Revisiting the 2012 Quality of Life Bond Promotion

Debbie Nathan was a local hero. She’s still a hero, but she’s not local anymore.

Ms. Nathan is an accomplished investigative journalist. She has written for The Intercept, Texas Monthly, New York Magazine, Reason Magazine, the Shawangunk Journal, and other media. She has written four books. So far.

She’s a rock star.

She left El Paso when TxDOT wanted to put the freeway in her backyard and real estate prices soared.

In 2012, Debbie Nathan investigated the effort to pitch the Quality of Life bonds for Newspaper Tree, but Newspaper Tree never ran it. In 2020, Debbie Nathan published it on

El Paso was lucky to get a good investigative journalist working at Newspaper Tree. Newspaper Tree was at that time funded by the El Paso Community Foundation. Waiting for a 501 (c) (3) non-profit designation kept the new Newspaper Tree from ever publishing. Or something like that.

The El Paso Community Foundation still controls the Newspaper Tree archives. I suspect they’re kept in the Mills Building catacombs with the head of Pancho Villa.

On a chilly evening back in January of this year [2012], some two dozen El Pasoans gathered at the EPPD Northeast Regional Command headquarters to listen to Leila Melendez, city manager Joyce Wilson’s young executive assistant. Melendez was there to present a Power Point about the upcoming Quality of Life Bond Issue. Its title: “El Paso Tomorrow: A City on the Move.”

As the audience peered at a screen, a slide flashed on, announcing that El Pasoans would soon have a chance to create “new opportunities for bold economic development and quality of life initiatives.” Those opportunities would come in the upcoming November bond election. One of the biggest initiatives, the slide continued, would be “signature projects that would create a more dynamic downtown.”

The PowerPoint was shown not just in the Northeast that winter, but at town-hall- style meetings though out the city. By February, fifty-one such meetings had been held. Attendees were invited to fill out long, white cards. The cards had space to tell city officials what kinds of quality-of-life projects citizens wanted — including downtown.

“What would these projects be?” Melendez asked her listeners at the Northeast meeting. She answered her question: “I don’t know.” She went on to say that the city was “really hungry for information” from the public. She told attendees that the suggestions they wrote on the cards would be tabulated. Then the city would use the tabulation to decide what projects to put on the November ballot. “We want to hear from you,” Melendez concluded.

And she did hear. One man, wearing a leather biker jacket and a grey, Fu Manchu beard, talked about his neighborhood. It had a mountain, but his dogs couldn’t legally walk on it — he wanted a dog path or dog park. Another man hoped the arroyos in his area could be outfitted with artificial waterfalls. Someone else asked for an aquarium. Yet another suggested a mariachi and country & western music hall of fame, complete with wax museum.

But not one person spoke up for a major-league soccer arena or an AAA baseball stadium. Instead, some were frankly hostile to those ideas.

. . .

Yet, at an April City Council meeting at which the November Quality of Life ballot was rehearsed, City Manager Joyce Wilson presented a list, prepared by professional stadium promoter Rick Horrow. Its heading was “What El Pasoans Told Us They Want and Need.” The list which followed included a $150-to-$180 million downtown arena, a $45-to-$55 million downtown Triple-A baseball stadium, and a $100- to-$200 million downtown Major League Soccer stadium.

The city has advanced various rationales for proposing expensive stadium and arena projects.

One is that the Paso Del Norte Group (PDNG) has for long wanted to build a downtown arena and fund it with public and private money. In fall 2011, the PDNG hired Rick Horrow, a nationally known sports stadium and arena fixer, to develop a plan to win the 2012 El Paso bond election. PDNG member Tripper Goodman, who’s also a member of the Downtown Management District, then chose willing government officials and businesspeople to form the private, PDNG-heavy group El Paso Tomorrow. That group’s purpose has since been to oversee Horrow’s proposals and promote them to the city. Working mainly with City Manager Wilson, who is also a PDNG member, Goodman’s group has created a buzz about the community supposedly wanting stadiums and arenas downtown.

. . .

But what about the information compiled from all those cards that people submitted after attending meetings like the one at the Northeast police station? According to that data, more than ten percent of the almost 5000 people who submitted suggestions said they wanted an arena or a stadium downtown.

But a Newspaper Tree investigation has revealed that the pro-stadium and arena data is largely bogus. We also learned that city officials knew the data was suspect weeks before it was released to the public. Yet, rather than trash the comment project or at least acknowledge its defects, the city promoted it as though it legitimately reflected community support for professional sports facilities downtown.

. . .

[O]ver 500 of those favorable comments look fishy, especially when compared to cards favoring projects that are not stadiums or arenas.

The comments having nothing to do with stadiums or arenas appear to be written by thousands of individuals. When they talk about improving parks, building swimming pools, or beefing up museums, their language varies from comment to comment. In addition, many respondents, even people with addresses in poor neighborhoods, include an email address along with a phone number.

Not so with hundreds of the downtown-stadium responses. Over 500 spew a long stream of verbiage: “soccer stadium/arena/for major league soccer/pro team/downtown/ASARCO/Eastside/Soccer stadium/arena” — over and over and over, with no variation at all. Of these hundreds of suspicious-looking responses, virtually none list an email address.

Newspaper Tree filed an Open Records Request to view the original long, white comment cards. Reading them, we saw that most which favored downtown stadiums and arenas displayed the numbing sameness of language that we’d seen in the data book. In addition, we discovered something disturbing about the handwriting on all those 500+ cards.

It appeared to belong to only two people.

There’s more evidence of the City’s and bond promoters’ duplicitous behavior in the entire piece at

You gotta read it.

One comment

  1. I was working for the city then and couldn’t really protest this. In retrospect, the duplicitous surveys should have been reported to the bond rating agencies along with the other shenanigans. Really, a small dedicated group of people could have cast enough shade on the credibility of the bonds to endanger their being purchased by investors.

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