Will Tourism Save Us?

Besides call centers, the City of El Paso’s economic development policy seems to be solely focused on tourism as a driver of economic growth. New retail and hotels can only grow the pie if more people are visiting El Paso. But what will make El Paso a tourist mecca?

Triple A baseball? There are 30 cities with a major professional baseball team. If you’re looking for a baseball vacation, aren’t you more likely to go to Chicago, or San Francisco, or even San Diego, to watch the Big Show? Or Florida or Arizona for spring training games?

The trolley? Or would you rather go to San Francisco for the cable cars? Or Valparaiso, Chile, or Lisbon, Portugal, for an authentic street car transit system? Or any of the other American cities with light rail, or a subway?

Mexican food? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, since the diaspora, there are pretty good Mexican restaurants in most major American cities. Sure, the Mexican food in El Paso may be the best in the world, but few vacations are based solely on cuisine predilections, and especially if there’s an approximate substitute across town.

Juarez? Our proximity to Mexico is our Unique Selling Proposition. Unfortunately, for most El Pasoans, a trip to Mexico as a tourist stops at the Kentucky Club. New developments on the strip, and the adjacent Avenida Mariscal, need to reach some critical mass before they begin to attract out-of-town visitors. But what will make Juarez a destination? Are they going to put a casino at the foot of the bridge? Legalize prostitution? So what would it take?

Will Juarez out-vegas Vegas?

Mississippi has casinos. Travel writers somehow overlook Mississippi when they compile their top destination lists. Nothing in life is as depressing as a budget casino, where senior citizens simultaneously hook themselves up to slot machines and oxygen tanks and chain-smoke Camel filters. Yeah, vice is cool. I’ve dabbled in vice for most of my life. But as a destination incentive, vice is a losing proposition. Blame it on the internet and the twenty-four hour availability of material for self-gratification. Blame the video cameras in everyone’s pockets, and the perpetuity of public mistakes. What happens in Vegas doesn’t just stay in Vegas anymore. What happens in Vegas is on the World Wide Web.

And if Juarez becomes a tourist destination, will it help El Paso? Wouldn’t intrepid tourists just stay in Juarez? And if staying in Juarez is an option for them, what’s to keep them from visiting Mazatlan, or Guadalajara, or Guanajuato?

Will more tourists in El Paso improve your life?

That’s the bigger question. I’m assuming you don’t own a hotel, or a restaurant, or a trolley franchise, or even a small business that gives walking tours of downtown Juarez.

More room nights might offset the City’s ongoing out-of-pocket expense for the ballpark, through an increase in Hotel Occupancy Tax receipts, but most of those new hotels are incentivized with tax exemptions, so if you’re looking for love there, you’re looking in all the wrong places. More tourists mean more minimum-wage service-industry jobs. Is that what we want?

Unfortunately, economic development policy in El Paso is an end in itself. The City spends millions of dollars on economic development with little to no results. Do you think those call centers wouldn’t find us without us spending millions of dollars to attract them?

And remember, Tripper Goodman sold us those Quality of Life projects by telling us that they’d attract industry. From the July 29, 2012, El Paso Inc.:

“This is an economic development issue. More importantly than anything, that is what people need to understand,” [Leonard ‘Tripper’ Goodman] says of the [$475 million Quality of Life bonds].

That $475 million has ballooned to more than a billion dollars now. And that doesn’t count all the taxpayer money spent on the City’s separate economic development efforts. Apparently, our economic development policies aren’t evaluated based on results. We’d be better off throwing millions of dollars out of car windows, or passing out twenty dollar bills at bus stops.

You’d think, that if the original regime that encouraged our current misguided policies were pure of heart, they’d recognize that things aren’t working out the way they promised. That they’d step up, and admit their miscalculations. That they’d tell us that times have changed.

If they believed the stories they told us back when the QoL juggernaut was rolling over any reasonable discussion, if they admitted their mistakes, maybe we could fix them, or minimize the negative effect. Instead, they pretend that It’s All Good.

But maybe they didn’t believe it even then. Maybe they’d tell any lie to pass those bonds. “You gave me your word/but words to you are lies.”

Maybe it’s time to harden our hearts.

One comment

  1. One of your very best, Rich! We missed the tourism boat many long years ago, when we ignored the suggestions that included turning the Levee into a huge walking, biking, jogging park, and also rose the possibility of creating a unique International River Walk, right downtown. We also ignored all efforts to concentrate on El Paso’s very unique history, so no, tourism won’t do squat.

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