The Paso Del Norte Group, which brought El Paso the controversial Downtown Plan in 2006, is shopping for support from business leaders and public officials for a big, multi-purpose arena Downtown.
Mayor John Cook said he was recently approached by Myrna Deckert, PDNG’s former president and CEO, who said, “We need to talk soon about an arena.”
“She said they have the study, but wouldn’t say where they’re talking about putting it,” the mayor said. “I asked if it was baseball, and she said, ‘It’s bigger than that.’ ”
The PDNG, made up of business leaders, elected officials and other influential people, included a proposed arena in the 2006 Downtown Plan.
The city, in its updated 2015 plan for Downtown, proposes an arena complex in the Union Plaza District, south of City Hall. Other possible locations include the area west of Union Depot now being used by Sun Metro, and the BNSF railyard south of Paisano Drive.
Ruben Guerra, a member of PDNG’s executive committee, wasn’t anxious to talk about it.
“The study is not formalized, it’s still in draft form,” he said. “We don’t know what it will look like when the thing is put together.
“There really isn’t anything to put on the front page. … To say anything other than the effort is to get more data would be premature.”
In 2000, the debate over an arena was all the news. The late former Mayor Carlos Ramirez proposed a $144-million, 20,000-seat arena Downtown, but City Council pulled it off the ballot at the last minute to save that year’s $141-million quality-of-life bond election from voter wrath. It worked.
Two years later, the county asked voters to OK a $45-million bond issue for an arena at Ascarate Park. They didn’t.
A few months later, in 2003, the city and county agreed to work together on a new Downtown arena plan.
Consultants had advised it would absolutely need an anchor tenant to work, such as a Dallas Cowboys arena football team, and a location that wouldn’t require evicting residents or significant opposition from area property owners.
The idea quietly fizzled. The county fixed up the coliseum again, instead.
County Judge Veronica Escobar said she hasn’t seen any part of an arena study but has heard a little about it.
Speaking in general, Escobar said she thinks an arena may be essential for Downtown revitalization, which is vitally important to the city.
She didn’t say she would support closing the coliseum to make it happen, but did say she’d consider it if necessary, because El Paso needs a strong Downtown and what comes with it to rebuild the tax base.
“When all the Downtown redevelopment debates were happening in 2006, there was a lot of talk about why it was important and there were a lot of feel good reasons,” she said. “But for me, what’s at the heart of why it’s important to revitalize Downtown is the unhealthy distribution of our tax base right now.”
In an economically healthy city, she said, commercial and industrial property values account for 60 percent to 70 percent of the property tax base, with residential values amounting to 30 percent or so.
But in El Paso, the taxable value of single-family homes this year, $18 billion, equals 57 percent of the city’s $31.6-billion tax base.
Commercial and industrial values, plus utilities and railroads, total $8 billion, or 25 percent of the tax base.
But before she would seriously considering anything, Escobar said, “I’d want to know what the study says.”
City manager Joyce Wilson said an arena located west of City Hall was a “signature project” in PDNG’s Downtown redevelopment plan.
“The private sector group is still looking at options and updating the plan using private resources,” she said. “The city’s role at this point has been to look at city-owned land that might be available to support this type of effort.”
Dover Kohl, the consulting company that is drawing up a new El Paso Comprehensive Plan, hasn’t looked at the feasibility of an arena, she said, but they are looking at where it could be located.
“Most would concur that a major multi-purpose events facility like an arena would be impactful,” Wilson said in an e-mail to El Paso Inc. “You look at Oklahoma City, Omaha, Phoenix, Glendale, Ariz., and you can see the impact of these types of investments.
“It is unlikely that it can be done with private resources alone, but with a consortium of resources (city/county/private), it could be viable without unduly burdening the taxpayer.”
So where does the county coliseum figure in?
“The reality is that if we are going to go this route, we need to look at all existing assets to see whether or not the arena facility would be a replacement for others or an addition,” she said. “There is a limit to how many competing facilities a community can have, so if it’s possible to retire some and incorporate those existing resources into a larger more diverse and modern asset, then everyone benefits.”
But fans of the kinds of shows that land at the 6,500- to 7,000-seat coliseum wouldn’t, said Brian Kennedy, executive director of the El Paso County Sports Commission, which manages the 70-year-old facility.
He said he’s heard about the arena plan and that it might mean having to shut down the coliseum, which the commission has leased for seven more years.
Closing the coliseum, he said, would mean losing a lot of concerts and other events whose promoters cannot afford UTEP’s Don Haskins Center, much less an expensive, new arena.
“I think this is really the people’s arena,” Kennedy said of the coliseum. “We do some shows here that wouldn’t stop in El Paso if we weren’t here.
“You can have a small event in a big arena, but it guarantees that you will lose money and they won’t happen too many times before events will start going elsewhere.”
The big questions, Kennedy said, are who would pay for the arena, who would be the anchor tenant and who would it attract that can’t use The Don or the Sun Bowl today?
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 146, and (915) 630-6622.