EL PASO, Texas - Members of The Paso Del Norte Group (PDNG), an exclusive organization made up of influential business and civic leaders, are intricately involved in the two most consequential projects in El Paso in decades.
The Group has officially supported both the passage of the nearly half a billion dollar Quality of Life bond slated to go to El Paso voters in November and the plan to build a baseball stadium in downtown.
"When the Paso Del Norte Group was started, that was the whole idea -- to bring the leaders that really want change, that really want things to happen and they have the influence in order to do that and I think that's what you're seeing," said PDNG Co-Chair Susan Melendez during an interview.
The PDNG's footprint on the Quality of Life bond and the baseball stadium is clear.
Tripper Goodman, Chairman of the El Paso Tomorrow Political Action Committee, who is recruiting people to help convince voters to pass the bond is a PDNG member.
So is Bill Burton, the CEO of Mithoff Burton, the PR and marketing company, advocating for both the baseball stadium and the bond.
Russell Vandenburg, the president of TVO North America, the company hired by the city of El Paso, to help them relocate city hall, is also in the PDNG.
The four investors in MountainStar Sports, who plan to buy the AAA Padres affiliate baseball team, bring it to El Paso and donate their profits to charity - are PDNG members. Woody Hunt is a founding member of the PDNG.
"We're not focused only on doing that but that's (economic development) is really our purpose and if it takes for us (the PDNG) to go out and lead, then we really have no problem doing it. and I think that's something that we need to do," said Goodman, in an interview.
He said he wants future generations to remember this was "the beginning of a new El Paso."
The baseball stadium and the quality of life bond have also been received with hesitation and protest. "I would love to see downtown revitalization, however the way this baseball deal has been handled, the process was not as democratic and transparent as it should have been and could have been," said Raul Amaya, an El Paso resident, in a city council meeting Tuesday.
Others feel El Paso taxpayers can't afford the projects.
"These people who want progress for our city are deserving of it ... but there's also another part of this city, probably 90 percent, who are struggling," said Manny Hinojosa, a government ankle biter, at the city council meeting.
The concerns come as El Paso taxpayers are faced with several proposed tax hikes from the city and county. If voters pass the Quality of Life bond, the average home owner will see a $40.00 increase on their property taxes. The nearly $30 million to relocate city hall is slated to cost the average homeowner about $6.20. The County has also approved a tax increase. The average property owner, with a home valued at $117,000, would pay $62.00 more per year in property taxes.
An expert on urban economic development said those concerns are historically expressed in cities at pivotal points of growth. Dr. John Bretting, an associate professor in the Master of Public Administration Program at the University of Texas at El Paso, said there's often a clash of mindsets between the people who are trying to keep their version of the American dream alive by keeping their property taxes low and those who believe that the private projects and private-public partnerships they're pursuing will benefit the entire community.
"Individuals who might be members of what might be perceived as the ruling class wear multiple hats so they see themselves as a philanthropic citizen engaging in investments that will benefit everyone in this city. Whereas other individuals who perceive that their largest personal investment, ie, their personal home, and the condition of their neighborhood might come under attack, will see themselves as an activist and believe that they need to engage in local politics to help save their largest financial interest," Bretting said.
Melendez believes the PDNG's efforts to attract industry and spur economic development will eventually be beneficial to those who may oppose the projects now. "We really believe that if we can increase the vitality of this region, it will benefit everybody. And we understand that we may not have the same outlook as other people but we do know, as we see in other communities, these kinds of economic drivers will create more jobs, will create a bigger tax base and eventually lower all of our property taxes."
Voters in November will decide if visitors to El Paso hotels will pay for about 70 percent of the baseball stadium by increasing the Hotel Occupancy Tax by two percent. They'll also vote on the Quality of Life Bond, which will go toward massive zoo improvements, including a new aquatic center and new wildlife, a downtown arena, new parks and swimming pools around the city, a senior center, a hispanic heritage center, among other projects.
Other members of the PDNG include City Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly, State Rep. Dee Margo and the spouses of City Representatives Steve Ortega and Cortney Niland.
Mayor John Cook and City Manager Joyce Wilson are honorary members who don't vote on decisions.