In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner heard a voice (presumably from baseball’s legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson) whispering, “if you build it, he will come.” Citizens of the border metropolis of El Paso are being asked to have similar faith as a local consortium of private business leaders have proposed a new baseball stadium in downtown El Paso. They have convinced the City Council with only one session of public discussion that economic nirvana awaits just one baseball stadium and a triple-A franchise away.
The proposal calls for the 18-story, 100,000 sq. ft. City Hall along with the region’s principal Insights Science Museum to be razed to make room for a new $50 million stadium. Costs for the new stadium will come from a proposed 2% increase in the hotel occupancy tax–a tax strongly opposed by the hotel association as a project with no benefit to them. Thus taxpayers are being told the project will require “no new taxes” although they will likely be on the hook for upwards of $50-$60 million in demolition and replacement costs of City Hall. As to where the city employees would move, one of the consortium members has offered a “sweet heart” deal in a downtown high-rise, purportedly for one dollar a year until a more permanent accommodation is found. Alas no similar arrangements have been made for the science museum.
Such “quality of life” strategies have been employed by other cities in other regions with great success in helping drive their economic development and growth. Supporters of the new stadium and baseball team point to Oklahoma City and Reno where similar quality of life projects have proven to help grow the local economies and revitalize moribund downtown districts. Improving the quality of life is certainly among the requirements for successful development of a vibrant, innovation growth-based economy. As Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, was quoted as saying about their strategy, :”…the key to economic development is creating a place where people want to live”. However, he went on to say, “…you have to do everything. It’s not just sports or the arts or affordable housing…You’ve got to do it all…”. He underscores that ultimately the citizenry needs to be involved in approving the various projects since they will be the ones paying the additional taxes. “If they don’t feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, they’re going to say no”. To date the citizens of Oklahoma City have approved over $2 billion in such projects.
At the root of public (and in private) questions concerning the new stadium is the clear lack of openness in how the City Council and the private consortium reached agreement on this multimillion dollar deal. Details on the proposal, apparently two years in the making, have been brought to light in bits and pieces over the past several weeks. Still, however, with little or no information on the analytical process in which selecting this particular site and razing City Hall made this the optimal solution for the proposed stadium. The idea of a “back room” deal comes at a time when El Paso is reeling from one corruption scandal after another now going back more than half a decade. The local FBI recently pointed to El Paso’s byzantine layers and strings between their political and business communities and describing the city as “the biggest small town on the face of the earth.”
To be clear no one suggests that the baseball consortium or its members have done anything illegal. Its members in fact are stalwart citizens of the community, not likely to make much if any real profits from ownership of the new triple-A team. They have, indeed, in the past given millions to the region’s hospitals, schools and other institutions looking to support El Paso and its future development. What is of concern, is the lack of openness and transparency in a process whereby the citizens are expected to accept the deal, take it or leave it. As such numerous questions, rightfully, are being asked by the community. These include: Why are we tearing down two perfectly good buildings to accommodate this project? What impact will the proposed stadium have on local traffic patterns and the perennial congestion in the area? Where will fans go for parking in an already parking-challenged, congested area of the city, especially with other events taking place at the nearby Convention Center or Abraham Chavez Theater? Why choose a site that is virtually landlocked with a freeway on one side and Union Pacific rails on the other with little opportunity to include new parking or other new infrastructure in the area? What economic analysis was done to support the contention that this is the most optimal site for the stadium and that it will prove to be a net gain for the City and its citizens? What alternative sites were given serious (not just passing) consideration in the analysis to build the stadium?
One obvious alternative site is the 220 acres, now being re-mediated, of former ASARCO land. Lying less than five minutes from City Hall and downtown it is an ideal location with plenty of space for accommodating not only the stadium but parking, new access roads and related infrastructure (training facilities, offices, etc). TXDOT is already planning a new exit ramp integrating I-10 with the adjacent Paisano border highway. Appropriate planning would allow for easy access and egress for the thousands of fans expected to flock to the games. Remediation efforts are moving apace and expected to be fully completed by 2014 for the entire site. Properly coordinated a much smaller stadium footprint could be re-mediated and ready for use in roughly the same amount or less time it would take to demolish and prepare the City Hall site–and at much less cost. No serious discussion with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or its ASARCO Trust has been reported although it is clear there are no real options for the land beyond some type of public or private-public stewardship. As suggested in an earlier blog the ideal use of the ASARCO property would be through mixed use, public-private partnerships. The inclusion of the proposed baseball stadium, along with a green technology park anchored by university research and an international immigration museum (among other ideas) fits ideally in the overall vision for this historic property.
While there are many challenges to using the ASARCO land there are many more advantages over the current proposed site for the new stadium, not the least of which is the potential to save $10’s of millions of the tax payers’ money by not razing City Hall or the beleaguered and under appreciated Insights Science Museum. Strong leadership from our city leaders could certainly make this a viable and more acceptable option to the one being proposed.
“If you build it, they will come”–this strategy can work but only if all the people (and not just a select few) participate in the process. They are after all the “they” that will pay for and support the new stadium and its hoped for success.
Do I hear referendum?–Paul Maxwell