The new executive director of El Paso’s Downtown Management District, Joe Gudenrath, brings experience, enthusiasm and “fresh air” to the job of cleaning up and promoting Downtown.
He’s 36, has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in public administration and spent eight years in the mayor’s office in Omaha, Nebraska, rising to chief of staff.
He spent the next five years running Omaha’s equivalent of a downtown management district, or DMD, and is credited with saving it from being dismantled for being ineffective.
Then Gudenrath decided it was time for a challenge and applied for the job to head El Paso’s DMD after the former director, Veronica Soto, was hired to run the city’s Community Development Department.
Downtown business owners established the DMD in 1997 as a quasi-governmental district to fund and manage services like trash pick-up, street cleaning and security in Downtown. Today it also handles marketing for Downtown and permitting of events.
Its 21-member board is appointed by City Council and has the power to collect an assessment, or property tax, to pay for the services it provides. The current rate – 12-cents per $100 of property valuation – can only be increased by petition of the district’s property owners.
A former deputy El Paso city manager, Debbie Hamlyn, stepped in as interim director of the DMD after Soto left and organized the recruitment and screening process to hire a new director.
Thirty people and a six-member screening committee narrowed the field down to Gudenrath and three local candidates. The committee recommended Gudenrath and in late May, the DMD board voted 15-0 to hire him.
“We had great candidates,” said DMD chairman Bob Ayoub, who is president of Mimco, a local real estate development company. “Any one of them could have done a good job, but Joe had the experience of actually running a DMD.”
“He thinks El Paso’s a wonderful place with wonderful potential, that we’ve got a downtown that’s really happening, and he just saw all the positives.”
Hamlyn described Gudenrath as “calm and competent” and thinks the city was lucky to find him.
George Salom Jr., president of the Central Business Association and a member of the DMD board, met Gudenrath last week.
“He called out to me, and we had a short meeting, just the two of us,” Salom said. “My first impression’s a good one. He’s young but experienced for his age. I liked what I heard.
“To me, it’s exciting. A different perspective and a fresh air.”
Gudenrath started his $103,000 a year job on June 2 after making the 16-hour drive from Omaha to El Paso.
In an interview last week with El Paso Inc., he barely paused before answering a tough question: Will the DMD continue with a three-year-old process to allow the board to raise the assessment?
“I’m not doing that,” Gudenrath said flatly. “It’s not on my radar screen.”
That surprised Salom, pleasantly. His family’s properties and several others were incorrectly counted as in support of the DMD tax increase last year. When that came to light, the board had to roll back the rate from 14 cents to 12 and make refunds.
“He’s aware that the people who pay the taxes are the most important part of the process,” Salom said.
In his meeting with El Paso Inc., which included Rudy Vasquez, the DMD’s marketing director and spokesman, Gudenrath talked about the challenges he faced in Omaha, what brought him to El Paso and the potential he sees for Downtown.
Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge here?
The issues of downtowns aren’t different from city to city.
They are parking, trash, marketing and promotions, events, streetscapes and sidewalks – those are common issues for downtowns. It’s finding the solutions or ways to address them in each city.
I believe there are El Paso solutions just as there are Omaha solutions and Kansas City solutions.
What I’m really starting to dive into now is getting to know the people, places and issues. I have a full calendar of meetings and will continue to do that as long as people are willing to meet with me.
Not only are the issues the same, but the challenges a lot of cities are facing are the same, too. Budgets are getting tighter. The services provided by municipalities are forced to become more efficient, effective or even reduced.
What I’ve been seeing is the downtown management districts and improvement districts are starting to grow in terms of stature and importance for these communities.
Q: What are El Paso’s issues?
It’s the same: trash, parking, safety. Those are pretty common, and I’d put them all pretty close to the top because those are sometimes major barriers, whether it’s perception or reality.
Omaha is smaller than El Paso but has higher crime statistics in certain areas than El Paso. When it comes to safety, I really want to dive into statistics.
Before you demand enhanced services, let’s really identify the problem, the perception problem and the reality of the problem and go from there. Litter and things like that probably bother me more than most people. Honestly, what you need to do is put it in the proper perspective.
Talk to people coming here. Talk to the hotels and see what the comment cards from the guests are saying. Do they see it as dirty or unsafe? That really helps. You get really blinded by your own perceptions of the area.
Q: Tell us about your experience in Omaha.
I kind of worked my way up through the ranks. I was communications assistant, communications director and then the mayor’s chief of staff. So, I worked with the media a lot.
My background and experience put me in a pretty unique position because these improvement and management districts work closely with the city on one side and with the community on the other. view them as really grassroots, community-based organizations.
It’s a self-assessment process. While those are often the most contentious issues, it’s a choice that the community wants. I take that very seriously because it’s a community-based organization.
Q: By self-assessment, you mean property taxes and a tax rate that property owners agree to assess on themselves?
Yes, it’s the community saying we want enhanced services. We want to have a standard of service that’s higher than what the city can or does provide, and we’re willing to pay for it within our district.
There’s got to be a tight working relationship between the organizations.
I think that exists here in El Paso between the city and the DMD. One thing I’ve been telling the city is to please view us as a partner in this effort. View us as an asset or a tool to deliver the services they are providing, but also the enhanced services that we would like to provide.
Q: What shape do you think the El Paso DMD is in?
I think it’s in great shape. One, the city of El Paso has great buy-in into this organization. It goes back and forth. Some look at it like a handout to Downtown, but some folks I’ve talked to really recognize that this organization is a means to a greater outcome.
The permitting process is a great project. That’s a nightmare we faced in Omaha. I’ve got to quit saying ‘we.’ In Omaha, they have a struggle with street closures and communicating construction projects.
There are aspects between the city and the DMD that have gone a long way and show partnerships and teamwork.
Overall, the public and private investment in Downtown, the quality-of-life bonds are very positive for not only Downtown but the entire area. That’s a good sign.
The baseball stadium is a very nice investment that can be capitalized on to bring in additional investment and benefit to the area.
What I think in my 10-day assessment so far is that we really need to tie up the basics again, get out in the community, demonstrate what we’re doing for the people who are writing the checks so they can gain an appreciation for the district and recognize that we’re on the same team.
We need to identify what the city’s responsibility is and what it does. Get in writing what we can expect, what we can expect and require of property owners and then what the DMD in its current state can do right now to fill in the gaps.
Q: Gaps, what do you mean?
An example is safety. Police provide three bike cops every day for all three shifts. Property owners want eight bike cops for every shift. DMD doesn’t provide bike cops, but maybe we could do something in terms of private security patrols.
Q: Could you contribute directly? The city is paying Customs and Border Protection directly for more inspectors at the bridges.
That’s a discussion that needs to happen.
Q: The press release the DMD sent out said you revived an organization on the cusp of dissolution. Can you talk a little bit about the Omaha DMD and what you did to fix it?
The ordinance creating the district said you have five years and it dissolves without action – 2007 was first year. The hiring of an executive director occurred in year one.
In year two, they had a director but by the end of that year, they had parted ways with that director because there wasn’t enough being done. So, there were almost two years of assessments with no improvements.
I came in in year three. After the completion of my second year, we had made so much progress that we went for reauthorization of the district and to have an indefinite reauthorization. The vote was 6-0 with no opposition at the time.
These things are really community based, and if you build them that way, you can alleviate fear, you can solve problems and you can create partnerships that go a long way.
Part of the reauthorization was to remove the assessment cap. Now the organization brings in about $360,000 in property taxes, and we make it a goal to bring in grants, contributions, in-kind funds, sponsorships of about $120,000 each year. That puts us at about $500,000 a year.
Q: How big was the district geographically?
Between 80 and 100 square blocks.
Q: What are your marching orders here? Before, the ambitions of the organization went well beyond the rudiments they started with, safety and cleanliness, into marketing.
I think the framework’s in place for marketing. They’ve hired Rudy, and I think he does a great job for the organization. A marketing plan is being put together right now, so we’ll look at that and go from there.
My take is the board wants to give me time to analyze the organization and what it does right now, and then bring a fresh perspective to see what needs to be done, what could be done.
Q: How would you go about an assessment increase?
I know that’s the hot topic, so I’ll give you my perspective on that.
You don’t pursue an assessment. You back up. You work with the community. You know the gaps. You know what people want and that’s a means to address what they want.
I don’t like it to be just an arbitrary assessment that generates revenue. I’d like to turn it around and say, here’s what you’re buying for this. If you approve that, this is what you will be buying. This is what you’re going to get.
Q: The assessment here is 12 cents per $100 of valuation, and there has been a push by the DMD for two or three years to get the property owners’ permission to raise the rate and increase the cap on the rate to 24 cents over five years.
Last year, the board adopted the increase. But we found out they didn’t actually have the support of the owners of 50 percent of property value, so they had to roll back the higher rate.
The board then told the previous director to continue getting signatures on the old petition, which is now three years old or so.
I’m not doing that.
Q: You’re going to start all over?
It’s not on my radar screen. I’m not working on any assessments at this time.
Q: The DMD is still working at a deficit. What might you do about that?
I wouldn’t look at bringing in more funds. There’s a lot of work that has to be done to prepare to even approach the topic of an assessment (increase). Let’s make sure we are operating as efficiently and effectively with the money we’ve got. That’s what I’m getting into right now.
They’re operating out of their reserve. I’ve mentioned to some board members that the reserve needs to be spent down. I think an organization can maintain a reasonable reserve, but I don’t view it personally as the DMD’s money, so why is that money sitting in our account when it can be sitting in their account?
In Omaha, we established a reasonable reserve to protect the organization and then spent down any excess reserves on approved projects.
Q: What are your first impressions of El Paso?
The perspective of an outsider about El Paso: It isn’t just about the quality of life bonds; it isn’t just the baseball stadium. You’ve got some great assets. I really love the culture. Corporate-wise and culturally as well, I think it’s very positive down here. Can things always be better? Absolutely.
I am looking forward to the opportunity to embrace the diversity, the culture, the different types of shopping and people down here.
You have corporate employees, folks coming across the border, the small mom and pop stores, owner-operated. I’m looking forward to working with all those folks.
Q: What made you decide to leave Omaha? It’s very different. It’s squeaky clean and you’re coming down to a dusty, sandy border town that is very different from Nebraska.
But different’s not bad. There’s a lot of great things happening here. I look for opportunities and challengers to keep things new and fresh. We can continue the momentum going forward.
Again, from my outsider perspective, there are a lot of great ingredients here that might not be as obvious or recognizable to El Pasoans.
Q: How big is Omaha?
Omaha’s about 460,000 within the city. Then we’ve got some suburban communities and other towns around it. When you talk about the metropolitan area, you get up to about 750,000 or 800,000 people, and if you draw a circle big enough to bring in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is only about 45 miles away, we get to that one million mark.
Q: Do you know Warren Buffet?
I know where he lives. His house is almost a tourist attraction, especially during his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, which just happened a few weeks ago.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.