El Paso County Commissioners have voted in favor of a program meant to make it easier to upgrade aging and out-of-date buildings with more efficient systems and finance it in a way that immediately saves owners money. But could it really work in El Paso?
"Businesses that voluntarily want to come forward to fix up their property, to make it more energy efficient, water efficient, or to create their own power, they can use this program to access financing that comes from the private sector," said Charlene Heydinger, president of the Texas PACE Authority.
Called the property-assessed clean energy or PACE program, it relies on the county to guarantee the provisions and requirements of the program, but does not require any county funding. The idea is to take the operational savings from the more efficient systems and pay back the cost of the no-money-down financing out of it. The county's part is making sure it will be paid back by overseeing liens on the land, giving lenders confidence they will be paid back over the long term loans of the program, which could be up to the expected lifespan of the equipment itself.
Private lenders like Austin-based Petros PACE finance say they have $250 million set aside just for PACE in El Paso County.
"You wind up saying 'everybody wins, so what's the catch?' And we get that a lot," said Joseph Edgar with Petros PACE Finance. "The catch is it takes educating. So if you don't understand how this works, then it's an entire new way to look at financing. Traditionally, if you get a loan on your building, you have it until you own it. When you sell that building, somebody else's loan pays you off and you pay that loan off. So that's just the way the mindset is."
If you head to San Jacinto Plaza and you're surrounded by the kinds of buildings that proponents say could benefit from this kind of program. Looking towards the southwest from the square and then turning to the right, you see the Cortez Hotel built in 1926; the O. T. Bassett Tower built in 1930; the Blue Flame or El Paso Natural Gas Company Building built in 1954; the Kress Building built in 1937; the Plaza Hotel built in 1930; and the Camino Real Hotel, originally built in 1912 as the Hotel Paso del Norte, added onto in 1986, then extensively renovated and renamed in 2004. The PACE Program exists in the hopes of having all buildings like these become like another building right on the square - the 1911 Mills Building, which did go through redevelopment and renovation."
"We've reached sort of critical mass that takes a long time to get to," said architect William Helm.
Helm is the principal architect with In*Situ Architecture, which has offices in the Mills Building complex. He's worked on a lot of projects around downtown, including historical renovations. He sees possibilities with the PACE program, in addition to other state, federal, and local incentives that have been put into place over recent years.
"I don't think it's going to hurt," Helm said. "I mean any sort of mechanism that we've got that we can help fund a project with helps."
Texas PACE administrators plan on doing more public outreach to let people know about the possibilities of the program in the near future.