Case Study in Baseball: Why El Paso Demolished its City Hall

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Southwest University Park is home to the El Paso Chihuahuas. Photo courtesy of Southwest University Ballpark.

Southwest University Park is home to the El Paso Chihuahuas. Photo courtesy of Southwest University Ballpark.

Since the home stadium of the El Paso Chihuahuas, a Triple-A minor league baseball team, opened two years ago, the city’s downtown has been the focus of more than $73 million in private investment, officials there say. City of El Paso leaders cite the project as a catalyst that has sparked downtown economic development in the city of 800,000 people.

Southwest University Park was not built without political controversy.

“Every announcement was controversial,” from the location to the mascot, former El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson said of the public-private partnership process she went through with team owner MountainStar Sports Group to build the stadium that brought the San Diego Padres-affiliate to West Texas. “As the conflict mounted, we started losing supporters on City Council.”

Part of the public outcry was due to the park’s site, the former City Hall. Although it was not a historic building,the fact the municipal building had to be demolished became a rallying cry for opponents who opposed spending public dollars on the ballpark. The building was eventually demolished and a new City Hall was built on another site in 2013, and work then began on Southwest University Park.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a 2% increase in the city’s hotel occupancy tax to fund the park and approved a special “quality of life” bond.

Ultimately, the City assumed $73 million in bond debt to build the park while MountainStar contributed $12 million, Wilson said. The team leases the space from the City for $400,000 per year.

The stadium was built in 379 days, Wilson told a sold-out luncheon audience at the Pearl Stable hosted by the local chapters of the Urban Land Institute and the American Institute of Architects. The audience of local elected officials, architects, engineers, attorneys, and others was audibly impressed by that fast turn-around.

Despite the project’s ballooning costs and debt-financing troubles, Wilson pointed to the economic boom in downtown El Paso since the stadium was built. That includes an additional $38 million in privately-funded construction projects, 238 residential units, 411 hotel rooms, 4,000 new jobs, and an 122,000 sq. ft. of new office space.

The stadium is also used for high school baseball games, boxing exhibitions, soccer matches, film festivals, 5k races, and graduation ceremonies.

San Antonio has its own debate taking shape as the City and taxpayers consider building a downtown ballpark to attract a Triple-A baseball team. San Antonio Missions owner Dave Elmore has said he will bring the Colorado Springs Sky Sox to play in a new stadium here beginning in 2019. The San Antonio Missions, also owned by Elmore, is a Double-A team that plays in the aging Wolff Stadium on the Westside.

New stadium funding was only briefly considered as part of the 2017 bond. Mayor Ivy Taylor has since said that any new stadium would have to be financed without bond money. It’s unclear how much money, if any, Elmore is willing to contribute to a new stadium project. A study commissioned by Centro San Antonio examining potential downtown locations has yet to be delivered or released in draft form.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a self-proclaimed baseball fan, takes in the presentation by Janet Marie Smith. Photo by Scott Ball.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a self-proclaimed baseball fan, takes in the presentation by Janet Marie Smith. Photo by Scott Ball.

San Antonio is not El Paso. It’s a city of more than 1.4 million people and one of the fastest-growing in the nation. Visitor tax revenues are already allocated to finance other projects. This city will need to figure out its own way forward – with or without a baseball stadium, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).

“The goal is to make a real impact, not just for the sake of building it,” Treviño said after the luncheon in a phone interview. “It’s not politics, it’s a professional decision about sites and orientation and how we can really make an impact to the community and quality of life.”

Treviño said he will hold off on forming an opinion about a downtown ballpark in San Antonio until more specific project data is revealed. Site choices have been a matter of speculation for months, but until the study is released the public and elected officials won’t even be able to establish any firm costs.

“I’m going to continue to advocate for a very thoughtful process,” he said, adding that the community’s input and support will be paramount. If the city does move forward with the stadium plan, “Let’s make it our own.”

Mayor Ivy Taylor is more confident that San Antonio will embrace a baseball stadium downtown.

“I see a downtown baseball stadium as one component of a revitalized downtown,” Taylor said during her opening remarks. “A place where families can walk to ballgames or office workers can meet at the end of the day. A place where kids can play while their grandparents watch the game, anchored along our beautiful, reimagined San Pedro Creek.”

Mayor Ivy Taylor gives introductory remarks speaking to the impact baseball could have in San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor said she includes a baseball stadium in her vision of downtown. Photo by Scott Ball.

According to Janet Marie Smith, an architect and urban planner dubbed the “Ballpark Whisperer,” that’s exactly what the best stadiums do: Reflect the character and culture of the city, and where better place to do that than in a downtown environment?

Smith, who was the keynote speaker at the AIA San Antonio luncheon, was unfamiliar with San Antonio’s local proposal, but her work on Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and more than 20 years of work in baseball has more than earned her title.

A ballpark can be used as a tool to combat urban blight, spark development, and to promote public art and thoughtful design, she said.

Architect and Senior Vice President, Planning & Development Los Angeles Dodgers. Photo by Scott Ball.

Janet Marie Smith is an architect and senior vice president of Planning and Development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Photo by Scott Ball.

While many modern Major League Baseball stadiums have been built as intimidating, far flung structures, she took her queues form the “old way” of building ballparks.

“If you didn’t know better you would think you were looking at a library or a City Hall,” she said, pointing to historic ballparks. 

Camden Yard incorporates an historic railroad warehouse that is used as commercial retail and restaurant space, team offices, and a concessionaire stand. The stadium is seamlessly integrated into the surrounding city as “a part of daily life,” she said. Some shops and restaurants open regardless of the team’s schedule and the ballpark is used to host other events.

“It’s not just about architecture,” Smith said. “It’s very much about the architecture of the public-private partnership.”

The advantage of a smaller stadium, Triple-A compared to major league, are affordability and scale, Wilson said, answering a question from the audience.

The average ticket to an El Paso Chihuahuas game is between $9 and $20 – the average MLB ticket is about $28. Smaller stadiums are also inherently less expensive to build.

“Our community is not so dissimilar (from San Antonio’s) demographically,” she said. “(Minor league) opens the game up to more communities at a more affordable scale.

“When you get to MLB or NFL, it’s such a hardcore business,” she added. “There’s not this sense of community” like there is in minor league baseball.

As Mayor Taylor and her Council colleagues approach the month of July “off” from City Hall – most continue to work in their districts – baseball will not likely be far from their minds.

 

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

 

CORRECTION: The population of El Paso is estimated at more than 800,000 – not 650,000.

Top image: Southwest University Park is home to the El Paso Chihuahuas.  Photo courtesy of Southwest University Ballpark. 

Related Stories:

Rivard: Mayor Taylor’s $75 Million Swing and a Miss 

Mayor Calls for Downtown stadium, Triple-A Baseball Team by 2019

Cartoonist John Branch on City’s Efforts to Bring Triple-A Baseball to San Antonio

SAISD To Sell Properties, Construct New Central Office

Mayor in Talks to Bring Baseball into Downtown San Antonio

Major League Baseball Lands in the Alamodome

12 thoughts on “Case Study in Baseball: Why El Paso Demolished its City Hall

  1. My question would be whether or not El Paso would have seen urban development regardless of a ball park. I am sure the stadium spread the process up but we live in an era in which people are investing in downtowns. Did the former mayor share any of their evidence on the issue? I’d love to check it out.

    Same for Nashville. I know comparisons have been made and I know their stadium has done well but we have to be really careful attributing economic benefits to downtown stadiums. Nashville was a BOOMING city already and the stadium was one part of the revitalization effort.

    Their are plenty of examples of cities that have seen massive urban growth without stadiums too.

    I think a stadium would be fun, I just think we need to be careful with the move.

  2. If they build it, one of the best locations might be somewhere very close to the new West Side Terminal. That area is getting some redevelopment and needs lots more. Plus, that location would make it easier for residents of the city to get to games by bus without having to worry about parking.

  3. And what other high-level sports options does El Paso have? An amateur hockey team, an indoor soccer team, and a bunch of NCAA division-I teams. When a city has no other major sports (unlike SA), *any* stadium is going to do well. Its citizens have no other options.

    Apples and oranges.

  4. Building a thoughtfully designed minor league stadium downtown would be transformative and makes entirely too much sense for San Antonio to go through with. Instead let’s build it on the east side and see if people show up.

  5. I suppose I was the only one that noticed how the sites for both Camden Yards and Petco Park had pre-existing Light Rail service before they were chosen for those projects. First thing’s first.

  6. If the City owns the land where the stadium goes, the potential tax dollars for that prime downtown real estate are lost (city doesn’t pay taxes) and we all have to make it up in our home taxes (who likes tax hikes?). Unlike El Paso, whose Downtown was stagnant and the land already owned by the City, our Downtown has a thriving tourism industry, so buying land for the stadium is going to cost a pretty penny. Then take into account rising construction costs, and the cost of this pet project will certainly “balloon” as well.

    The idea of a stadium sounds lovely, but a successful Downtown stadium is extremely difficult to execute. More often than not, you get resounding failures that end up costing the taxpayer and bringing only low-wage jobs. Additionally, taking on massive debt to build a minor league stadium on par with El Paso’s team in San Antonio is striving for mediocrity.

    Let’s buckle down and focus on job creation, helping our veterans and homeless, educating our children and making San Antonians better community members, and the rest will follow. I applaud our leaders for their activism in trying to make our city better, but this feels more like a legacy play than a feasible investment. We have to make decisions based on the return on investment we anticipate. Or perhaps we focus on a sport that can play in the Alamodome, instead of taking up more valuable land that won’t pay taxes.

    Why are we still talking about this?

    • I agree, why don’t we spend millions of dollars cultivating high-skill, high-wage jobs instead. This should be a no-brainier!

  7. People need to look past the baseball and realize this stadium is intended to bring shops and other venues to the area. This is a large part of what the revitalization is about. Not everyone is interested in baseball, but what about a rodeo, or any number of other things that can be hosted in the stadium? If tax revenue was the only consideration we would end up with another stinking hotel. Bring on the baseball stadium and let’s move on to the next project

    • R.Garcia–have you been Downtown before? There are a bevvy of shops and “other venues” in the area, and more sprouting up every day! Building a stadium hardly seems to be the best “bang for your buck” to get more “shops and other venues” as you say. I think Ivy estimated that it would cost us $175 million. Perhaps a more economical way to get the shops and other venues you think we need Downtown would be to just build the darn shops themselves, and maybe put an office or apartment above it and give companies free rent who want to move into the building and offer high paying jobs to our residents. I’d love to see an “Onion-like” article on things we can spend $175 million on that would be better than a minor league stadium.

      Further, it has consistently been proven that building a Downtown stadium has little to no impact in the land around it and just screw over the taxpayer (us). The “success stories”, like El Paso (if you can call $73 million in debt assumed for $38 million in investment in 4 years–time value of money not even considered–I think it’s too early to be lauding that as a success) are the exceptions rather than the rules. For every one El Paso, there are probably five AT&T Centers. The fact of the matter is, there are better ways for us to spend $175 million (notwithstanding the foregone tax revenues in perpetuity from the City owning the land, which would make that price tag go up substantially). The City would do well to stop thinking that a stadium is going to solve all of our problems, and realize that small, incremental measures are the key to building momentum. Building a stadium isn’t going to fix the fact that our schools are failing and our population is segregated and largely impoverished. Regardless–this is a simple decision: the ends don’t justify the means.

  8. Very good comments! Lots to consider on this subject. We have many historic buildings and areas downtown, how would that work? 95% of SA does not live downtown. As mentioned we do not mass transit lightrails, only VIA and private car. The idea of putting it by the new terminal is about the only place that would make sense. Or tear down the Alamodome and put it there. Are we losing our uniqueness once again by wanting to do what everyone else is doing? We have already lost so much downtown that no other city had. Is a downtown stadium worth losing more?

  9. I have been to Camden Yards and the stadium in El Paso, and both are beautiful structures that add to the cultural fabric of their cities. I am not opposed to a stadium being built downtown, but NOT with taxpayer money! If Mr. Elmore wants to move the Sky Sox to SA, then he should build the new stadium himself.

    If another major entertainment source like, I don’t know, a movie studio wanted to locate somewhere near downtown they wouldn’t expect the City to build the production lot for them. How did we reach the point that it’s assumed states and municipalities should pay to house sports teams?

  10. wow, this applies to all the negative or rather optimistic san antonians, you know this is absolutely the reason our beautiful city hasn’t had any major developments because of the lack of vision lack of knowledge ,understanding, and commitment you the “taxpayer” vote against. Our city must invest in every aspect of economic development in order to have the higher paying jobs to have better education for our children. If you don’t see or even understand the big picture,we’ll never prosper as a vibrant city to attract the higher paying jobs, better education, etc..Just look at Austin,it is truly amazing what that city has accomplished almost overnight, hmmmm?Everyone must be on board?

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