Volunteers on the Home Front

Dear friend,

Far from the marbled corridors of the Capitol, the volunteer work of El Pasoans continues to improve the quality of life in District 29. In today’s newsletter, I’m very pleased to report on some of the efforts that have been assisted through my office.

One of those projects, to save the Lincoln Center, has drawn the support of the Heritage Tourism Advisory Committee. As recently as September, 2006, the City of El Paso was using Lincoln as a full-time recreation center that provided programming in a variety of cultural arts. It also hosted services for seniors in the San Juan community.

Since that time, the building has been closed and would likely have been demolished by now were it not for the efforts of the Lincoln Park Conservation Committee (LPCC).

2.6.13 TheatreAn empty meeting room

LPCC members carry out the mural activities in the Lincoln Center area and host several very successful cultural events in the park. They have consistently advocated that the building is a historical asset that merits preservation. Local historians also point out that the area where the building is situated was established in 1840 as “Concordia,” the first Mexican community north of the Rio Grande.

Built in 1912, the building began as a school for Mexican children who were not permitted in other El Paso schools. (Desegregation would not be implemented in the EPISD until 1955.) It operated as a school until 1969, and the building was transferred in 1970 to the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) when the area was cleared for construction of the Spaghetti Bowl.

During the 1970s, the community’s efforts resulted in the building’s emergence as the Lincoln Center. From 1981 to 2006, it hosted offices for various city and nonprofit organizations, and the JUNTOS Art Association and others sponsored art exhibits for approximately 3,000 local artists and student artists. Rosa Guerrero’s Ballet Folklorico del Paso had its first practices at Lincoln Center. Unlike other community centers in El Paso, Lincoln Center has art as its focus.

2.6.13 Carlos Lopez and LincolnMuralist Carlos Flores examining his work during a recent tour of the center

There are 43 murals painted on the freeway columns under the Spaghetti Bowl and three murals painted inside the building itself. Those interior murals were painted by Carlos E. Flores, who studied in Mexico City under one of Mexico’s preeminent artists of the 20th century, Luis Nishisawa. Flores also created the mural at the Chamizal National Memorial.

When the City of El Paso terminated its lease with TXDOT in mid-2012, LPCC stepped up and asked for the chance to identify a potential tenant that could renovate the building for the purpose of providing services that benefit the community. TXDOT agreed, and the group carried out a walk-through inspection by two engineers who provided their report to the Senecu Fine Arts Society.

I’m pleased to report that Senecu, a local nonprofit, has agreed to tackle the project of reviving Lincoln Center. Miguel Juarez, a local historian who has done much of the research on the Concordia area, is leading the group’s effort. Senecu is working to develop a business plan that will provide for renovation and management of the building. Several key institutions have expressed an interest in leasing at Lincoln and Senecu will follow up to determine the details of potential lease arrangements.

2.6.13 Mural DetailDetail of Lincoln mural

Equally exciting is the commitment from several members of the District 29 Sustainable Energy Advisory Committee to assist Senecu with architectural design and assessment services necessary to retrofit the building and integrate efficient energy systems into the renovations.

If all goes well, Lincoln Center may once again be the home of Chicano cultural activities and experience. It might have offices that deliver badly needed services to this isolated neighborhood. It is conceivable that this newest renovation will integrate state-of-the-art energy design.

That these possibilities exist is due to the work by activists who have the knowledge to document and the vision to preserve our cultural assets.

It is a privilege to work together with them to ensure that Lincoln Center, a State resource, is put to use to benefit our community, while also serving as a testament to the power of citizens to generate solutions and fight to see them implemented. We’ll keep you posted on developments as this project unfolds.

Recast the Pass

Another issue with which my office has engaged is the question of the Asarco property and stacks. Save the Stacks has worked very hard over the past year to comply with the Trustee’s requirements regarding assessment of the stacks.

I’ll put it simply. The stacks cannot be replaced, and neither can the location.

That is where the discussion should have been. Unfortunately, all attention has been placed on technical and logistical questions, and people seem to have forgotten where we started: With the realization that Asarco was polluting and harming the community far out of proportion to the benefits it brought.

Now we have reached a critical stage. While it will not be fully remediated, state and federal regulators say it will not be an imminent threat to public health, and that it can be partially developed.

The site sits directly in the Pass of the North, the location that gives our community its name and our region its identity.

1024px-Asarco_Rio_BravoView of the stacks from the river banks below

This location has been the focus of much community discussion over the years, and while the cleanup has progressed the question of whether to save the iconic stacks has been at the forefront. The tall one, at 828 feet, is one of the largest such chimneys west of the Mississippi, with an estimated replacement value of $20 million. It represents many different things; for some, it’s a symbol of the pollution spewed from the furnaces below, and for others, it raises the possibility of a new future.

I have supported the effort to save the stacks because I believe the structures can be “recast” into a new symbol for El Paso, a progressive future that reconciles with its past.

The land itself has immense public value, even if its market value is debatable. Even if the stacks fall — which the Trustee has scheduled for April 13 — this discussion is going to become increasingly at the forefront once we move into a phase of land “disposal” – in other words, what will happen to the land. That is in the hands of a Trustee invested with the responsibility for cleaning the property, and then disposing of it.

There is evidence to suggest that the Asarco property might have more value itself, and for its neighbors, with the stacks. There also is a question of whether the land can be sold, for how much, and for what value to the community both in terms of use and potential tax revenue.

I and many others believe the Trustee has the authority to give the land and the stacks to the city, as well as the ability to use funds for remediation to address issues of retrofitting and ongoing maintenance and liability.

Once the stacks, which signal the entrance to El Paso from the far edges on both sides of the city, are taken down, the action cannot be undone.

Aside from the question of the stacks and the disposition of the property, I am doing due diligence in reviewing the demolition plan.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recently told me that they expected to receive the detailed demolition plan last week. They also explained they would test the rubble of the stack before it’s buried.

It’s surprising, given the attention to questions of contamination on-site and the disposal of toxic waste that took place, that the stacks have not been tested and are not planned to be prior to demolition.

For all these reasons, I am not convinced that what is scheduled to take place April 13 is in the community’s best interest.

Local Democratic Party News

As you may know our El Paso County Democratic Chairman, Rick Melendrez, resigned recently due to his responsibilities as sole caretaker for his mother. It is now up to the party’s Executive Committee, comprised of more than 100 precinct chairs, to elect a chair for the local party. The election is set for 6 p.m. March 12, 2013 (a Tuesday), in the El Paso Community College Administration Building, 9050 Viscount.

It is of utmost importance that all eligible precinct chairs attend and actively participate in the election of a new chair. This development presents an opportunity to elect a strong, capable and energetic leader to unite and grow the party. Let’s make the election and transition fair, efficient and positive for the good of the party.

For more information contact Iliana Holguin at 542-1071.

And on a Final, Blue Note

I’d like to congratulate George Ybarra and Butch Maya and the Democratic Party for a successful event on Thursday, Noche Azul in El Paso, and thank the dynamic mayor of San Antonio, Joaguin Castro, for being the keynote speaker.

It was my honor to introduce him to the crowd more than 400, which included many young people. As I said in introducing the mayor, elections have consequences. It is so vital to get the youth involved in the electoral process, and then to follow that up with good public policy. I think Texas will be competitive in the near future, and that will be good for everyone in the state.

While Texas has been blessed with great abundance, I believe we can do better for everyone in our state. Huge portions of our population simply don’t have the opportunities they should, in a state as blessed as ours, in such key areas as education, health care and access to well-paying jobs.

That, combined with a focus on applying those values to District 29, is what drives me every day in the Texas Legislature.




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