For the past year, Rick Horrow has been the guy behind the campaign to sell El Paso on its biggest-ever package of bond projects, plus a plan for a new Downtown baseball stadium.
He and Horrow Sports Ventures Inc., the company he built in the 1980s and ‘90s, are widely credited with winning approval for more than 100 deals – in boardrooms and at the polls – for stadiums, arenas and other projects worth $13 billion.
By all accounts, he raised the business of sports to a whole new level.
At Harvard Law School he roomed with a bright young student named John Roberts who is now chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Horrow, 57, sold most of his company to Omnicon in 2000 and has since become a media star. He’s the sports business analyst for CNN and Fox, host of Bloomberg TV’s “Sportfolio” and appears on PBS’s “Nightly Business Report” every week.
His clients have included Major League Baseball, the NFL, NASCAR, PGA, LPGA, Major League Soccer, Cisco Systems, Enterprise Rent a Car, the Indianapolis Colts, the Baltimore Orioles and other major league baseball teams.
He helped Oklahoma City put together its first Metropolitan Area Projects package – worth $353 million, including a downtown Triple-A baseball stadium – and win voter support for it all in 1993.
He was there again in 2008 when OKC went to the voters to raise $125 million more for projects including an arena upgrade that helped bring home an NBA team the following year.
“When the brass ring is there, you better seize it because you don’t know when it’s going to come around again,” Horrow is quoted as telling a chamber of commerce luncheon at the time.
It’s a line El Paso business and political leaders have likely heard at least once in the past year. And that’s the attitude he thinks El Paso needs to take when it comes to the kinds of decision voters will make Nov. 6.
The Paso del Norte Group hired Horrow as a consultant last November at the urging of Ruben Guerra, a financial advisor who chairs the PdNG board. Guerra knows all about Oklahoma City thanks to family ties and frequent visits there.
Horrow has helped craft the message for El Paso’s two bond propositions totaling $473 million, and for passage of a 2-cent increase in the hotel-motel tax to pay for the $50-million stadium.
It was likely on his advice that the ballot doesn’t include the word “arena,” because it’s not a term voters like much anymore. But a $180-million arena is in there, described as a “multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment” facility.
For his book “When the Game is on the Line,” Horrow boiled down his blueprint for getting voters to approve stadiums and big bond projects to a 10-point list. Some of them sound familiar:
• Compete or retreat. There are other places interested in the franchise.
• Give your children a future. And keep them at home.
• The tourist tax. Put as much of the burden as possible on visitors.
• The generational obligation. A duty to do what previous generation did for us.
• The senior break. Get seniors behind you (they vote) by having them pay the least in taxes
Not by chance, the El Paso City Council unanimously raised the over-65 homestead exemption by $10,000 to $40,000 last month.
The PdNG brought Horrow on board for good reason: He knows what he’s doing and he’s very good at it.
El Paso Inc. photographed Horrow when he was in town recently, and spoke to him by phone last week as he was chauffeured to an appointment in New York City. He talked about El Paso’s solid finances, the role of senior citizens, and what happens if the bonds don’t pass.
Q: You are one of the nation’s leading experts and consultants on major bond proposals, many with entertainment arenas and baseball or football stadiums, and how to get them approved by voters. Would you run down some of your projects?
I began my life in this business as the founder of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, putting together infrastructure projects cutting across sports, arts and education in my hometown, using sports as part of the long-term goal, but understanding how important this was to the economic, cultural and social identity of South Florida.
I think I’ve put together over 100 public-private partnership projects in North America. Many of them were driven by sports and many others weren’t.
I’ve worked with NFL cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia.
Others that weren’t driven by a sports franchise included Oklahoma City, Wichita, Little Rock and Jacksonville, Fla.
Many required referendum votes. Others did not, but the message was a common one: public-private partnerships were necessary to develop over $3 trillion of infrastructure development since 1990.
Q: I take it you’ve also held cities’ hands through a process that can be pretty tough.
I do know that controversy, and fits and starts, are an inherent part of any transformational, infrastructure development process. El Paso has been no exception.
Q: You’re a Harvard Law graduate. How did you find your way into this career?
I knew I wanted to be involved in sports and development. In the late 1970s, I actually wrote the first-ever thesis on sports business and sports law at the Harvard Law School on hockey fighting. We had spirited conversations with my then-roommate, who is now the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, about sports and society and hockey fighting.
That turned into a thesis, then a book, then federal legislation to eliminate excessive violence. I returned to South Florida to get into sports business and sports law and realized that there was no such thing until we in South Florida approved the facilities necessary for major league teams. Hence, the sports authority, a new arena, the stadiums and then the Panthers, the Marlins and the Heat.
That allowed to me to get more involved in the sports business in my hometown. Then I developed the public-private partnership expertise on a national and international basis.
Q: You’ve been hired by the Paso del Norte Group to help pass two bond propositions totaling $473 million that include a $180-million Downtown arena. How much is PdNG paying for your expertise, and what exactly is your role?
My role is really beyond just passing referendums. My role has been, since the Paso del Norte Group hired me last November, to develop and implement a broad-based quality of life infrastructure plan. I don’t see my role as beginning or ending at the ballot box. My role is to, based on other cities, help conceptualize the plan for the community, help develop the plan, help work with the business community and help implement the plan, assuming it passes.
To say the PdNG hired me to pass the referendums is a bit narrow. It’s kind of a broad-based infrastructure development process that includes a host of public and private initiatives, and I intend to continue to work in El Paso, assuming that is part of their vision as well.
Q: How much are they paying you?
You ought to ask them. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to say. It’s a private entity. It’s a monthly retainer basis, and there’s no extra incentive for passing the referendum, if that is what you were wondering. It’s a long-term development relationship that’s not dependent on the propositions.
Q: How was it that PdNG came to you, and when did they hire you?
One of their members, Ruben Guerra, originally called me after he saw one of Bloomberg’s “Sportfolio” shows that I host and heard about the work I did in Oklahoma City. His wife is from there. I told Ruben that I was spending most of my time on media, on the TV shows, and that I had actually kind of sold my business and was not originally interested.
Ruben was very persistent and told me where El Paso was in the process. After hearing that, I said I really fell in love with the challenge and came into El Paso and thought that I could make a difference.
Q: Is this your last project like this?
It may be, I’m not sure. Certainly this was not intended. Ruben did a great job of selling me, as did Tripper Goodman. When I came into town, I realized it was very important for me not to let this opportunity go.
Q: Are you involved with the El Paso Tomorrow Political Action Committee?
When you say involved, I’ve certainly met with key business leaders and I work directly with Tripper Goodman and Myrna Deckert and have spent some time with the city.
I view my role primarily as factual and less as advocate. I view my entire role as explaining how the quality of life initiative fits into and is compatible with national and international trends.
Q: What do you mean when you say this fits into the national and international trends?
Every successful process that I’ve worked on has the benefits of three coalescing factors. One is the history, in that over $1 trillion has been committed in infrastructure since 1990, including $31 billion in similar or smaller-sized Midwestern cities in the last decade.
Second, the cities that are successful in creating this have substantial financial capacity. When you look at the Standard & Poor’s and Fitch reports about El Paso from last August, they talk about a history of leveraging a deep, diverse and stable tax base, having strong financial management and being able to put together a financial plan with low resident burden and a senior tax exemption, which other cities couldn’t do.
Third is that every city has a realization that the initiative they’re working on presents the last great chance for ultimate success. I remember city manager Wilson talking about 53 failed development plans for El Paso.
In every city I have worked in, the population understood the generational obligation to consistently retool their infrastructure. It’s a combination of emotion, passion and circumstance. When all three come together, communities are successful, and I see that coalescing in El Paso now.
Q: In the last 20 years, a lot has been written about cities that have gone tens of millions of dollars into debt for football and baseball stadiums that never became the economic development drivers taxpayers were promised. Some say these kinds of projects really don’t work and aren’t profitable for cities. What would you say?
Clearly, you will always found naysayers who will cherry-pick examples of mismanaged development opportunities and pass them off as a general trend.
Many of the failures were driven by a sweet-heart deal with a sports team and everything else was gravy. That is clearly not the case in El Paso.
You have a baseball stadium that is one of 13 components of a larger quality of life development plan put together by people who understand the importance of signature downtown facilities combined with regional parks, soccer fields, zoo improvements, museums, cultural and library facilities.
It’s probably the most diverse set of projects I’ve ever been associated with. They will provide the benefit of increasing the tax base, enhancing long-term downtown development and providing quality of life for the entire region.
This is not a one-issue project for a particular purpose, but rather a comprehensive diverse, public-private initiative that’s very well thought out and reflects, in many ways, 20 years of planning.
Q: You mentioned that in some cities, elderly property owners were given an advantage that other cities couldn’t do. But isn’t increasing the senior tax exemption a signature piece of your proposals? And have you found that helps bring around older voters who tend to vote on these kinds of things?
That’s certainly a side benefit. The core initiative is to explain and reward, basically, citizens who have continuously invested in El Paso.
Most communities aren’t able to do what El Paso has done by having seniors benefit from a 20-year plan that provides the refurbishment of infrastructure for this generation, for their kids and grandkids to keep the families at home in El Paso.
To do it in a way that does not unduly burden seniors is something very few cities have the capability of doing, but El Paso does.
Q: City manager Joyce Wilson has pointed out that only two of the last 20 Minor League Baseball stadiums built by cities since 1996 went to voters for approval. Is that because it’s so hard to convince voters to approve these kinds of projects?
I think it’s just a case of being able to have the political leadership make a commitment to move forward without necessarily going to the voters for one specific project. Believe me, if the voters don’t appreciate the long-term benefit of any particular part of this, the political leadership won’t last long and that’s the way it is in every city. So I don’t get hung up on which parts of it go to a vote and which parts don’t.
Of the 100 or so public-private partnerships that I’ve done, 38 went to a vote while the other 62 or so did not. It was more a function of local legalities than anything else.
Q: What made you think there was support here for an ambitious package of bond projects that would go to a vote and a stadium that wouldn’t?
When we did initial polling, nearly 95 percent of El Pasoans told us that they wanted to invest in El Paso’s future, they wanted a city that’s more attractive to young El Pasoans, they needed to improve the quality of life. About 91 percent said that.
And they needed a city that was more competitive with other cities in attracting new businesses and putting El Paso even with or ahead of other communities. It became a very significant basis from which to build.
Q: In El Paso, the stadium project has generated a lot of opposition. The city has been sued in federal court. City Rep. Cortney Niland is the first target of a recall campaign against everyone who voted for the stadium. Two petition drives were aimed at forcing the city to give El Pasoans the chance to vote on the stadium. Have you ever worked with a city with as much controversy?
Well, I guess from my national, top-down perspective, I know the City Hall location and the location of a baseball stadium will always generate controversy. There is never a completely right answer, and there are always two sides of the story.
But if you look at baseball stadiums in comparable markets, such as Durham, Oklahoma City, Buffalo, Louisville, Norfolk and Indianapolis, you see the benefits from a development perspective coupled with the entire entertainment package and the other facilities.
It is a shame that there is substantial controversy that in many ways has distracted citizens from the larger picture. I would assume that between now and Nov. 6, there will be a lot of discussion about the larger picture and that after the election, implementation of the entire regional public-private project.
Q: What do you think the bond projects and stadium would mean to El Paso?
It certainly means significant economic impact, both in construction and implementation. It certainly means putting El Paso on the entertainment map. With the entertainment center in place, acts like Kenny Chesney, Elton John, Keith Urban and Eric Clapton that have flown over El Paso on the way to other places, will certainly commit long-term. It means that the long-term quality of life, cultural, recreational and sports needs of El Paso will be satisfied for decades to come.
Probably most important, it means El Paso reached for the future and made a major transformational commitment that will define its progress for generations. That may be more important than anything else.
Q: A lot of the complaints about the ballpark are that the city will not make money from it. Is making money the point?
If we were to define every element of public investment in infrastructure in traditional percentage of return terms, cities would be without streets, transit systems, parks, libraries, cultural facilities and the like. All of these amenities are critical components of a community’s long-term development.
Q: Are you concerned that the opposition to the ballpark endangers approval of the bond proposals?
When you structure a comprehensive, quality of life package and you include a number of needed facilities, you’re always concerned that one entity will focus on one project to bring down the entire package. I’ve seen that happen, and that is always a fear coming into an election or approval.
You would hope that the vision of a comprehensive approach to what El Paso needs outweighs that risk.
Q: What do you think the impact would be if El Paso turned down the bond projects and the hotel-motel tax?
Q: What you mean by that?
The high-risk, high-reward of a transformational defining moment is that the eyes of the nation are firmly fixed on El Paso. There is unprecedented controversy going along with unprecedented vision. The success of these initiatives will have profound positive implications for generations to come.
On the other hand, if this process did not end in a successful conclusion, the political, economic, social and cultural fallout from that would be unspeakable.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.