Retrovision: The Road to Economic Development

This is a lightly edited version of an article that originally appeared on 6 June 2013. Since then, very little has changed about El Paso’s strategic thinking.

As an El Pasoan, I appreciate the civic improvements that City Hall is foisting on us.  (Can I even call it City Hall anymore? It’s more like City Sprawl.) But to offer the improvements as drivers of economic development (as Tripper Goodman did here in this article in the El Paso Inc.) is wrongheaded.

If the goal is economic development, isn’t there a better way we could have spent the $100 million plus that we’re throwing at the new ballpark and the itinerant City Hall?

The notion that revitalizing downtown will spur outside investment in the community seems a stretch. How does that work, exactly? Are “vibrant downtowns” table stakes in the game to recruit outside companies? Wouldn’t a vibrant city accomplish the same goal? Does the captains-of-industry checklist include a box for vibrant downtown?

The last time I was in downtown L.A., the rats owned it. The streets were deserted, and the only bar open was a dive where me and my business casual associates were mistaken for po po. Somehow, L.A. got a pass on the “vibrant downtown” requirement. Lots of cities improved their downtowns after they were economic dynamos, like L.A. is trying to do now. Because attractive cities have vibrant downtowns doesn’t mean that vibrant downtowns are necessary for successful cities. As my friends at the Pine Knot Junior used to say, Post hoc ergo propter hoc. I always thought that they were just drunk.

Strategically, the accepted wisdom is to put money into your strengths. Shoring up your weaknesses is a loser’s gambit. That’s something you do when you’re ahead of the game, and you’ve got a little breathing room.

Revitalizing downtown El Paso does little more than line the pockets of the local heavy hitters who invested heavily in the REIT (to whom most of our local politicians are beholden). Reason, sometimes, slips away to rationalization. Sometimes it’s hard for even the rationalizer to tell the difference.

What if, instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into recreational amenities for downtown, we’d devoted a fraction of that money to developing our intellectual capital? What if we created programs to develop music, or the arts? For a fraction of the money we’re spending on those shiny and controversial baubles we could hire the best educators and administrators, and develop programs that would lure the brightest minds in the country.

We’ve already demonstrated strengths in those areas. At the Drive In was successful because they developed a unique style due, in part, I believe, to El Paso’s cultural singularity and isolation. Cormac McCarthy wrote the books that made him most popular while he lived in Kern Place. The success of both of those examples was dependent on the creative strengths of individuals. But El Paso has demonstrated that we possess the infrastructure necessary to nurture creative people. Unfortunately, we do very little support it.

El Paso can be stultifying. El Pasoans can be judgmental. El Pasoans can be invidious. El Pasoans don’t enjoy the anonymity that comes with bigger cities.

There’s no future in being the consumers of popular culture. El Pasoans need to be creators. And ballparks and arenas aren’t going to get us there.

In El Paso, the lack of educational attainment is the biggest inhibitor we have to economic development.  We can demand that our school districts step up their game.  That is just table stakes.  Investing in downtown without fixing our broken education system is throwing money away. But we could invest in the extracurricular education now, without waiting for the school districts to heal. And we might waste some money doing it. But it wouldn’t be $100 million.

4 comments

  1. More proof that we’ve been warning them for years. More proof that wrong decisions are still being shoved down our throats. More proof that we’re on the wrong damn path!

  2. I’m a regular reader (and very occasional commenter) and often agree with you. I don’t support a useless arena, hate the idea of tearing down our history, and I love living on the border with Juarez. But downtown is where I couldn’t disagree more. I’m not trying to argue with you, I just want to give my take and hear your opinion. And for simplicity, by downtown I mean downtown proper plus the surrounding ring of neighborhoods. Here’s my two cents:

    Let’s say we have two imaginary cities. City A is a model of urban planning. Buildings are a mixture of historic beauties and interesting new construction. Neighborhoods are mixed use with a combination of offices, residences, hotels, shopping, and entertainment. Streets are walkable and bikeable, and public transit is reliable and plentiful. Density is high enough to create 24-hour (or at least 18-hour) vibrant neighborhoods. Surface parking lots are nonexistent and there is plenty of well-maintained green space.

    Now there’s City B. It’s the total opposite. The entire city is built of strip malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions. Transit is non-existent and nothing is walkable. A car is required for every trip. Surface parking lots are about the only open spaces around. Even at busy hours, everything feels empty because everyone is in their cars or inside a building. Offices, homes, and retail are located far from each other, so trips require spending a long time in your car.

    Which would you rather live in? Which is more attractive to someone looking for a weekend getaway? Which would make a better conference destination? Which would be a more ideal destination for a person who wants to move to a cool city and figure out their job later (like the artists you mentioned in above)?

    El Paso (and all cities) are somewhere in between these extremes, but we currently look more like City B than City A. The thing is – building a city more like City A doesn’t require a bunch moving in planeloads of Google and Goldman Sachs employees into El Paso .

    All it would require is building a more attractive city for the people who already live here. The teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, government employees, store owners, military members – these people already live here and their jobs (for the most part) aren’t going anywhere. So to start, we’d just be building a more livable city for ourselves.

    Then (hopefully), we’d start being able to attract more new visitors and new residents. I can’t say for sure that it will work. But what I CAN say is that no one will come here (to live or to visit) to visit a strip mall on the eastside, westside, or northeast side and check out the newest cookie-cutter subdivision. Hell, I doubt if many people who are from here and left for greener pastures will be lured back by that. And yes – there are jobs here. Not for everyone, of course, but not everyone who leaves here goes to work at a fancy company that doesn’t have an office here.

    If we can’t get our urban core (let’s say the area within two miles of San Jacinto Plaza) done right, then all we’ll have is soulless desert sprawl that’s unlikely to charm anyone other than those who have never had the chance to see anything else.

    Yes – I know downtown Los Angeles was run down for decades. But LA is an anomaly among other cities its size, and there were plenty of other nice, walkable areas in the metro area (Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, etc). Other than our downtown area, El Paso has nothing of that sort.

    What say you?

    1. I live in what we call Barrio Heights, east and north of downtown. I’ve got a little neighborhood grocery store four blocks away. I can walk the 3k to Juarez. The houses here are like six or more to the acre. I’m living what you say you like.

      I’m not strictly against gentrification, if it’s private investors making economic decisions.

      What I’m against is private investors hijacking city government so they can re-imagine downtown as an occasional getaway for the leisure class.

      Imagine that band of venues from the ballpark to the proposed arena. That would be deadzone at least sixty percent of the year. No baseball games. No concerts. No conventions. Giant monolithic buildings that no one wants to walk around, cutting off the fledgling development in Union Plaza from the rest of downtown, and the rest of downtown from Union Plaza.

      Like John Geske said about the ballpark on the occasion of his closing the Garden, “I’m not a hater, but that ballpark was the worst thing that could have happened to Union Plaza. It put us in a hole.” (Or close to that. I didn’t look it up.)

      If you want a vibrant downtown, monolithic megastructures are not the way to get it. And all that money were spending on the fancy baubles could have been used for real development for all El Pasoans, not just the real estate speculators and millionaires.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting.

      1. Really appreciate the reply. I live in Sunset Heights and I love the character and walkability of the area. I’m also not in favor of a useless arena (especially one that requires tearing down historic buildings). My reply was more in response to incentives that have been given to new hotels, office buildings, and apartment buildings. I’m in no hurry to see the rich get richer, but my feeling is they’re gonna get richer whether we like it or not. And if that’s the case, I’d rather see them get richer by restoring downtown buildings than by building more unsustainable sprawl. Whatever the case, it’s always a pleasure to read your blog.

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