Jessica Herrera

Jessica Herrera

After two stints and nearly 15 years at the city, Jessica Herrera is starting her next chapter.

The city of El Paso’s director of economic development is wrapping up her final September at City Hall. At the start of October, she will begin a new job in El Paso at commercial real estate firm CBRE.

Herrera’s tenure included a transformation of the economic development department and some big wins for attracting corporate businesses to the city. It also included some notable losses, including the Great Wolf Lodge deal that ultimately fell apart.

Herrera began her career in economic development with the Office of the Texas Governor. She began working for the city in 2006, then left for a couple of years to work on economic development in Oklahoma City.

She returned to the city of El Paso in 2014 and has been director of economic development since 2016.

Last week, Herrera spent some time talking to El Paso Inc. about how economic development in El Paso has evolved, what’s next in her career and some of El Pasoans’ most-requested stores and restaurants.

Q: What are you going to be doing at CBRE?

I got my license, so I will be working in the commercial real estate division. You get a lot of opportunities. For me, it’s understanding the types of transactions they handle. I don’t know yet, because the first six months will involve a lot of understanding of the team and the projects they’re handling.

I’m familiar with CBRE among other real estate entities both here locally and also the types that we typically deal with in economic development for site selection or tenant representation. A lot of what I’ll be working towards is assisting companies, investors, developers and property owners with the right location.

It felt like a real seamless transition, because that’s typically what we do in the economic development world, and we work with these types of stakeholders.

Q: How is it leaving the city? Is it bittersweet?

Definitely. I’m not going to lie; it was very hard. I feel blessed. The city has been a great employer. I was given an opportunity to work with numerous departments across the city and numerous organizations I probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to work with if I wasn’t in that department.

I’ve worked with economic development since the very beginning. I think the total number of years at the city exceeds 15 years. I did it in two terms.

After seeing all the excitement at the city in 2013, 2014, with the bond and ballpark, I was afforded the opportunity to come back to El Paso, still work in economic development, and little by little I was promoted to assistant director, then given the opportunity to serve as director.

Q: Has the city named a successor?

The city appointed an interim director, Elizabeth Triggs, who is very familiar with economic development and the department. She has such a strong skill set, is super well-rounded because she understands how other departments work, like planning, for example.

She used to be the assistant director in economic development, so she is familiar with that.

They also did a bit of a change to the structure, so they selected a managing director who oversees the bridges and economic development. His name is David Coronado.

What’s exciting about that is it ties the international bridges, airport and economic development department. Those three assets are going to be very interlinked, not that they weren’t before. Now, seeing where we need to take the city and position ourselves, you really want to make sure they’re closely aligned.

Q: How has the economic development department changed since you started there?

What’s been really exciting is we had a bit of a paradigm shift. Yes, focusing on jobs and investment is important and will always be the driving force behind any community.

But what our department did for the first few years, and my tenure there, is really understanding that you’re competing globally, but you’re really competing for people, and retention, talent and recruitment.

You really want to make sure your quality of life and amenities, and they call it the built environment, the way the city looks and the types of things you offer, is attractive. That really helped us understand how important it is to have a focus on redevelopment.

From Downtown along Texas, out to the Medical Center of the Americas, those are strong examples of the type of public investment the city had to do to make sure you had San Jacinto Plaza restored, Paseo de las Luces, things done in such a way so that private investment comes in and says, “what can we do to restore the upper floors of these historic buildings?”

Now the Downtown skyline is very different. You fly in and you see cranes going up across the city, construction cones everywhere. Yes, it’s a nuisance, but it’s exciting to see that people are wanting to reinvest in their neighborhoods.

Q: Do you have any big wins or losses during your time in economic development?

There were many projects we worked on where we saw big wins for the city. Many companies large and small opened up their doors and afforded our workforce and our students an opportunity to stay.

When I was talking about amenities and things we deserve but don’t have, it was this resort hotel. It was like the buzzword from the moment I started in 2014: Great Wolf Lodge. That project followed me from the moment I started to the moment our city manager started. He and I and Cary Westin sat down. He said, what is it we need?

We were really pushing hard to bring in a resort hotel to our community. If you look at everything we have to offer, we have three states, two countries, beautiful weather. We have a typography very similar to Phoenix. Why not have these resort hotels?

We focused on Great Wolf Lodge and it took about five years to get their attention and get them to a place where they felt like El Paso was a good opportunity to invest and expand.

These types of investments don’t happen overnight and take a minimum of two years. We worked tirelessly on this project, engaged our community, crossed over to our sister city and worked with the state of Chihuahua to do engagement to show who we were as a market.

Once we identified a potential site, we had to do another very significant project that’s now putting a shovel in the ground, which is that master plan community called Campo Del Sol.

There are these two massive projects happening at the same time. Then we had to move state legislation at the same time. If not for the state incentives, we could not realize the Great Wolf Lodge.

At the same time, we were trying to ensure the community that as we continue to recruit and attract people, these amenities are important. They could also lead to other types of resort hotels in the future, which could then turn us into a destination.

We get to October 2019. City Council approves the land exchange and Great Wolf Lodge; they’re separate but dependent on each other. We sign on the dotted line with Great Wolf Lodge.

Those two wins made us really proud and blessed to have had the opportunity to work with such an incredible team.

So, we were expecting to put a shovel in the ground in July 2020. COVID hit in March, and that started conversations with Great Wolf Lodge. Unfortunately, the hospitality sector was just terribly hit, and is just recovering now.

We were one of those 16, 17 projects or so that got canceled. We had to terminate our incentive agreement. It’s not necessarily a loss. It happened and it was out of our control. I see it as a, we’ll come back later.

As El Paso continues to grow and evolve, it has every opportunity to secure a resort hotel, whether that’s something like a Great Wolf Lodge or some other property.

That day in March when we received their letter and had that conversation, I think my assistant director at the time and myself both cried. I probably cried more than he did on the phone with Great Wolf Lodge attorneys.

It was a sad day, but we were also navigating a pandemic. There were a lot more problems that we as a community needed to address at that time.

Q: Were there any lessons learned from the Great Wolf Lodge effort and from COVID?

The more and more we can build relationships with our businesses large and small, the better that will be when companies come into El Paso.

It’s super important we are positioned as a region. You see it right now in Central Texas, with Austin, San Marcos and San Antonio competing as a region for projects. We’re pretty lucky here that we’re a seamless region in terms of the capabilities we have to offer.

A lesson learned is to always realize that you can’t do this on your own and that you really need to ensure that the company steps foot in El Paso.

COVID has had an impact because now people want to be remote or do a virtual tour. While that’s important, it’s also important to make sure these decision-makers and leaders fly in and see the community. We’re still that unknown, kind of hidden gem.

Q: How has the city’s use of 380 agreements – tax breaks and other incentives used to bring new businesses to the region – evolved over your time there?

We have learned quite a bit and have even shared best practices with other communities. We’ve always structured our incentive agreements. I call them partnerships, because no matter the size or type of project, you can’t have it succeed without both parties.

There was a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and thinking that the city was writing out these checks when they saw it talked about across the media. It would come across to our taxpayers as we’re giving away the farm to have a company come in.

Every single agreement we do is project-specific. If you have a small-business owner who doesn’t own the property but needs help and has a successful product or service, you also want to afford them an opportunity.

We as a city have learned how important it is to help the smallest, whether it’s an entrepreneur a sole proprietor, as well as large corporations to ensure that we secure that investment.

The incentive agreement doesn’t stop at the moment it gets passed at City Council. Like the (Campo Del Sol) master plan community. We had over 2,000 plus acres that were not on the tax rolls that is now on the tax rolls.

We always say the burden falls too much on the residential taxpayer versus the commercial taxpayer, because we need more industry coming into El Paso.

Q: The projects El Pasoans always want are things like Ikea, HEB, Trader Joe’s and Cheesecake Factory. Are those things on the city’s radar? What’s the challenge in bringing them here?

Even companies and their spouses and employees ask, if I go to El Paso to live is there a Trader Joe’s? Where am I going to go shopping? Our soldiers and their spouses also ask what there is to do here, in terms of shopping, dining and entertainment.

We’ve always had grocery on the top of our list because grocery drives a lot of retail.

Through the pandemic there’s not necessarily been a slowdown or pause, retail is starting to rebound. But there was a little more hesitation to do new stores or restaurants.

Our real estate community is constantly having those conversations. The city every year, several times a year, gets in front of retailers. We get in front of Ikea every year. But if you don’t get them on the ground, it’s really hard to talk about.

They look at demographics, educational attainment, household income. Many times they do not consider Juárez and the impact our sister city has here. They will not consider that in their site criteria. Once you develop that relationship, it takes time.

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