After more than a week of suspense, Mayor John Cook announced Thursday that he will not veto plans for the Downtown ballpark, so Triple-A baseball appears to be coming to El Paso.
The project will involve tearing down City Hall and moving the city's governmental operations elsewhere.
It would amount to about an $80 million taxpayer investment in Downtown. Under the terms of an agreement the City Council approved on Tuesday, the new ballpark must be ready for the team that is now the Tucson Padres to begin the 2014 season in El Paso.
Cook had kept the city on edge since last week, when he said he was mulling over a veto. Because city Rep. Emma Acosta abandoned her support for the project on Tuesday, stadium supporters did not have enough votes to muster the three-fourths majority required to override a veto.
"I have given this issue much thought and soul-searching and have come to the conclusion that it is not in the best interest of the city of El Paso for the mayor to use his veto power," Cook said in a statement. "Based upon the information I have been provided by the city manager and the investor group, I believe any delay might cause us to lose this opportunity."
Opposition to the project had built since June, when the plan was announced just days before the council voted to commit the city to building a $50 million stadium if MountainStar Sports Group -- private investors including El Paso business magnates Paul L. Foster and Woody Hunt --could secure a team.
Cook said he shared opponents' concerns that the project was not subject to voter approval and that it involved demolition of City Hall. But on Thursday, he said he was convinced that the plan was the only practical way to take advantage of a once-in-a-decade opportunity.
"Whether I believe baseball is the silver bullet is beside the point," he said.
With City Council's approval on Tuesday of the stadium-related measures -- and the mayor's statement Thursday that he won't veto it -- MountainStar is expected to complete its purchase of the Pacific Coast League's Tucson Padres yet this week.
The city now must purchase buildings, including the one that houses the El Paso Times. It also must move city workers, hire a company to demolish City Hall and hire an architect and construction manager to design and build the new stadium.
In addition, the city in November will ask voters to approve a 2-cent increase in the hotel-occupancy tax to fund $36 million of the cost to build the stadium.
Acosta said she was disappointed the stadium would not be put to a vote. But now that it appears to be a reality, she said she would push voters to support the hotel-tax increase so that the burden of much of the stadium expense doesn't fall on city taxpayers.
"We have to move forward," she said. "We need to keep going."
But Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney who represents stadium opponents, on Thursday reiterated his claim that the stadium project violates Texas law because it wasn't put to a vote.
"The law requires them to get voter approval of the venue project and the method of financing," he said.
Opponents could challenge the project with a lawsuit or by raising objections with the Texas attorney general, who must approve the revenue bonds that make up part of the project's $81 million finance package, Aleshire said.
"We'll put our heads together and see what's appropriate to do," Aleshire said.
Cook said he was confident that the city's staff had adequately vetted the legal and financial aspects of the deal.
City Rep. Eddie Holguin, who opposed the project because he thought voters should have considered it along with other quality-of-life projects on the Nov. 6 ballot, said he wasn't surprised that Cook hadn't vetoed the stadium.
"It's a shame that he decided to side with special interests," Holguin said. "At the end of the day, the only people who lost are the citizens of El Paso. It's a shame they aren't given an opportunity to vote on it."
Holguin said he encourages opponents to express their frustration with the "council's arrogance" through public demonstrations.
"This council has lost touch with this community," Holguin said. "They've lost touch with reality, with what they're supposed to be doing in representing the citizens of El Paso. They're going to shove things down the throats of citizens."
City Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly, who supports the project, called Hol guin's comments divisive.
Lilly said she is concerned with opponents' possible lawsuit demanding a vote.
"I'm concerned, and of course I wish they wouldn't," Lilly said. "I don't think it would be a good thing for El Paso."
City Rep. Cortney Niland, a ballpark supporter whose district includes Downtown, said she was "elated" that the council decision would stand.
"I was always very hopeful that everyone would see the value this project could bring to our community," Niland said. "I feel like the mayor. This is an economic development project we hope to be a catalyst to spark redevelopment in Downtown. It has a real potential for changing the face of Downtown."
Opponents cited economic analyses that questioned the value of stadium deals in other cities. They also asked whether the El Paso project amounted to a taxpayer giveaway to some of the city's richest people.
But supporters have cited hefty community investments by Foster and Hunt -- and MountainStar's pledge to give any baseball profits to local charities -- as proof of the group's good faith.
Josh Hunt, Woody Hunt's son and a member of MounstainStar, did not respond to a call Thursday.
Cook said that he received calls and emails about his possible veto that "were too numerous to count." He said that they were evenly split between supporters and opponents.
"In the long run, I think I made a decision that I think is best for El Paso," he said after announcing his decision on Thursday.
As he weighed the veto, Cook was worried that voter anger over the stadium project would endanger a $473 million quality-of-life bond package that is on the November ballot. MountainStar and other stadium supporters have pledged to work to support the bonds between now and the election, Cook said.
Marty Schladen may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6127.
Hayley Kappes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6168.
Next steps in ballpark process On Tuesday the City Council will approve the following actions: -- Lease between the city of El Paso and MountainStar Sports Group LLC. -- Development agreement that outlines the plan-process that will take place to construct the ballpark. -- Non-relocation agreement that clarifies that the team will not relocate for 25 years after the start of the first season. -- Ordinance amending Ordinance No. 017850 for the purpose of clarifying the ballot language regarding the Venue Project and Hotel Occupancy Tax Proposition. -- Ordinance amending homestead exemption. -- Resolution that authorizes the use of construction manager-at-risk method for construction of the ballpark. A construction manager-at-risk allows the city, construction manager and architect-engineer to work as a unified team to expedite construction schedules when established as the method that will produce the best value for a selected city project. -- Construction Manager-At-Risk Procurement Policy.
Moving City Hall
-- Finalize contract of purchase two buildings and one parking area: 801/811 Texas; 300 N. Campbell; Parking lot -- has two addresses because it is actually two parcels: 401 Mills and 400 E. Main. -- Start work on design architect contract so moving project can be put to bid. -- Request bids by October. -- Create demolition package for existing City Hall.
Closer look: Bond proposition
The quality-of-life bond proposition is split into two categories, which are related but independent of each other on the ballot. They are:
-- The sale of $245 million in general obligation bonds, which would be used to improve and build new parks and open spaces and enhance the zoo, as well as construct new soccer fields, aquatic centers, and recreation, senior and community centers across the city. -- The sale of $228.25 million in general obligation bonds, which would be used to improve museums and libraries, including the construction of a new children's museum, a cultural heritage center, and an interactive digital wall. -- The increase to the hotel occupancy tax is the second proposition that will go to voters. The increase in the tax is for the city "to provide for the planning, acquisition, establishment, development, construction and financing of a baseball stadium." The hotel tax increase would be used to pay for most of the ballpark's construction.
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