One of the last things El Paso businessman William “Billy” Abraham did before he was sentenced to prison two weeks ago was buy a key piece of Downtown property from the University of Texas System.
The sale of the old Walgreens building is likely to raise some eyebrows in El Paso where Abraham has been in hot water with the city for years over the deteriorating condition of his Downtown buildings, some of El Paso’s most historic.
Over the years, the city has filed a number of enforcement actions against Abraham for code violations. And, in the past, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property taxes have gone delinquent before Abraham has paid them, court documents show.
The building, which has been vacant since Walgreens moved out in 2013, is located at the corner of Texas and Mesa on a block that borders San Jacinto Plaza in the heart of Downtown revitalization efforts.
According to the UT System, Abraham purchased the building at 200 N. Mesa for $401,000, outbidding Borderplex Community Trust, a quiet real estate investment trust formed eight years ago as part of a plan to remake Downtown El Paso.
The Borderplex REIT’s bid was for $370,000, which matches the Central Appraisal District’s appraisal of the property for tax purposes.
The senior real estate officer for the UT System, Derek Silva, said that University of Texas at El Paso officials “expressed reservations” about the sale given Abraham’s reputation.
But the UT System, Silva said, has a responsibility to donors and the students who benefit from their gifts to get the best value for the property it holds in trust. And their primary concern when selling a property, besides the price, is if the person they enter into a contract with can close the contract.
“To not have taken this bid could have subjected us to scrutiny for excluding a bid on a non-factual basis, and we didn’t think it was defensible,” Silva told El Paso Inc.
In this case, the proceeds from the sale have been invested by the UT System and will be used to fund scholarships, primarily the University of Texas at El Paso Scholars Excellence Program, according to a UT System spokesperson.
If the UT System had not accepted the highest bid, it would have meant selling the property for $31,000 less. Invested, that amounts to about $1,240 less per year for the scholarship program.
“That makes a substantial difference to someone who may be looking for a scholarship,” Silva said.
Many of the historic buildings Abraham owns he has owned for decades. El Paso businessman Paul Foster, who has invested in several projects in Downtown, has confirmed trying to buy buildings from Abraham. And Abraham has reportedly rebuffed offers from the Borderplex REIT and others as well.
“We’ve tried really hard to buy some of Billy Abraham’s buildings,” Foster said at a recent Rotary Club of El Paso luncheon. “He’s got some amazing properties, and if somebody would put a little money and a little tender loving care into them, that would just be very exciting.”
It is not clear who will manage the buildings while Abraham is serving his prison sentence. But what is clear is that local real estate investors, brokers and developers are watching closely.
“Many real estate experts in the area are wondering the same thing: If this isn’t the crack in the dam so to speak,” said one longtime El Paso broker.