El Paso mayor reveals more about ballpark location

EL PASO, Texas - An item on the June 26, 2012, City Council agenda posted a few days before was the first time El Pasoans heard of the possibility of El Paso getting a Triple-A baseball team and needing to build a stadium.

Mayor John Cook, who's final term as mayor ends later this month, told ABC-7 Monday that it appears there was already a plan in motion for the City Hall site before the item was put on the agenda.

He doesn't remember the exact date he was first approached about a new ballpark but said it was about a year ago when Woody Hunt, Paul Foster, Josh Hunt, Myrna Deckert and possibly one other person visited him in his office. Woody Hunt, Foster, and Josh Hunt are part of MountainStar Sports Group, which ended up buying the Triple-A Tucson Padres.

"First they told me that there's a good possibility they would be able to buy a Triple-A team and they had the financial resources to buy it and that they were going to bring it to El Paso. And I said, 'That's great news.' And then I said, 'Where are you actually going to build it?' and they said, 'Downtown El Paso.' I said, 'That's even better news - great news.' And I said, 'Exactly where?' 'Right here,' they said."

Cook, always ready with a joke, responded with, "I don't think it'll fit in my office."

"And they said 'No, it's on the City Hall site,'" Cook said of the meeting. "So that was the first inkling I got that the City Hall site was where they had been talking with Ms. (Joyce) Wilson about building the ballpark."

The mayor didn't think voters would go for it.

"I said 'You know, I really think it'll be almost be impossible to get the voters to approve the construction of a new baseball stadium if it means demolishing City Hall. I don't think that's really realistic," Cook said. "And they said 'don't worry about that.' And my comment back to them was 'I think I know my constituents better than you and if we demolish a perfectly good building in order to build a baseball stadium the voters are going to vote the baseball stadium down.'"

The group didn't seem deterred by Cook's statement.

"And once again they told me 'well, don't worry about that,'" Cook said. "And so I imagine-- and I'm just reading between the lines -- that at that point they had already had their plan (on) how to finance it without having to get voter approval. They would just have to get voter approval for the financing -- not the actual approval of the stadium itself."

Cook said City Manager Joyce Wilson isn't prohibited from taking meetings with groups and working on a plan on her own for projects.

"I think if you had set the vision for us to revitalize Downtown that's sort of a carte blanche invitation for the city manager to come to us with ideas of what would work in the Downtown are," Cook said. "And when the MountainStar Group went and talked to her they said we need to try and see what sites are available in Downtown that are big enough for our ballpark. So they knew if they went with multiple property owners that there was a good chance that they would end up getting into eminent domain issues -- and they wanted to stay away from eminent domain if at all possible. So that meant they had to come up with single property owners who owned something big enough to build a baseball stadium on."

There are only two entities that actually fit that description.

"One was the City of El Paso which has three sites in the Downtown area that would be big enough," Cook said. "Some had challenges, like for example the Union Depot site you would have had to have rerouted Paisano and some railroad tracks. So that was off the table. The other large property owner was the railroad themselves. And our experience of trying to work with the railroad is pretty impossible to get them to move quickly and they had a very short time frame in order to be able to meet the 2014 baseball season which was part of the formula they were working on to purchase the team. They had to have a new stadium ready for them by I think it's April 2014. They explained that was the timeline."

Because of the City's previous dealings with eminent domain, Cook said he understands why they wanted to avoid an eminent domain situation with the ballpark. He said when the City was trying to build the Union Depot parking lot that it dragged on for two years.

"(With eminent domain) you postpone the construction, you postpone the bidding. Everything gets dragged out. And it could have been more than two years," Cook said. "We only had one property owner which at that time was the Restaurant Supply that was opposed to the Union Depot. And the other thing that happened was you end up paying very much inflated price because the commissioners that are appointed to hear eminent domain cases typically look at the big, bad City versus the poor property owner. So you end up paying a lot more than what the central appraised value for example would have been. I understand the argument, it doesn't mean that I agreed that the project should still go forward. And a part of my concern was/is Triple-A baseball really going to be that big an economic driver? To really be that catalyst for Downtown revitalization or not?"

He's still not sold that it will be the game changer  Downtown has needed.

"I think the last comment that I made on it was that 'I hope y'all prove me wrong but I personally don't think it's going to be that big an economic driver but I hope you prove me wrong,'" Cook said.

In the time since City Council first voted on the ballpark issue, critics have said that some on City Council and others who would be opposed to the ballpark were kept in the dark about it. Cook said the strategy of playing things close to the vest can be seen in a book written by Rick Horrow, who is a consultant with the Paso Del Norte Group on the ballpark and bond projects.

"I think if you read his book, you know, which I have, he does actually say that. One of the best things to do -- you don't put all your cards on the table and don't let everybody know what it is you're doing -- especially in major league sports," Cook said. "Do you let everybody know that you're trying to get the team to come to your city? Does the bidding war start? The price of the team goes up? Are other people going to throw sweeter deals on the table? Then you lose out. So I understand all that. That's part of what Rick was saying and then he used his model from Oklahoma City where you didn't tell everybody everything they need to know."

While some may not like how the process to get a ballpark in Downtown El Paso has happened, Cook says nothing illegal happened.

"I think technically everything was done legally. Whether it was done above board - I don't think that was the case. It was done legally. I don't think anyone broke the law," Cook said. "And I understand the arguments for secrecy especially when you're talking about a Triple A baseball team or any kind of sports  team that you're trying to attract and be competitive with other cities at the same time."

The same strategy may have been used in other cities but not all cities are the same.

"Some of the other cities where they put these issues to the voters and the voters tyically approved them," Cook said. "But if you looked at El Paso where, I mean there's a column that (El Paso Times columnist) Joe Muench had the other day criticizing (former City Rep.) Larry Medina for wanting to study putting in the arenas, ballparks, where they should go. And typically the voters have voted no at every stadium project we've ever had except for Cohen Stadium. I think the caution was that if we ask the voters on this they're going to say no. And this is too important for us to put this to the voters, let's find another way to finance it that doesn't require voter approval. I guess some people are smarter than me cause I never saw that coming."

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