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.
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."
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.
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.
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.