El Paso City Council votes to scrap downtown arena project and reallocate remaining funds

The El Paso City Council voted Tuesday to scrap a downtown arena project and reallocate funds to upgrade and renovate existing city facilities.

Just hours after being sworn in on Tuesday morning, two new council members – Art Fierro and Chris Canales – joined City Representatives Alexandra Annello and Joe Molinar, who presented the proposal to the council, in voting to drop the project.

Brian Kennedy of District 1 abstained from voting.

City representatives Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera, and Isabelle Salcido voted against redistributing funds to the arena.

The remaining funds will be reallocated to upgrade the Abraham Chavez Theater and the El Paso Convention Center.

Before voting, council members heard a presentation on the preliminary results of the programming and feasibility study of the project, which has found widespread support for a modern entertainment venue in the area.

El Paso City Chief Architect Daniela Quesada said 61% of online survey respondents support the project and 89% support the Duranguito project while buildings in the area are restored and turned on; 76% answered that it is important to preserve local history.

The plan will include 12 structures in the Durangito area, seven of which are independently eligible for historic designation.

Sam Rodriguez of the City of El Paso Department of Capital Improvements said $163 million remained of the project’s original funds, and one construction option was within the voters’ approved budget.

City of El Paso Presents Preliminary Results of Downtown Arena Study

Discussion of the arena in the city center brought together more than 80 speakers

More than 80 people signed up to speak during the discussion of the arena project. Realtor Michael Bray said abandoning the project, which El Pasoans “overwhelmingly” supported, “would undermine public trust by defying the will of society.”

Adair Margot, former First Lady of El Paso, agreed.

“El Pasoans wanted downtown to be vibrant and to benefit everyone,” Margot said. “They still do.”

But for Sacred Heart pastor Rafael Garcia, the arena project represents another effort that will involve ordinary residents in a city that he says is currently more in debt than Houston, San Antonio, Dallas or Austin.

El Paso City Council Plans to Vote to Drop Downtown Arena Project

“Gentrification is a real problem for the entire United States,” Garcia said. “Who determines the quality of life? Who is included and who is excluded? Usually a small minority wins and the people lose.”

Oscar Martinez, a retired history professor, called Duranguito “sacred ground for indigenous peoples” and called on the council to reallocate the arena’s funds to improve existing facilities. He also urged those who want the arena to be built to fund it with their own funds.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said he believes much of his successful re-election campaign was based on widespread opposition to the arena among voters. He said the same applies to new board members and their election represents a mandate to stop the arena project.

“Please do the right thing,” Stout said. “Please listen to the voters… please ignore the disinformation and gaslighting that has been spouting out over the past six years. Please help us save Durangito.”

Others supported the continuation of the project, including El Paso billionaire Paul Foster and downtown business owners who, in a written statement, called the mixed-use site “a critical element of (downtown) revitalization efforts.” However, most speakers supported the project’s abandonment, stating that voters never approved of the demolition of Duranguito to build the arena.

Soledad Muniz, a lifelong resident of the area that will be demolished if the arena is built, fought back against the project through tears.

“I am very concerned about my family’s home and my mother’s well-being,” she said.

Others have strongly supported the project, including Leonard Goodman III, chairman of the 2012 Quality of Life Bonds, saying that abandoning the project could cause people to lose faith in the future projects the council has to offer.

“The multi-purpose facility was what people wanted to have,” Goodman said. “I think most people think that if the board decides to drop this project, then you are not listening to your constituents.”

Two former council candidates, Rich Wright and Deliris Montañez Berrios, came out in support of stopping construction on the arena. Wright said he was present to “protect the interests of El Paso’s taxpayers.”

“Unfortunately, most of these quality-of-life projects in El Paso have only benefited a limited number of people,” Wright said. “El Paso has a very limited amount of entertainment dollars. We can’t afford it.”

For Berrios, the threat of future taxes being levied on El Paso’s residents is enough to object to continuing the project.

“If you think this project (total) will cost you $153 million, you are crazy,” she said.

Max Grossman, a historic preservation advocate who was at the center of the fight to stop the arena, said the project would provide nothing less than “basketball and Beyoncé concerts” at the expense of the historical community.

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