They got to vote. At a raucous community meeting led by Westside city Rep. Cortney Niland on Thursday evening, a crowd of frustrated citizens got to do the thing they wanted most: vote.
It wasn’t official, of course. And it wasn’t a pretty sight for Niland and other supporters of the Downtown baseball project when a large majority of the 200 people there raised their hands in opposition.
The vote came at one of four sessions held across the city, as citizens filled meeting rooms to voice their concerns and frustrations about the proposal.
In a packed room at the Police Department’s West Side Regional Substation, Niland told the crowd that the cost of the stadium on the current City Hall site could be as low as $30 million, well below the $50 million that has generally been used.
The $50 million, Niland said, could cover the cost of demolishing City Hall, moving out city offices and building the stadium.
And 70 percent of that would be paid by out-of-towners, if voters approve a 2-cent increase in the hotel occupancy tax come November.
But the possibility of a lower price did little to appease this audience.
“No one’s saying we didn’t want baseball,” one man said. “No one’s saying we don’t want soccer, football or anything Downtown.”
What has people frustrated, he said, is that the El Paso City Council went ahead with the multi-million dollar plan without giving taxpayers enough time and information to really understand it, much less the opportunity to vote on it.
Among those opposed to the stadium plan is former El Paso Mayor Ray Salazar, whose administration used federal and state money to build City Hall 33 years ago.
“I think that your council members have made a tremendous mistake in what you’re doing,” said Salazar, who ridiculed the idea of tearing down a public building still valued at $38 million.
Another former mayor, Larry Francis, who served from 1993 to 1997, is actively campaigning against trading City Hall for a ballpark.
Current Mayor John Cook also opposes the demolition, as well as scattering government offices around Downtown in buildings the city wants to buy and offices it plans to lease.
A divided City Council has committed the city to the project, even if voters reject the proposed increase in the hotel-motel tax.
The city is negotiating to buy two buildings, the El Paso Times and 801 Texas, for $20 million. Moving costs are estimated at $2 million, Niland said, which is less than the $30 million it would take to repair and update City Hall.
Niland was apologetic that the plans to build a stadium for the Triple-A Tucson Padres have gone ahead without voter approval. The MountainStar Sports Group is buying the team for $20 million,
“You have every right to be upset,” she said. “We wanted to put it on the ballot.”
But, she said, the Padres came up for sale quickly, and the city and MountainStar would have lost the opportunity to acquire the team if the decision had to wait for the Nov. 6 election.
“You elected me to vote,” she said to a chorus of shouts and boos from the crowd. “I stand by what I did. I think it’s a great decision.”
El Pasoans reacted much the same at two other city-sponsored meetings, with city Reps. Susie Byrd, and Steve Ortega and Dr. Michiel Noe.
City Reps. Eddie Holguin and Carl Robinson, who have opposed the Downtown baseball project on every vote, weren’t part of the city’s meetings. Announcements said the city sessions were “to ensure that the public has the correct information on the downtown ballpark project.”
Holguin arranged his own meeting far from his district in Downtown’s Cleveland Square Park, which moved indoors to the El Paso Museum of History because of rain.
The purpose of Holguin’s meeting, according to his office, was “to answer any questions the public may have and listen to concerns regarding the downtown ballpark.”
Robinson didn’t attend a meeting. He was headed for Austin to join Mayor John Cook and city Rep. Emma Acosta at a Texas Municipal League meeting.
“Eddie and I were not invited,” Robinson said. “I found out about the meetings from a blogger who called asking me about it. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“I would have attended if I had been informed in advance that we’re doing this. I don’t feel bad. It’s just disappointing that a group would collaborate to do something like this.”
Asked about the exclusion of Holguin and Robinson, Byrd said, “The purpose of those meetings was for the majority of the council that made the decision to go out and talk about why they made the decision.
“People wanted to yell at me, not at Carl. That was really the point.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.