The Paso del Norte Group (PDNG), composed of some 350 people from all walks of life around our region, spearheaded El Paso's latest Downtown redevelopment plan.

The plan has generated opposition among some merchants and property owners in the 127-acre "redevelopment zone," where buyouts, a real estate investment trust and even eminent domain could come into play if the El Paso City Council approves the plan in October.

Meanwhile, plan proponents say it's high time the city did something to reverse the long, sad decline of the once prosperous city center. They point to remarkably low annual property tax payments, totaling roughly $375,000, for the redevelopment zone lower than many El Paso neighborhoods outside the Mission Valley. It is, they argue, a pathetic sum that unfairly burdens all property taxpayers.

And what's more, they contend, it's a sorry situation that could be corrected with the right mix of merchants, residential units and entertainment to serve as a vibrant regional and community focal point, one that would also pull in millions of new tourist dollars every year.

With the fight over the future of Downtown growing more intense in the coming weeks, it seemed an opportune time to sit down with a few of the many key players in the Paso del Norte Group.

El Paso Inc. interviewed Sandra Sanchez Almanzan, director of Fannie Mae's Border Region Partnership office; Jack Cardwell, owner of the national Petro service station chain; and Gilberto Moreno, a longtime IBM executive now operating Prestige Consulting Services based in El Paso. The interview took place in PDNG's 17th floor suite in the Chase Bank Building.

Q. Do you think PDNG stepped out on the wrong foot by appearing to be so secretive in the early stages of the Downtown project?

Cardwell: Was there a better way? I don't know. But I do know you can't get 100 people to agree on the time of day if you put them all in one room.

So what do you do? You bring in some professional people to design the best plan without bias toward anyone's property.

And while people may complain that they weren't asked for their opinions, what's happened with our previous attempts to fix Downtown over the years? How many studies has the city done over the years?

Almanzan: Fifty-two.

You know I went through this whole process once before. We hired a major redevelopment consultant and we went through public hearings. But when it came time to take the next step actually announcing a plan and saying, OK where do we start? everything came apart. Nobody wanted to start on their street. We committed $75,000 to that effort, and it went nowhere.

This time around I firmly believe what the City Council finally adopts will be very different from what we presented initially as a redevelopment plan on March 31, because they've taken it out and done as much public discourse as possible.

It would have taken us another two or three years to get where we are now if we had done the initial process in public. And the last time El Paso tried to do something that way, we couldn't even finish, because nobody would say "begin here."

Q. Have you been surprised by all the criticism?

Cardwell: I'm very surprised there are people trying to fight the Downtown plan, because it's so important for El Paso to move forward. They've put out erroneous information that's untrue. It's very confusing at times.

Moreno: We appear to have developed a mindset in El Paso that any time the possibility of change is introduced we should be suspicious. As a result, instead of having a discussion we immediately get into fussing and cussing.

Instead of fussing and cussing away yet another opportunity this time, we really need to get down to finding our community's common denominator.

Cardwell: We don't understand what's coming tomorrow, but we're living in a changing world, and we'd better change with it or we're going to be bypassed.

Almanzan: There are things about the plan people don't agree with, but I don't believe the critics can say it's OK to allow the current substandard living conditions to exist.

Q. Let's talk about Downtown residents are they being treated fairly under this plan?

Almanzan: We have 496 apartment dwellings and some 36 single-family homes.

As a community we have the responsibility to replace every one of those affordable rental units affected by the plan at their current rates. And so if the family is of low or moderate means for the next 25 years, they'll always have somewhere to live, because the city will be taking advantage of every assistance program that exists, just as it does for those people now.

Q. So their rents will be guaranteed?

Almanzan: Sure. The unit will be guaranteed, but not because these folks deserve to have that rent forever, since their economic conditions may improve.

Cardwell: On the other side of the coin, what's to ensure the rents they're paying today are going to continue on indefinitely?

Almanzan: Those property owners could give renters 30-days notice and they're out on the street, because the property is being turned into a parking lot. There's no guarantee against that today.

Q. But essentially you're adding a guarantee to the new rental units in the plan?

Almanzan: We are. And homeowners would be getting replacement value. Everybody's on the tax rolls for probably less than $40,000, and in order to get a replacement for, say, a three-bedroom, two-bath unit it would probably cost $80,000. So the city will make sure those folks get replacement value keys for keys. Of course they'll have to decide where they want to go.

Q. What do you make of the merchants who've been so vocal in their criticism?

Moreno: People who haven't done their homework about an issue, people who haven't invested in understanding, tend to acquiesce into a position of "no-no-no." Because that's the safest avenue toward protecting whatever they deem to be important.

Unfortunately, when you withdraw mentally like that and don't weigh all the information, what happens is that it's suddenly much easier to sling falsehoods and get personal by slinging mud.

The foes of this project should be questioned very closely about their protectionist view.

The hard fact is that whatever we do, or don't do, in this situation, we're all going to leave that as a legacy for our children.

Q. Is El Paso likely to have another chance like this to fix its deteriorating Downtown?

Moreno: Certainly not our generation; this is our last hurrah.

I just had lunch with my parents, who live in the same house we grew up in. They were the last generation that lived, enjoyed and prospered in a vibrant Downtown El Paso. I asked them to give me their opinion on this issue. My Dad just looked at me and said, "Shame on us, and shame on your generation for allowing this reality to happen in terms of not providing any real opportunity."

And so, ultimately, Downtown redevelopment is not just about Downtown. It's also about this city and this region making a formal commitment to changing our brain-drain cycle and the fact that there are very few options for our kids. This redevelopment plan is really an attempt to take advantage of the energy, the people and all the wonderful assets we have.

Almanzan: Neither of my two brothers lives in El Paso, simply because there aren't enough opportunities here. They'd love to be here. I know that I'm very lucky to be working for a Fortune 500 company in El Paso, Texas. But there's got to be more than a handful of those opportunities. We have to be able to create more opportunities, and we may never again have an opportunity like this.

Cardwell: I'll tell you why we won't. Bill Sanders (a PDNG founder) is the guy who knows all the major developers in this country. He can pick up the phone and talk to more people than you and I can get to in the next 40 years, and he can do it next week.

He was born here and he's trying to help El Paso. But there's a limit to how far anybody's going to be pushed and be accused of being a thief. He purposely doesn't own any land Downtown because he doesn't want to be involved in somebody saying he's doing this for money. He's not; he's doing it because he loves El Paso.

It's just terribly unfortunate that some of these people are fighting this plan, because we may never get another chance to get this done in the next 100 years.

On the other hand, it could happen today only because there are selfless people Bill Sanders for one who have the ability to get it done.

When you stop to think about it, PDNG is a volunteer organization, and people are donating their time. There are only three or four people on the payroll, and everybody else is donating their time. Why are they doing that? Because they love the city, because they're concerned about their children and grandchildren, and they want to see a better El Paso.

Q. Gilberto and Jack, we're told you're among the founders of the group. Tell us how it got started.

Moreno: Ray Caballero was and remains a very good friend, and Ray, when he was mayor, got me involved with Jack and Myrna Deckert to start taking a look at downtowns. And even years ago, right after Ray had just been elected, we hopped on a plane and visited several cities, just to try to get a sense of what it might mean to revitalize our Downtown. This had to be 2002. And we started taking a look at issues such as the aging of Downtown, the role downtowns play in economic development and a community's whole employment posture.

Through our studies, and having lived in Denver and San Antonio and other places, I've learned that every community has a unique environment to offer. Here in El Paso today, we're in such a great position to take advantage of those inherent things that other communities can't really offer the border environment, our multicultural population. A vibrant Downtown would do a lot to increase our chances for success.

Cardwell: Myrna called me one day and asked me to meet with her and then-Mayor Caballero. Ray was very interested in improving Downtown, if you remember. So we met and we talked about it. And I remember Gilbert was there. We started talking and we realized we we're a bunch of dummies when it comes to what makes a great Downtown.

Well, I've known Bill Sanders over the years, and I asked him to come down and meet with us, and he did. Caballero went through the deal with him, and the bottom line was Bill said, "If all you're going to do is Downtown, I don't have an interest. If you really want this project to work, we need to take a regional approach."

Also, at that time Woody Hunt had started the Leadership Research Council. And so we all joined together under Myrna's guidance. The Paso Del Norte name was recommended by a member out of Juarez; it was a much better name than what we were talking about.

And so PDNG is just a lot of people coming together. It's not one person or 10 people, it's a lot of people talking and coming together to help El Paso move forward.

Q. How is PDNG organized?

Moreno: It's patterned after the Chicago Commercial Club. The idea there was to bring together local leaders who want to make a commitment to the future of the city.

We have an executive committee and then there are four committees under that.

We have a house committee. They're the ones who raise the money essentially to try to mirror what the Commercial Club has done, which is to provide a venue, a forum and an environment to allow the fussing, cussing and discussing that we go through as we tackle various issues.

We also have a program committee, which brings in experts and speakers. We've already had the three governors from New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua address the group. We've had everyone from state demographers to officials from Fort Bliss. The idea here is to bring issues and topics of interest to the membership as part of our community's ongoing dialog and discussion.

The membership committee is very important. Two years ago we thought we'd be lucky to get to 200 members; now we're at 300-plus, and there continues to be a tremendous interest in participating. Membership is by invitation three individuals from the current membership nominate an individual, with the membership committee having approval power. What I'm especially delighted about is the 35-and-younger group, of which there are 60- plus individuals now. They've really invigorated the organization.

And then there's the civic committee, which has the strategic planning piece. In fact we're beginning to take a look at a survey as to where, strategically, the region and the organization should be heading.

Q. How does this organization differ from the stereotypical rich-white-folks-who-feel-entitled-to-control-everything type group?

Almanzan: Hey, I'm sitting in the room, and that's a great point to counter the perception of PDNG as some exclusive group.

A lot of people don't understand yet that there are young people, women, as well as plenty of Hispanic women and men, in this organization, and that we are very diverse. There are members from Juarez and Las Cruces, and we're going through a very concerted effort to move not just El Paso, Texas, forward, but the whole region. We can't do that if we're not reaching out and bringing in as many people as possible.

Whatever the misperceptions out there, we're certainly not just the same old people who've always set the agenda.

Cardwell: I'm a gas station operator. We have a broad mix of people from all walks of life, and they're very diverse. But the one interest they do hold in common is they want El Paso to move forward. And nobody is looking for publicity we're trying to help other people get the recognition.

It's unfortunate this Downtown thing blew up, and the critics are loudly blaming PDNG for doing this or doing that, when all we're trying to do is help El Paso.

Just look at Sandra, for example. She's got a full-time job. But she loves El Paso enough that she comes over here and volunteers and spends hours and hours and hours and even pays dues for the privilege. And yet she gets chewed up and spit out and stepped on like she's some evil person. But she's doing it because she loves El Paso.

Is that wrong? If it is, we're all wrong.

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