The next big day, perhaps the biggest day leading to the city’s plan for Downtown baseball, is coming up next Tuesday, Sept. 11.
That’s when El Paso City Council is expected to consider the long-term lease of the City Hall and Insights Museum site to MountainStar Sports Group, where a baseball stadium would be built for the Triple-A El Paso Padres.
The council will also consider approving contracts to buy the El Paso Times building for about $11 million and the building at 801 Texas Street for about $9 million. If approved, those locations would become the new centers of city government.
It will be a momentous day and likely a contentious one, a day for going forward or pulling back. If it all goes through, MountainStar’s principals will sign on the dotted lines, and Jeff Moorad, the team’s current owner, will get $20 million for a the team now known unenthusiastically as the Tucson Padres.
But if City County balks, city manager Joyce Wilson said, it would be a calamity for El Paso.
“I think we would look very foolish,” Wilson said. “It would hurt our national image and reputation, and it would certainly be the end of any opportunity for any kind of affiliated professional sports here.”
Wilson hopes El Pasoans will support the city’s ambitious plans for baseball and vote for $473 million in quality of life bonds on Nov. 6, despite the controversy over tearing down City Hall and Insights to make way for the stadium.
But City Council members found little support at four boisterous public meetings held recently.
And last Wednesday, Wilson told the board of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce that when it comes to support from the business community, “The silence has been deafening.”
Chamber backs stadium
After Wilson’s comments to about 50 members of the board, the chamber’s president and CEO, Richard Dayoub, asked the board for direction regarding the chamber’s position.
Following the meeting, chamber staff began work on a resolution expressing the business organization’s position on the stadium plans.
On Friday, Dayoub told El Paso Inc. that the chamber’s executive committee will vote on the final wording this Tuesday.
“While I don’t have the final language, we are going to be taking a position in support of the baseball stadium and the use of the hotel occupancy tax,” Dayoub said.
“Our biggest concern is if the voters vote no, then we the taxpayers become the ones burdened with the cost of the ballpark, versus having out-of-town visitors paying for most of the ballpark,” Dayoub said. “If it fails, all we do is put the cost on the backs of the taxpayers.
“From that perspective, it would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
Dayoub said the chamber is also very concerned that voters will reject the quality of life bond propositions “that are so critical to the future of this community.”
Those two propositions will be at the end of a very long general election ballot. Early voting starts Oct. 22.
The Greater Chamber has already endorsed passage of the two bond propositions.
The third city item on the ballot will propose a 2-cent increase in the city’s hotel occupancy tax, which is expected to raise at least 70 percent of the cost of demolishing City Hall and Insights Museum and building the stadium.
Asked why the chamber waited until now to take a position, Dayoub said one reason is city leaders had not specifically asked.
And while the list of quality of life projects had been put together over many months and approved in April, the stadium proposal came up quickly with little public discussion and wasn’t approved by the council until June 26.
That proposal has raised many questions and generated hot opposition in the community, and chamber members are divided, he said.
“There’s a lot of people who felt troubled by the way City Council and the city manager handled this entire process,” Dayoub said. “They could have been much more engaging and avoided much of the vitriol.
“We now feel that because the vitriolic dialogue has elevated to such a high intensity, the chamber has got to speak up on this.”
Profits to charity
In apparent response to public suspicions that MountainStar Sports Group would reap huge profits from its ownership of the El Paso Padres, the group announced last week that all profits would go to local charities.
MountainStar’s members are Woody Hunt and his son, Josh Hunt, of El Paso’s Hunt Companies, and Western Refining’s Paul Foster and his wife, Alejandra de la Vega Foster.
The group looked into acquiring a Triple-A team for El Paso two years ago, possibly the Portland, Ore. team that lost its stadium and was headed to Escondido, Calif., when that state canceled the funding to build a new stadium.
In 2011, the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A team wound up temporarily in Tucson, playing in an 11,500-seat stadium that has been home to two Triple-A teams and the former spring-training facility for the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox.
Although the Pacific Coast League had concerns about the El Paso market, in part because the drug violence in Juárez, MountainStar expressed its interest in acquiring the minor league Padres early this year.
With the Major League Arizona Diamondbacks playing up the road in Phoenix, Tucson has been a losing market for the Padres and its owner Jeff Moorad, who owns 49 percent of the San Diego Padres.
Moorad, the franchise’s vice chairman and former CEO, had been trying to buy the franchise until March when he dropped that effort.
It was about then, after the Escondido deal fell through, that he began looking to sell the Triple-A Padres, one of 16 teams in the Pacific Coast League.
League president Branch Rickey told El Paso Inc. that potential buyer groups in four cities, including El Paso and Tucson, have been interested in the Padres.
Rickey: El Paso promising
MountainStar emerged as the group with the strongest offer and El Paso, as the best market for the team, partly because it has no other professional sports team, Rickey said.
“It is true that there were two parties that were very aggressive in wanting to make bids,” Rickey told El Paso Inc. “After further investigation, we deemed those other two would be subordinate to pursue the MountainStar proposal.”
Rickey was hesitant to name the communities because both have lower-level professional baseball teams, but potential investors were interested in upgrading to Triple A.
“What I can confirm to you is that we were approached,” Rickey said. “The Pacific Coast League had people approach it wanting to buy, to explore relocating in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“There was interest in doing two things: One was a possible relocation of an existing team and the possible acquisition of another.”
Such a move may take place in the future, Rickey said, but the league decided to pursue MountainStar’s stronger offer.
“There is another city as well as that one that also has a team,” he said. “They had a group approach Jeff Moorad and explore buying the team from Jeff, and Jeff asked if he could get approval from us.
“We told him that we would far prefer that you pursue the possibilities with El Paso. During that time in negotiations with the other city, he was being offered less money. El Paso had trumped the offer and Jeff said, ‘You don’t have to worry about this other city, we won’t negotiate further.’ ”
Rickey added, “We were far enough along to be arranging a visit to that city.”
Rickey and other PCL executives visited El Paso two years ago to meet with MountainStar, inspect Cohen Stadium and look at Downtown.
The league deemed a possible move to Cohen or Northeast El Paso to be a “nonstarter,” Rickey has said.
El Paso, he said, is a promising market for a lot of reasons.
“We did not mean to relocate a team to El Paso if we did not believe in what El Paso itself believes in, and that is it’s a market that’s on the verge of growing and blossoming further on both sides of the border.”
But, he added, “The business model that has been proposed does not depend on a single fan coming across the border. We believe in the vitality of the region.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.