Downtown El Paso arena discussion sparks tension during City Council meeting
The city has approved the demolition of eight properties in the Duranguito neighborhood in preparation for El Paso’s $180 million Downtown arena.
A discussion over whether to cut the proposed Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center proved contentious as residents and two elected officials sparred with Mayor Dee Margo and West Side city Rep. Peter Svarzbein.
Over 20 people called into Monday’s digital City Council meeting to support a proposal by city Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Claudia Rodriguez to cut the center in order to renovate the Abraham Chavez Theatre or Downtown convention center.
Residents said the so-called Downtown arena should not be built because it would not be a financially stable project and that the bond language in the 2012 Quality of Life Bond initiative did not mention building a sports arena.
State Senator Jose Rodriguez also weighed into the issue calling on the council to preserve the neighborhood through a statement. Sito Negron, a district director for the Senator, shared the statement with the council during the meeting.
The center is one of three signature projects included in the 2012 bond initiative, which also included the children’s museum and the Mexican American Cultural Center.
No vote was taken on the proposal.
Romelia Mendoza, who is one of two residents left on Chihuahua Street, where the city plans to build the arena, said she has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and called on the council to eliminate the project.
“The arena is very expensive and unnecessary,” she said. “It is unfair that this project move forward in order to address rich people’s pet projects and I have to move.”
Margo said after residents commented on the subject that the project was voted for in the 2012 Quality of Life Bond and that litigation holding up the project was started by historic preservationists Max Grossman and J.P. Bryan.
“I don’t know where all this D-league basketball stuff got started, but all we’ve talked about is that in the last several months that the greatest revenue generators, prior to COVID-19, at arenas were concerts,” Margo said. “I didn’t realize it was such a topical item until you all brought it up. Frankly, it hadn’t been on my mind.”
Svarzbein said he questioned the proposal to transfer funds for the arena to renovating the theater or convention center.
“This is not really a time to be taking advantage of this economic and public health crisis that is going on right now,” he said.
But Annello and Rodriguez said that the discussion about the arena was to address budget issues that will have an impact in the near future, as well as to address the concerns of residents.
Annello said the council had just learned that Antonia “Tonita” Morales, the other resident on Chihuahua Street, turned 92 on Monday and said the arena issue was constantly on her mind.
“If this is not inevitably going to happen, then we need to let her know and not keep her concerned about what’s going to happen for the rest of her life,” Annello said.
Bryan, a Houston billionaire who has helped Grossman in his fight to preserve the so-called Duranguito neighborhood, said he commented during Monday’s meeting to tell the council of the significance of the neighborhood and what protecting it would mean for the community.
“The city could really distinguish itself,” he said. “It’s such a rich resource for history.”
The Senator’s Letter to City Council:
April 12, 2020
The Honorable Dee Margo, Mayor
The Honorable Peter Svarzbein, District 1
The Honorable Alexsandra Annello, District 2
The Honorable Cassandra Hernandez, District 3
The Honorable Sam Morgan, District 4
The Honorable Isabel Salcido, District 5
The Honorable Claudia Rodriguez, District 6
The Honorable Henry Rivera, District 7
The Honorable Cissy Lizarraga, District 8
Honorable Mayor and Council Members:
I write in support of the members of City Council and of the community who raise the critical question of whether to terminate the “arena” project.
As you know, I oppose the project on grounds of transparency, expense, and location. I have filed a legal brief in support of project opponents. However, regardless of the merits of those arguments, circumstances have made even more clear that this project is not in the best interest of the City or its taxpayers.
We are facing years of recovery from the global economic impact of this pandemic. Our ability to invest in the community will be even more constrained, and we must choose wisely.
The foundation of quality-of-life from a government perspective is our public services, from roads to water and sanitation to public health to public safety. As you have rightly expressed, these will be priorities. So too will be the commitment to our essential public sector employees. Other critical municipal services, such as parks and libraries, and associated social and cultural investments, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
I and many others appreciate the prudence with which you are approaching expenses, especially those that require ongoing operational commitments. The arena is a significant outlier to this expressed approach, and as such stands out as an area of great potential savings in both the near- and long-term.
The time has come to turn the page on this project, and to look forward to a new future. I urge you to defund the arena project, improve our existing facilities of the Abraham Chavez Theater and Convention Center, and keep a focus on sustainable, targeted, and limited investments that will help the community rebuild from the ground up.