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EP Council votes for arena cost & building preservation estimates, to explore lawsuit settlement

UPDATE, Nov. 9: El Paso City Council met Tuesday to once again discuss whether seek to obtain an updated cost estimate for the proposed downtown arena project. A pair of items were voted on following a lengthy executive session by council that ran several hours.

Council voted unanimously not only to seek estimates for the current cost of downtown arena construction, operations and economic impact - but also to examine costs for building preservation of damaged and historic properties in the Duranguito arena footprint. In addition, council approved an effort aimed at exploring options for possible resolution of pending litigation over the arena project involving historic preservationist Max Grossman.

In a brief statement issued after the council meeting, Grossman said he "looks forward to entering into good-faith discussions with the City of El Paso aimed at finding a solution that will preserve the buildings within the 'Arena Footprint.'"

You can watch the council action following their executive session in the video player below this update. And here is the exact wording of the two items approved by 8-0 votes:

Item 8
"To direct the City Manager or designee to hire a consultant such as architects, urban designers, engineers, and to include studies such as an economic impact analysis and programming operations and execute all contracts and amendments to develop the following information: Project concept; partnership opportunity guidelines including public-private partnership specifications; and financial model to include estimate of capital costs and operating costs which is in compliance with all court rulings and legal decisions, to incorporate preservation of historic buildings and to preserve historic character and to direct staff to come back to Council with recommendations on how to safeguard damaged buildings and options for funding sources in ways to align with a temporary restraining order."

EX 1
"That the City Manager and the City Attorney be authorized to engage in discussions to identify various options for a resolution of the ongoing litigation included but not limited to the lawsuit entitled Max Grossman vs. City of El Paso, 8th Court of Appeals, Case #08-19-00272-CV, Matter No. 17-1001-171.001.001."

UPDATE, Nov. 3: District 5 City Rep. Isabel Salcido is placing an item on the El Paso City Council agenda next week that will once again seek to obtain an updated cost estimate for the proposed downtown arena project.

It comes after a similar measure was rebuffed by a majority of council a week ago.

Salcido said her measure is different because it calls for hiring an outside firm, as opposed to using city staff, to produce an estimate that will include all capital and operating costs for the facility.

“The last thing we want to do is mislead the public with an estimate that is not accurate or that is put together hastily by non-experts. When we are dealing with large-scale projects like this one, it is important to make sure that we thoroughly do our due diligence and that we rely on high quality estimates and information provided by professionals in the proper field,” Salcido said. “That is why I am seeking to direct the City Manager to seek this information out and provide it to the City Council and to the public.”

The item will be taken up by council at its Nov. 8 meeting.

UPDATE #2, Oct. 26: There is confusion at El Paso City Hall after council voted again later in the same meeting after the mayor left for some urgent business.

The second vote taken was 5 to 3 to delete the arena item from the agenda. The key word here is "delete," the first vote was to "deny" undertaking an arena cost estimate.

ABC-7 asked a city spokeswoman whether the mayor is able to veto the vote if the item was deleted form the agenda.
She replied that staff was still investigating if the mayor has that power.

The spokeswoman indicated since the council took no policy action by deleting the item in the second vote, a mayoral veto may not be applicable.

UPDATE, Oct. 26: City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday afternoon not to move forward with having staff provide an updated cost estimate for the downtown arena, however Mayor Oscar Leeser indicated he would veto that rejection.

Attempts to gain clarification by some members of council as to the impact of the mayor's veto were unsuccessful, but it appeared that Leeser was set to move forward with having city staff compile an estimate.

ORIGINAL REPORT, Oct. 25: EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso District 6 City Rep. Claudia Lizette Rodriguez is sponsoring Agenda Item 22 on Tuesday's city council meeting. Rodriguez is looking to get an updated cost estimate for the proposed Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center - which is also known as the downtown arena porject.

The agenda item reads in part:

"Discussion and action to direct the City Manager and staff to come back at the November 23, 2021 City Council meeting with an estimate of how much the Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center (MPC) project would cost if it were executed today."

The original proposal for the downtown arena, whose footprint would include the Durangito neighborhood, was approved by taxpayers at a cost of $180 million. One local historian told ABC-7 some of that money has now dried up, and the cost of building has skyrocketed since the approval of the ballot measure.

"They're talking $180 million, which is gone. It is now $150 million - so they've already spent about $125 million, and secondly if they were to do an estimate now, it can't be near that much. It's got to be a lot more because you figure steel and metal have gone up by about 60% or more and that's a horrific increase," Bernie Sargent, scholar director at the Texas Historical Foundation, said.

The arena was approved by voters in a 2012 quality of life bond issue and has been mired in controversy since then - ranging from whether or not sports should be allowed in it, or if it should be built in the area proposed. While the project is tied up in a court fight over whether the city can demolish buildings in Duranguito, more time drags on and the original $180 million price tag in 2012 has increased here in 2021.

"I think the value of the money has gone down the toilet for lack of better terms. It's not worth $180 million today. inflation being what it was it would be $200 million. We don't have $180 million anymore, we have $150 million set aside now," Sargent said.

Perhaps the most outspoken person against the project has been historian and UTEP Prof. Max Grossman, who will be attending Tuesday's city council meeting and speaking during public comment. In an email sent in advance of that meeting, Grossman wrote that he believes the cost of the arena would be much higher now based on other arena projects around the country.

"As I wrote in a guest column for the El Paso Times 18 months ago, "the City claims it will build the arena for $180 million, or $12,000 per seat. However, the cheapest multipurpose basketball arena of comparable size built in the past five years is Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, seating 17,341 and costing $32,178 per seat. Mathematically, our arena would cost $482,671,000 in 2019 dollars, not including the $23 million-plus already spent on bond interest, property acquisition, and litigation," Grossman wrote.

Jim Parker

Jim Parker is the Director of Digital Content for ABC-7.

Dylan McKim

JC Navarrete

El Paso native JC Navarrete co-anchors ABC-7’s weekend newscasts and reports during the week.

Saul Saenz

El Paso native Saul Saenz is a veteran reporter who also hosts ABC-7 Extra.

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