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City of El Paso commits additional $10 million for cultural center

The city of El Paso has committed an additional $10 million for the voter-approved Mexican-American Cultural Center.

Surrounded by mariachis for Cinco de Mayo, said Mayor Oscar Leeser said the money will come from budget cuts and savings within the next five years.

“One of the things I’ve been very hard with the city manager about is ‘let’s not increase taxes. Let’s find savings,'” Leeser said Thursday.

El Paso voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a $473 million bond which included three signature projects: an arena, children’s museum and the Mexican American Cultural Center.

The city allocated and voters approved only $5.7 million for the cultural center, significantly less than the other signature projects.

City officials have since acknowledged the project was severely under-funded and it would be impossible to erect a new building with the original budget. A city-commissioned programmatic this spring found it would cost $34 million to retrofit the Abraham Chavez Theatre to house the center.

A committee of private residents, led by District Attorney Jaime Esparza, studied the issue and made recommendations to the city including housing the center at the Downtown theater.

The committee is in the process of forming a non-profit organization to raise the remaining $20 million in the next five years or less. “When we reach out to the private part of this partnership they will know that this city, this community, taxpayers all of us are totally committed to having a world class Mexican American Cultural Center,” Esparza said at a news conference on Thursday.

Leeser said the savings will come from projected savings in the budgets for future fiscal years. “We have changed the way we are doing business at the city. And we’re only going to spend the dollar once. Not two, three four five six times. So it will be accrued and set in the budget and really it’s a very responsible way of operating.”

Asked how he could assure the public the money would be there considering the council has recently had a publicly rocky relationship with City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and it’s unclear if the city will have the same leadership in five years, Leeser said the City will begin the budget process accounting its commitments.

“It’s really simple to say okay we’re going to do this we’re going to raise our hand for a certain project and then not accrue for it and not account it and then all of a sudden it’s our tax rate is this. We’re not doing that anymore,” Leeser said.

The programmatic study proposes the cultural center have a black box theater, demonstrative kitchen, studios, media arts labs, library, acting studio and more. It would offer free as well fee based programs and workshops. Gonzalez said the private funds will determine how quickly construction begins. “The ball is in their court now,” he said.

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