EL PASO, Texas - El Paso City Council on Tuesday committed to assuming responsibility for the Lincoln Center, if the Texas Department of Transportation, who owns the building, agrees to negotiate in good faith.
The Council specifically wants TxDOT to remove a reversion clause that would allow the state agency to take the building back within 30 days' notice if it needs it.
"How can I fiscally put money into a project - tax dollars into a project - knowing full well they can take it back tomorrow and burn it to the ground," said City Rep. Cortney Niland, who made the motion to negotiate with TxDOT. Niland's motion, which passed unanimously, asks state lawmakers Joe Pickett and Jose Rodriguez to negotiate with TxDOT leaders at the next Transportation Policy Board meeting in June to remove the reversion clause and to enter into lease or sale negotiations with the City in good faith.
The compromise has no real teeth, according to City Representatives Lily Limon and Eddie Holguin, who were the lone votes on a separate motion. Holguin's motion would have the City assume responsibility of the Lincoln Center and use all options available to fund its renovation, up to $5 million. Holguin said the $5 million could come from the Quality of Life bond money allocated for a Hispanic Cultural Center.
Mayor Oscar Leeser expressed support of Holguin's motion but the rest of Council said they would not support it because it did not have a specific funding source identified and the Council had not determined the site of the cultural center.
"The way we had it before was a strong commitment, an affirmation that we wanted to save Lincoln Center but we're going to water it down," said Limon when Holguin's motion failed and Council voted on Niland's. She and Holguin said the Council was willing to go over budget on the ballpark, but not make a financial commitment on the Lincoln Center. "God, I wish this had taken place at the time the stadium was being built," said Limon.
Niland said the only viable way to save the Center was to first get assurance TxDOT would remove the reversion clause; otherwise their efforts would be moot.
City Rep. Emma Acosta pointed out she had tried to renovate the Center in the fall of 2011, but Council voted the measure down then. She reminded City Rep. Eddie Holguin, who's now advocating to save the center, that he abstained from the 2011 vote. That plan would have used Certificates of Obligation, or non-voter approved debt, to save the Center - a funding source Holguin has openly opposed.
Before voting on Holguin's motion, Acosta said there possibly was $4 million of building renovation funds in the Capital Improvement Plan, which stems from certificates of obligation. She asked Holguin if he'd be willing to vote on using those funds to restore the Lincoln Center, instead of abstaining if that came to a vote. Holguin reiterated he believed Quality of Life bond money was the best option for the funding and did not verbally commit to paying for the renovation using certificates of obligation.
The Lincoln Center Conservation Committee has been working on saving the Center for the last five years, according to its leaders. They point they had community meetings, met with City Representatives, Pickett, and Rodriguez and corresponded with TxDOT, plus provided a business plan this Spring.
Neither the City Representatives nor the conservation committee actively sought to include the Lincoln Center in the Quality of Life bond projects approved by voters in 2012. "That was never an official plan or position from our committee," said Hector Gonzalez of the preservation committee last week.
City Rep. Emma Acosta said she also didn't add the Lincoln Center to the QOL bond projects, fearing TxDOT could take it away any time and render the city's investment moot.
Estimates to renovate the Center range from $300,000 to $3 million. A 2011 City study found it'd cost $2.6 million, a figure supporters dispute. "That was done by Ms. (Joyce) Wilson, at a time she wanted the building torn down," said State Senator Jose Rodriguez on Tuesday, referring to former City Manager Joyce Wilson. Supporters of the building have said the City overestimated mold and water damage to the building after the 2006 floods to avoid reopening it. The building was not flooded, but according to the City study, it developed hazardous mold.
Niland responded to Rodriguez's allegations: "That's exactly where this argument loses credibility. This building absolutely deserves to be preserved, but not by the tactics that are being taken, degrading local leaders (like Wilson), and especially Chairman Houghton."
Ted Houghton is the Chairman of the state Transportation Commission which oversees TxDOT and who has said the Center must be demolished for safety concerns which include the possibility of a vehicle falling on to the building from the freeway ramp above. Some city officials, like Limon, have said those safety concerns are 'scare tactics.'
Recently, Lincoln center supporters have posted internet memes of Ted Houghton. One of them has an illustration of him and texts that read "Houghton hates Raza."
Gonzalez assured council those messages were being spread by "rogue individuals"' who support the preservation committee but are not directly associated with them. "This has never been the stance of the Lincoln Park preservation committee," he told Council.
However, ABC-7 found Miguel Juarez, one of the main leaders behind the conservation committee posted the same "Houghton hates Raza" poster on his Facebook page. When asked about the contradiction, Juarez refused to comment and walked away from the camera.
When asked if racially charged messages like the one spread by Juarez, can erode negotiations with TxDOT, Rodriguez said he "hopes not."
"People's emotions are running high. And what they post on social media or comments like that are side issues. We want to focus on the end goal."
Below is screenshot of Juarez's Facebook account where he posted the "Houghton Hates Raza" meme.