The old Asarco smelter and refinery located directly on our Texas border with Mexico and closed nearly a decade ago continues generating controversy as regional leaders look at how to “dispose” of this property, including its iconic stacks. It needs to be viewed in its historical context in order to understand how best to utilize the opportunity presented by the land and assets of the now defunct El Paso plant. In large measure much of what is El Paso today, its industry, its relationship to Mexico as a major corridor of trade, the creation of UTEP and much of the wealth generated over the past century in our region is due to the presence of Asarco and the related mining and metallurgical interests of the Paso del Norte and Chihuahua region. UTEP, for example, was first conceived and created in 1914 as the Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy to create the necessary manpower to support the growing mining and metallurgical interests of Northern Mexico and later the US desert southwest. From the 1920’s through the 1950’s and early 1960’s El Paso was considered to be one of the richest cities in the Southwest, surpassing Phoenix, San Antonio, Austin and many others. This wealth was ascribed to the “three C’s…Cotton, Cattle and Copper, the later, of course, being the processing of copper (and lead) carried out by Asarco and other companies in the region. Obviously, a hundred years later matters have changed and the community looks to move forward in new directions. Hopefully, this will be in a way that duplicates the opportunity for wealth generation and job creation that Asarco helped promote in the past but also reflects a renewed respect for both our environment and sustainable economic development critical for the long term future needs of our region.
The “Stacks”–In The Context of a New Era–Many advocate the demolition and removal of the Asarco stacks. This would be both a historical as well as a major economic mistake. Many other cities have faced similar problems and challenges of their industrial pasts. Some have taken the steps to plow over the old industrial sites and simply build new industries, providing little connectivity to the past or the future and replacing one industry with just another or worse. Others, like Pittsburg in the US and Monterrey in Mexico, have been more creative, restructuring their old steel mills and blast furnaces and creating modern business development centers, public parks and industrial museums–their versions of a “Green Technology Research Park” described below. Such new, creative endeavors have become points of pride and recognition by not only the local community but by those outside visitors who are given an opportunity to see a glimpse of the past as well. The stacks, some of the tallest structures in the region, visible from miles away in the tri-state area could be maintained and, potentially, painted green or otherwise highlighted to mark something distinctive for all to see. For those “going through El Paso” either East or West, it might induce some to stop and take a closer look at what we are doing in our unique, bi-national region.
Developing a Green Technology Research and Cultural Park–El Paso’s future much like its past lies in adopting an economic strategy based on technology, creativity and innovation that meets the needs and challenges of a modern , competitive global economy. As such the Asarco property could be converted not only symbolically but pragmatically to being a key element for transforming the region’s economy from a low wage, high labor economy to one based on high wages, knowledge-based industries. The first step in that process would be to create the “Green Technology Research Park”, designed to foster the creation, development, and support of new, high growth sustainable technology businesses and industries in the region. The Park, following national standards for research parks would have the following characteristics:
- Be created as a public-private partnership, bringing together industry, academia and the state and local governments.
- UTEP, as its nearest neighbor would be a strategic partner and could manage a significant part of the property focused on research and education of its young scientists and engineers; EPCC could also be involved, focused on the technician and other related training activities of the industries serving the Park and elsewhere.
- Primary focus would be on “Green” sustainable technologies such as renewable energy (wind, solar, biofuel, etc), advanced manufacturing (MEMS and Nano), health devices/technologies, environmental sensors , environmental remediation technologies, etc.
- Serve as an incubator and accelerator for new and commercially viable “green” companies and industries.
- Provide for test , evaluation and ,ultimately, certification of new green technologies such as solar electric/heat panels, high technology vertical wind towers, etc.
- Form an educational training and human resource center with appropriate facilities for educating/training engineers, scientists and technicians needed for the new “green” industries created and promoted by the Park but for the region at large.
Cultural and Bi-National Heritage Center–As part of a comprehensive plan but, perhaps, carried out in a second stage would be the creation of a Bi-National Cultural Heritage Center or Institution. Taking advantage of the unique location of the Asarco property, adjacent of the US-Mexico border, strategically positioned next to “Marker No. One” delineating the border directly west of El Paso as well as bordering a special International Park commemorating the important history of this site to both Mexico and the United States. For centuries El Paso del Norte was the pathway for European explorers and later missionaries and immigrants to find their way northward from Mexico to what is now the United States. Most Mexican-American immigrants legally in the US prior to the mid-1900’s can trace their roots to movements of their families through this region as they made their way north and west and, ultimately east during these centuries. Ideas originally proposed by UTEP and others in the region to create an “Ellis Island” of the south to celebrate and recognize the significant and rich contribution of this northward migration to our nation could be reinvigorated by establishing such a center, potentially straddling the border where the International Park now exists. Ultimately, a mirror twin of the “Green Technology Park” could be created on the Mexican side across from Asarco creating an international/bi-national region of collaboration and creativity unsurpassed anywhere. Other recreational, quality of life activities associated with the river, the center, etc could also be incorporated into the Cultural Center plan.
Obviously, funding looms large in any discussion about the Asarco property. The $50 million currently identified to remediate the property at best will help bring the property to a level suitable for use by light industry with no residential or similar use possible. Initial estimates of $14 million for restoring the stacks to acceptable levels of remediation, stability and safety appear to be exaggerated at this point. Recent analysis and better understanding of the stack designs suggest that the two remaining stacks can be safely restored and remediated for under $1 million. This number is critical as the trustee has set aside that amount for destruction and subsequent remediation of the stack debris, meaning that if correct there will be no need for further funding to simply “save the stacks.” Just as important is the public perception of cost for keeping the stacks, where a majority of El Pasoans support their preservation assuming the costs are reasonable. Positive public perception is also more likely if a comprehensive, strategic plan for use of not only the stacks but the ASARCO property as well.
Creating the “Green Park” will require significant investment likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars or even more. This will have to come from both public and private resources again assuming a strong strategic plan for developing the property can be developed. By hosting new growth companies/industries, bringing high wage and high technology in critical and strategic areas of growth much of the investment cost of a “Green Park” can be recaptured, primarily by significant growth of the region’s overall tax base created by these new companies/industries. Federal funds (for example Merida II–AID funds already designated to Mexico for border development) to promote economic growth and prosperity in the region can be used to subsidize the effort with State, local bonds and private sector investment providing much of the rest. Staged properly and with creative application of current (future) financial instruments the “Green Technology and Cultural Park” can become a reality. More importantly we could turn what is now seen as a painful eyesore of our old industrial past into a vibrant “gem” signaling our region’s drive forward to a dynamic future.–Paul Maxwell
 See the Association of University Research Parks website at: http://www.aurp.net for in-depth discussion of research parks),