Artist’s rendition of Mexican American Cultural Center, located at old entrance to Downtown Library | Photo Courtesy City of El Paso
On Tuesday, the leadership of my city broke my heart by approving the proposal to combine the Main Library and the Mexican American Cultural Center.
The majority of Council members, except for Alexsandra Annello and Peter Svarzbein, expressed how they were going to vote on this issue BEFORE there was one single public comment. That is NOT what I call listening to one’s constituents. Council reps doing that was shocking!
At that juncture, we probably should have all walked out, chanting “What’s the point?” But, hope springs eternal.
They had yet to hear letters written by presidents of both the National Library Association and the Texas Library Association, who were appalled that El Paso was doing this. They had yet to hear all the PhD’s who spoke, or the artists, teachers and single moms, or the passionate librarians, whose life’s work has been building that library!
A project had just been presented that will take over 40% to 45% of the Main Library, and the library folks were NOT even brought into the discussion until after the fact!
I commend MCAD’s presentation. Had any of that been discussed at the last minute called meeting on Thursday night, the attendees would have appreciated it. That meeting was the first time we knew of this proposal.
The Mexican American Cultural Center advocates had been in discussion with the city, but they thought it was a bad idea and opted out of continuing the conversation.
How did we get here?
The city kept repeating there had been conversations, charrettes, public input and meetings about this over the past six years. That’s true. I attended so many of them. However, a location for the Cultural Center at the Main Library was certainly never, ever presented.
My recollection of the time-line…. Citizens approved a bond issue for $220 million for three projects: a Children’s Museum, a Cultural Center, and a multi-use Performing Arts Center, without allocation of what monies went to which project.
Shortly thereafter, a firm that builds sports arenas was hired to do a study and develop a budget for the multi-use Performing Arts Center. A public meeting was held to hear their report. They determined that the budget would be $190 million, without including bonded indebtedness, nor any assumptions on which their “budget” was based.
After the presentation, a harried woman took the podium to continue about the other two projects. She embarrassedly stated that there would not be enough money left to build the children’s museum and the cultural center, so perhaps, we should “go back to the drawing board” or consider putting the two together under one roof.
This suggestion was not well received. It was at that exact point that MACI (Mexican-American Cultural Institute) was born.
Also, this was the moment when, as concerned citizens, we made a Big Mistake! We allowed that $190 million figure to become stuck in stone. Why didn’t we immediately get together with our City reps and leaders to discuss the ALLOCATION of the $220 million for the three projects?
How about a world class designed Mexican-American Cultural Center, a beautiful and compelling tourist attraction, that would knock the socks off of any other heritage cultural center in the world?! ($100 million) (The $5.7 million was strictly an arbitrary number from the beginning.)
An innovative Children’s museum for $50 million. Finally, $75 million (we’ll find an extra $5 mil to throw in) for the rehab of the Abraham Chavez.
All of this is water under the bridge, but it points to the fact that the money was there, and might still be.
Nothing happened for awhile. MACI kept pushing; the City kept thinking.
Then, there was a public hearing about the idea of adding a “bustle” onto the Abraham Chavez Theatre, with conceptual drawings and much excitement. However, costs proved prohibitive, so it was dropped. MACI started to weaken at that point, and the City kept thinking.
The City was rather stuck with the numbers. The bond approval forced the completion of three projects. The Children’s Museum had escalated to $60 million. That left $160 million for the Performing Arts venue, and “0” for the Cultural Center. Oh My! Back to thinking.
The City then decides: “We will apply $30 million to the Children’s Museum, let the private sector fund the other $30 million, and now we’re back to that magic $190 million for the Sports Center….oops! Performing Arts Center. But, we are still at “0” for the Cultural Center.”
Meanwhile, someone must have been mulling over the feasible, but rather desperate, idea of combining the Main Library with the M-A Cultural Center. The library needs some rehab. We can find a little more money, redesign a few things, pull in the Culinary Arts Dept. at EPPCC (seriously great collaborative idea) as well as build a recording studio (?) and offer other nice amenities, and, Voila! Problem solved.
Or is it? There was a masterful presentation about the upside; however, what about the downside? What kind of projected deficits will they run? How will the City deal with the emotional costs? the false perceptions? the disingenuousness? Losing the taxpayers’ trust is a big price to pay.
Our population is 80% to 85% Mexican American, and we voted for a Cultural Center that would honor the heritage of the majority of our population.
Is the decision to squash the library into 55% of its current space, and squeeze the Cultural Center into the rest of it, being made to save the taxpayers’ money in the long run? Was this an act of desperation, because the City could not find a better solution?
What if they “took over” the museums like that? Are these subjects that only the city folks get to discuss? The answer is probably, “Yes, because citizens do not wish to deal with the small print or the details. That’s what politicians, the City Manager and staff do.”
However, their job is also to analyze the information that comes before them, truly listen to constituents, and not become so set in their thinking that there’s no room for change. All that was being asked was simply to postpone the vote for two weeks to allow clarification and discussion about the issue!
On September 18th, the die was cast before the vote was taken. Over 100 people wasted at least 3 hours of their time. That’s minimally 300 hours of a most valuable commodity.
Jud Burgess, one of our most talented citizens, vehemently objected by saying: “This was a side show, a waste of time,” and he got arrested.
So much for leadership!
Author: Katherine Brennand
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