The Road to Economic Development

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.

Right now I’m in Valparaiso, Chile, a little city wedged between the cordillera and the sea. We were walking home from a day out, when we came across this:

Their thunder followed us up hill to our hostel. I thought, why couldn’t we have something like that in El Paso’s Plaza de los Lagartos? Oh, right, our public bureaucracy chokes creativity to death. Creative people generally abhor dealing with bureaucratic bullshit. That’s why they’re in the arts and not business.

Busking in El Paso requires some kind of a city license. The police will shut you down if you’re standing on a street corner playing your guitar for tips. I don’t remember that ever being a problem in El Paso. I guess we nipped that problem in the bud.

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.


  1. When I was reporter last year at Newspaper Tree, the little publication that isn’t — and probably never will be in any meaningful way — I early on got wind of data indicating El Pasoans were not just indifferent to downtown development–they were hostile.

    This happened when I requested from the city videos of the community meetings they held while talking up downtown development in advance of the bonds vote. The meetings took place in fall 2011 and winter 2012.

    I thought I’d get a bunch of videos. Instead, the city gave me one. With that paltry delivery, I assumed I’d be getting the most downtown-boosterish meeting. Surprisingly, it was the record of a gathering in the Northeast, at which very few attendees had anything good to say about downtown development. Some even used curse words against it, and Joyce Wilson’s assistant Leila, who ran the meeting, was visibly taken aback by the passionate negativity, thrown out of emotional kilter.

    I watched that tape in the summer. Before that, back in April, the city had posted the executive summary of a telephone poll that Russell Autry had done for the PDNG, whose findings supposedly supported the claim that El Pasoans wanted lots of downtown development and were willling to pay for it. I was puzzled about why the city would post an executive summary of a report, without making the full report available. I was told the city didn’t even have the full report and I’d have to ask PDNG for it. Autry told me the same: PDNG would not give him permission to give me the report. I visited PDNG HQ and told David Buchmueller, the man in charge, that once you publicize an executive report, you have to publicize the report itself. That seemed a surprise to him and his colleagues. I found out later from Louie Gilot, Newspaper Tree’s publisher at the time, that someone, said to be a major El Paso Community Fdn. donor, then visited with Eric Pearson and complained about my asking for the report, said I was “threatening,” suggested Newspaper Tree show me the door.

    I did get the report. Susie Byrd ran interference with PDNG on my behalf.

    Susie looked at it and guessed that no one had wanted to publicize it because it indicated so much anger towards John Cook around issues such as the “domestic partners benefits” vote being overturned.

    The report also evidenced much public distrust of City Council.

    I never got to post or report on the report. Newspaper Tree did not have the guts to publish without a 501(c)3. Eric Pearson was running NPT, and EPCF didn’t want to put themselves on a line with journalism. They didn’t want to share it with other media, either.

    In short: it was abundantly evident a year ago, via public records, that El Pasoans were not happy campers at Camp City Hall. Nothing that’s going on now surprises me.

    And oh yeah, I did get shown the door.

  2. The Chilean air has cleared your head Richard. And where better to create unique popular culture than in our integrated Hispanic and American community. Let me know when we are doing the drum circle at the plaza. Be safe.

  3. Really? They been doing drum circles at the placita for years. I didn’t know there was any organized opposition from city hall preventing it.

    1. Come to think of it, you’re right. But a reliable source reported that the El Paso Police (Bicycle Division) shut down a couple of buskers on a street corner on San Antonio, in the vicinity of the Tap. I wonder what would happen if a drum line like this showed up in the plaza. They were considerably noisier than a drum circle.

  4. Right on about promoting cultural and educational values in addition to or instead of just the built environment. What entity would perform that service? EPISD? EPCC? This would be City government sponsored, right? What would be the mechanism?

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