EL PASO, Texas - El Paso City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a massive land swap deal with the goal of bringing a Great Wolf Lodge hotel and resort to Northwest El Paso.
The City will acquire 44 acres of private land in Northwest near I-10 in exchange for than 2,300 acres of public-owned land in Northeast El Paso. The private land in Northwest El Paso, valued at $18.6 million, is owned by businessman Paul Foster.
Concerned government watchdogs are asking: what if Great Wolf Lodge decides not to come to El Paso?
Officials with the City's economic development department told ABC-7 both sides have nine months to pull out of the deal, but Great Wolf has not indicated it wants to pull out.
"We're confident we are moving in the right direction," said Jessica Herrera, the City of El Paso's director of economic development, "The benefit of this project is two-fold. If we are able to secure Great Wolf Lodge and they break ground on the 44 acres, then we have a win for our region. At the same time, there is also an opportunity to kick-start development in the Northeast."
Mayor Dee Margo said the city comes out ahead if the land swap proceeds, even if Great Wolf Lodge were to pull out. He says the City gets 44 acres of developed, prime real estate in the Northwest, right off the interstate.
Herrera echoed the mayor's sentiment. "The land near I-10 and Paseo del Norte (the 44 acres) will still be very attractive for the City to develop, should that opportunity with (Great Wolf Lodge) not happen," she said.
Margo and Herrera both said the land exchange is expected to increase development within the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) in the Northeast. Funds from that TIRZ would be allocated for infrastructure improvements within that district, including Angora Loop, a highway project in Northeast El Paso.
"In order to be able to fund the Angora Loop within the TIRZ, you need development to happen within the TIRZ. Right now, both the north and southbound tracts are undeveloped and vacant. So, once you break ground, you generate money and you invest that money in (the undeveloped Northeast land)," Herrera explained.
Some local real estate experts are also concerned the public-owned land in the Northeast will be exchanged for far less than what it was appraised in 2007. According to an article in the El Paso Times, the land was appraised at $23,000 an acre in 2007. Now that the City wants swap the land with Foster, the public-owned land was appraised at $8,000 an acre.
A spokesman for the City says El Paso Water Utility hired two separate appraising agents who came up with the lower appraisal price.
Herrera told ABC-7 she could not speak to the appraisal in 2007 because she was not with the City at the time.
"I can speak to the appraisals that the water utility recently commissioned (for the public-owned land in Northeast) ... we factored in the $8,000 an acre, which is the higher appraisal we received," Herrera said, "Keep in mind, that land is not developed. There are no utilities. It is not visible and there are no significant developments nearby."