really felt like people had faith in me or believed in me.
Q: Where did you go to college?
I went to Oklahoma State and really enjoyed it. My grandad and my mom are both Oklahoma State graduates. I really wanted to go to the University of Texas at Austin. I was a big Longhorn fan growing up.
Getting familiar with Middle America was a very interesting cultural experience. Stillwater, Oklahoma, is very culturally different from El Paso. There are a wide variety of people in El Paso and Stillwater has a wide variety of one demographic. Growing up in El Paso, you don’t really get exposed to a white majority. I felt out of place in Stillwater.
Q: When did you graduate from Oklahoma State?
I graduated in 2010 with a finance and economic background. It was right after the economic collapse.
Q: What did you think of the economic downturn and it all?
My grandad died around that time, too. He was a big influence in my life. I went into finance and business because of my grandfather’s influence. So, when he passed, I started to think about other things I could do.
I did not really see myself going into the finance industry or becoming an economist. I always felt a draw to creative fields. So, when I went to New York, I went to culinary school and was a cook for a while.
Q: Where did you work in New York?
I got to work at a couple of restaurants like Babbo Ristorante and En Papillon, which were very ingredient-driven places.
Working as a cook got me interested in the environment because when I started cooking, there was a shift with ingredients and cuisine. People were worried about what particular farms they were getting their produce from.
Q: I understand you travel a lot. Where have you been and what’s your favorite place to visit?
I moved back to El Paso in Oct. 2015 and I began traveling to Peru, Colombia, Japan, the Bahamas, a little in Europe, Thailand and the U.S.
I’d say Thailand was my favorite place. I had a crazy epiphany that really shaped my perceptions when I was 25. My sister was living in Thailand at the time. I had some free time to kind of just melt and figure things out.
That pause gave me a stable place to be confident and come back to El Paso and pursue goals and those dreams I had.
Q: Have you had any mentors along the way?
A lot of older mentors, like Rick Francis, have been very helpful. My dad has been helpful. Meyer Marcus. Bill Burton. That’s what I love about coming back home. I have access to a lot of big mentors in my life in all these fields.
This is all brand new to me, and there are a lot of mistakes that I am making. To be able to sit down and talk to those guys and hear their mindset has been very beneficial.
Q: What’s next for you?
We have an apparel company that we’re launching in March. We work with indigenous communities in Mexico. We go down and do micro-community service projects like installing cisterns, road infrastructure and electrical infrastructure – just any kind of micro-projects they need.