In 2006, the city of El Paso passed the Downtown Revitalization Plan. Business, nonprofit, and community leaders aimed their collective focus on rejuvenating El Paso’s once proud Downtown. Previous efforts in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were disconcerted and resulted in relatively minor victories, such as investments in the Civic Center Plaza, Paso Del Norte Hotel and Cortez Building, and improvements to Union Plaza. These sporadic efforts were not able to overcome the changing suburban economies and the local culture of disinvestment in Downtown El Paso that existed throughout the latter part of the 20th century.
Over the past 10 years, the aspiration of Downtown revitalization has become realized. Gone are the days when Downtown transformed into a ghost town after 5 p.m. Today, Downtown El Paso is a valued destination for locals and tourists alike. These efforts could not have happened without the private sector, nonprofit sector and public sector walking in lockstep, fixated on improving our Downtown’s vitality. Investments from business leaders such as Paul Foster, Miguel Fernandez, Lane Gaddy — and many others — demonstrated that being a true civic business leader sometimes means looking at the community’s return on investment in addition to the financial one. The efforts of Eric Pearson and the El Paso Community Foundation arguably kick-started the current Downtown revolution with the opening of the Plaza Theatre in 2005. The EPCF continued to lead by spearheading the Artspace artist incubation residential development and the annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The city of El Paso led efforts regarding the transformation of San Jacinto Plaza and the renovation of Arts Festival Plaza. These improvements have spurred historic preservation investments as once dilapidated Trost buildings such as the Abdou Building and Plaza Hotel are now under renovation after decades of neglect.
All of these efforts don’t just merely dress up El Paso’s core: They make good economic sense as well. In 2005, Downtown’s assessed taxable valuation was $191 million; today, it is $329 million and rising. The greater the burden shouldered by the commercial tax base means less of a burden for the residential taxpayer. Moreover, local economic development leaders — and even UTEP football recruiters — consistently state they showcase Downtown El Paso when promoting our city as San Jacinto Park, Mills Plaza, Southwest University Park and Arts Festival Plaza present El Paso as an emerging community.
Even though Downtown is on the rise, local leaders must continue to be bold. Naysayers and malcontents will continue to obstruct — they always do — but our region’s progress must not be impeded. The next step in Downtown’s evolution will require greater efforts to offer a variety of first-class housing options for all income levels in our Downtown. Efforts to mitigate bridge cross times must continue as much of Downtown’s economic health and cultural vibrancy is linked to our neighbors from Juárez. Infrastructure along Texas Avenue and Alameda Avenue, transportation and otherwise, need to be buttressed so as to spur investment between Downtown El Paso and the emerging medical center area as these two employment nodes continue to evolve.
The perception of our community, by ourselves and others, is influenced by our Downtown — the quality of its architecture, parks, cleanliness and transportation options impress imagery that is hard to forget. Downtown is on the rise, but the process is not complete. Downtown’s advocates must remain steadfast, committed and innovative, as having a great Downtown is a component to being a first-class city — and this El Paso deserves.
Steve Ortega is a member of the board of the Downtown Management District.