An Open Letter to the Man Behind the Curtain

Re Downtown Development: You’re doing it wrong.

I understand that you want to make El Paso a more attractive city by “revitalizing” downtown. As I see it, you think you can achieve that goal by getting rid of the poor people and installing a “real market,” i.e., people with disposable income.

I don’t care about your motivation. Maybe it’s that you’ve got money in the REIT. Maybe you’re also an altruistic philanthropist. I don’t care.

My beef is that what you’re doing isn’t going to work. The “road to greatness” that you’re paving is going to end up destroying El Paso with no real benefit. It’s going to cost El Pasoans untold dollars (untold, at least, without an ORR) and it’s not going to do a thing to improve El Paso’s chances in the relocation sweepstakes.

Let us consider Brand El Paso.

Strengths: It’s a recognizable brand. That’s why movies and teevee shows use El Paso as a location. El Paso is an archetypal place.

Weakness: Not every trait associated with El Paso is positive. People think El Paso is dangerous, or backwards and rural, and another typical hick West Texas town.

Opportunity: Almost every negative conception of El Paso is false. All we have to do educate the ignorant consumers.

Threat: We could really blow it. In fact, I think you’re blowing it now.

We don’t want to stop being an archetype. We don’t become another anonymous city in fly-over country, another Des Moines or Omaha. We don’t want to look like every mall in America. If we do, it won’t work.

El Paso has flavor and soul. But damn if you’re not doing your best to eliminate it.

I know El Paso’s flavor and soul are just collateral damage to your rambunctious rebel minions. And it’s their money and they can do what they want with it. And they’re trying to turn downtown El Paso in a high-end lifestyle center, with restaurants and retail and places to be seen.

Because that’s what they know. Everyone thinks that everyone else is just like them. They’re trying to rebuild El Paso in their own image. The problem is that there’s a lot of competition at that end of the pool, and the water’s not that deep.

Make a list of the amenities that El Paso has, or soon will have, that might persuade an enterprise or individual to move here. Then make a list of cities that offer those same amenities. We can pretend that those are table stakes, the minimum it takes to get in the game. Now add the features and amenities unique to El Paso. Now compare that to the features and amenities of the other cities.

See, Starbucks and frozen yogurt and Nordstrom’s Rack didn’t even move the needle. Table stakes won’t win the game. Betting when you don’t even have openers is a fool’s game.

El Paso is blessed with a substantial non-consumerist population. I know that’s so foreign to you that it’s hard for you to get your head around it. Non-consumerism is a growing trend nationwide. Procter and Gamble are dropping as many as a hundred brands, up to sixty percent of its stable. Sales at McDonald’s are down. Walmart stock trails the S&P 500 by almost thirty points.

Consumerists are fickle, and the tides of public taste are changing.

But even non-consumerists paradoxically constitute a market. Let me show you some consumerist versus non-consumerist products.


Tiesto, Bud Light, Diet Coke, Muscle Cars, McDonald’s


John Prine, IPA, Club Soda, Public Transportation, Brown Bagging It

But wait, you say. We’re really going after public transportation.

Maybe. But non-consumerists aren’t going to take the BRIO to drink Bud Light and listen to Tiesto. There’s cognitive dissonance in your plan. All your horses aren’t pulling in the same direction.

Okay, you say. Then fuck the bus. I never thought it was a good idea anyway. We’ll just go all in consumerist.

Except now we’re competing with every city in America. And we’re competing at a disadvantage, because we haven’t fostered a rampant retail ecosystem for the last forty years, like every other city in America has. We’re ahead of the curve with non-consumerism, but now you’re trying to drag us back to the 1990’s.

Look. You left. You went to go where you could make some real money, and hang out with your consumerist friends. I’m okay with that. But don’t come home preaching consumerism like it’s a new religion.

A lot of people that stayed in El Paso did so because they didn’t want the rat race. They didn’t want the monkey suit and the nine to five cubicle. You think you can cure those people. You think you should. Because that’s progress. That’s economic development. That’s Quality of Life.

But, man, that’s a big hump to get over, and you can’t bulldoze it out of the way. You’ll have to nurture that mentality, and some mustard seeds fall on rocky ground.

El Paso has a lot of rocky ground.

In the meantime, I think you’ve overestimated disposable income in El Paso. I don’t think that there are enough affluent consumerists to make your stardust dreams a reality. I don’t think the locals are going to float all the new emporiums. Or if they do, the old ones will suffer.

And I understand that you believe in the infallibility of the market. Except the non-consumerists have opted out of the market. That’s what they’re all about. So markets will always overcompensate in the direction of the consumer, because that’s what markets are all about.

And that’s all fine. Except you’re plowing the ocean. Consumerists don’t play nice with non-consumerists, and non-consumerists won’t buy in. You have to bridge that gap.

Here’s what you need to do. You need to add some non-consumerist features to your downtown plan. You can pretend that they’re land banks for now. All you need are some vacant lots. (River Oaks can help you out if you need to make a vacant lot.)

First, build a community garden. You can charge some nominal rent for participants, utilize community service “volunteers,” and secure it.

Yeah, I know you already have that little community garden. Where are you using it to promote the city? Build another one. Build three more.

Then, build a beer garden. There would be some nominal cost, of a building for the walk-in, and bathrooms, and probably a barbecue pit. But you would recoup your investment in two years, while keeping your prices and product in the non-consumerist range.

But what about the riff raff, you say. Beer gardens might attract riff raff.

You can regulate the clientele by regulating the ambience. Hint: Get rid of the juke box.

No, I don’t want to run your beer garden. Running beer gardens is a young man’s game, and I’m no longer a young man. But I can point you in some directions, if you want. And maybe I can consult for a beer tab and front row seats at the John Prine show.

One comment

  1. May I sit with you at that John Prine concert?
    All too true Rich – thanks for being a radical/sensible voice for El Paso.

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