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Thursday , November 15 2018
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Op-Ed: The MACC/Library Issue

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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City Selects Downtown Library Location for Mexican American Cultural Center

On Tuesday, a bit more than week after being revealed to the public, City Council members voted on the Downtown Library as the site for the new Mexican American Cultural Center.

The Main Branch of the El Paso Public Library is located at 501 North Oregon Street, adjacent to the El Paso Museum of History.

According to city officials, the MACC will be located in the 40,000-square-foot wing of the Main Library that opened in 2007.

Via a news release, officials shared the following:

 “This site was selected following Council direction in October of 2017, to explore alternative sites for the Mexican American Cultural Center within the Downtown Arts District that would complement existing cultural assets and foster collaborative partnerships. Since then, staff explored a variety of sites in or adjacent to the Downtown Arts District, using the preferred amenities and programming needs previously articulated by the Mexican American Cultural Center Subcommittee to City Council. These included spaces for galleries, classrooms, a teaching kitchen, an auditorium and black box theatre as well as close proximity to public transportation and other cultural institutions.”

During public comment, several citizens spoke up against the new location, many asking for the vote to be postponed, as they felt the MACC was deserving of its own location.  Many were also dismayed at the rapid selection of the new site, and the reveal during a meeting on September 13th; community members protested at that meeting as well.

City Representatives  Alexsandra Annello (District 2) and Peter Svarzbein (District 1) voted to postpone the decision, however that failed and the vote proceeded.

When the vote to approve the location was made, opponents were upset, including former City Council candidate and local activist Jud Burgess, whose alleged outburst prompted police officers to physically remove him from Council Chambers, and later place him under arrest for what EPPD officials said was ‘resisting arrest and disturbing a public meeting.’

As for the decision, various city officials shared their enthusiasm about the project and the location.

“We’re thrilled to be able to launch another of the signature projects approved by 2012 voters. The approved site is primed for success dovetailing with so many public and private developments taking place in the Downtown Arts District. We can’t wait for a permanent facility to showcase the breadth and vitality of Mexican American cultural production,” said Tracey Jerome, Director of the City’s Museum and Cultural Affairs Department.

I have worked at the library for the past 24 years and I am excited about this opportunity to collocate with the MACC. This project will provide us with the resources to continue to expand and enhance our highly sought after programs and services,” said Norma Martinez, Assistant Director of Library Services.

City officials said that the Main Library “will receive upgrades to ensure all current services and amenities are maintained or enhanced with unique programs such as cultural literacy programs. Library amenities to be preserved include: stacks (books, periodicals and media); specialized children’s section, teen town, adult education space (computer lab/classroom); Border Heritage Center and archives, Friends of the Library Store, Tom Lea Mural, potential public co-working space, and library administration.”

“Close proximity to the El Paso Museum of History, the El Paso Museum of Art, ArtSpace El Paso and the site of the future El Paso Children’s Museum will help facilitate easy collaboration and partnerships,” officials added via a news release.

Once completed, the MACC will feature traveling and local exhibitions, dance and theatre programming, a recording facility and a culinary program.

The MACC is one three signature projects approved by voters as part of the 2012 Quality of Life Bond with an original project budget of $5.7 million.

City Proposes Integrating Mexican American Cultural Center into Downtown Library

On Tuesday, officials with the City of El Paso announced that they are considering integrating the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) into a 40,000 square foot wing of the Main Library located within the Downtown Arts District.

Via a news release, officials said the site proposed by the City of El Paso for the MACC “offers twice the amount of programmable space than the Abraham Chavez Theater at half the cost.”

“Main Libraries 100 years ago served a different function as the only choice in town. Cities throughout the country have taken the opportunity to re-imagine prime real estate/ architectural assets by incorporating new complimentary program opportunities and cultural assets into their library systems. The additional programming the MACC will provide will enhance our Library services while allowing the City to maximize its resources,” said Dionne Mack, Deputy City Manager, Public Safety and Support Services.

City staff began searching for an alternate location at Council’s request in late 2017. Council members will consider the alternate location for the signature bond project at its meeting on September 18, 2018.

“The plans for siting the MACC in the addition to the Main Branch presents incredible opportunities to amplify programming and services we offer to the community. Amenities like a broadcasting studio, archive reading rooms and teaching kitchens represent cutting edge practices that libraries across the U.S. are incorporating to engage new audiences,” said Mark Pumphrey, Library Director.

The City is hosting an open house on Thursday, September 13, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the El Paso Museum of History (510 N. Santa Fe) where the public can view preliminary ideas and concepts for the Mexican American Culture Center.

Included in the Tuesday news  release were the city’s reasons for the new, alternate site, including:

  • The alternate location doubles the usable space for the MACC compared to the 20,000 square feet that would have been available in the Abraham Chavez Theatre proposal. This option allows for a world-class cultural center that incorporates all the amenities and programs recommended by the public through extensive outreach efforts conducted over a period of five years.
  • The expanded space also allows for a programmable rooftop space, culinary experiences and a broadcast studio – all at less than half the cost of the Chavez site.
  • The MACC would also have access to the Chavez for larger theater productions when needed.
  • Co-locating the MACC at the Main Library will transform existing library offerings for 21st century-services.
  • The Main Library will retain its original 60,000 square foot building while receiving upgrades and reconfiguration to ensure all current services, including the children’s reading area, are maintained and even enhanced.

“The proposed site is primed for success dovetailing with so many public and private developments taking place in the Downtown Arts District. We can’t wait for a permanent facility to showcase the breadth and vitality of Mexican American cultural production,” said Tracey Jerome, Director of the City’s Museum and Cultural Affairs Department.

According to city officials, from the “earliest stages of planning in 2014, seeking shared space for the MACC was something City leadership and consultants felt made the most sense, given the budget of the MACC and the ambitious programming MCAD envisioned.”

“Selecting the Main Library returns to this model and will create a dynamic experience for visitors to the Arts District. Additionally, close proximity to the El Paso Museum of History, the El Paso Museum of Art, ArtSpace El Paso and the site of the future El Paso Children’s Museum will help facilitate easy collaboration and partnerships,” officials added.

The Tuesday afternoon release from the city goes on to say that, “although the City was not able to reach an agreement with the Mexican American Cultural Institute (MACI) to manage the MACC, leadership continued to work with MACI’s leadership to include them in the project.”

“As the plans to locate the MACC at the Library solidified, the City shared these plans with MACI’s leadership. They were in support of the project’s new direction. The City had continued to work with MACI to forge a relationship that would provide ongoing support for the MACC; however, they were unable to come together on an agreement that would be beneficial to both parties.”

The MACC is one of three signature projects approved by voters as part of the 2012 Quality of Life Bond.

City Provides Update on Mexican American Cultural Center Project

A fundraising strategy study commissioned by the City of El Paso to support the success of the fundraising effort for the proposed Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) and to create benchmarks for the project is complete.

The MACC is a one of three signature bond projects overwhelming approved by voters in 2012. The site for the center, the Abraham Chavez Theater, was approved by City Council in January 2016, at the recommendation of a subcommittee of the City’s Bond Oversight Advisory Committee (BOAC).

The original voter-approved budget for the project was $5.75 million.  The estimated cost, as of two years ago, to establish the MACC at the Abraham Chavez site was $34.6 million.

Council then accepted the site recommendation, contingent on the successful raise of pledged support in the amount of $20 million, made by the private sector group, Mexican-American Cultural Institute (MACI), which is comprised of some members of the Council-approved bond subcommittee for the project.

The fundraising strategy study findings were shared with City Council in executive session on September 19, 2017. The MACI leadership was provided with the study findings, two days later.

City staff and the study consultants, Lee + Associates, will meet MACI in October to review the findings.

BOND PROJECT BACKGROUND

In March 2015, at the direction of City Council a subcommittee of the Bond Oversight Committee (BOAC) was formed. The subcommittee was originally known as the Hispanic Cultural Center Subcommittee (HCC) and was later renamed the Mexican American Cultural Center Subcommittee (MACC).

The subcommittee was composed of 18 members (two appointees by Mayor and two appointees by each member of Council).   The subcommittee received administrative support from City Staff and met regularly in order to provide to Council recommendations on the following:

  • Size of the Hispanic Cultural Center
  • Appropriate budget for the construction of the Hispanic Cultural Center
  • Resources for enhancing existing budget
  • Facility program and amenities
  • Types of services to be offered within the Hispanic Cultural Center
  • Recommendations regarding funding opportunities
  • Recommendations regarding public/private partnerships
  • Means for fundraising
  • Recommendation regarding the name of the Hispanic Cultural Center
  • Recommendation regarding the general location of the Center

In October 2015, the subcommittee reported to Council on its final recommendations.  Council accepted all recommendations made by the subcommittee including the site recommendation of the Abraham Chavez Theatre and the name, Mexican American Cultural Center.  Council also directed City staff to complete a Programmatic Study exploring how to make this site work for the proposed project.  Study results were to be presented to Council in no more than 120 days from date assigned.

In order to provide focused, subject matter expertise and quality results in support of the project, two consultant groups, Quintanilla Schmidt Consulting and Carl Daniel/Franco/Saldana Architects, were commissioned to work together to develop the study.

In January 2016, the Programmatic Study exploring the Abraham Chavez Theatre as the site for the cultural center was presented to Council. The original voter-approved budget for the project was $5.75 million.  The cost to establish the cultural center at the Abraham Chavez site was $34.6 million.

Council accepted the site recommendation, contingent on the successful raise of pledged support in the amount of $20 million, made by the private sector group, Mexican-American Cultural Institute.

MACI, whose membership included nine of the eighteen members who also served on the Council-appointed bond subcommittee, had previously stepped forward, fully advocating for the location of the MACC at the Chavez Theatre site.

The group also expressed its desire to partner with the City in a public-private partnership in order to realize the creation of the cultural center at the Chavez Theatre site, including a pledge to raise $20 million in additional funding needed to meet the costs of the conversion of the site.

Council-then also directed:

  • City staff to transition work on the Project from the MACC Subcommittee to MACI, once MACI was formally incorporated as a non-profit.
  • City staff to create benchmarks to align $20 million MACI fundraising pledge with the MACC project development.

Following Council direction and in order to support the success of the fundraising effort, a fundraising strategy study was commissioned.  Consultants, Lee + Associates, were contracted to provide subject matter expertise to develop the study.

In January 2017, the consultancy contract was approved by Council.

In September 18, 2017, the consultants, presented the study findings to BOAC, and they presented them to Council the following day. Both presentations were made in executive session. MACI received the presentation via email on September 20, 2017, and were also provided access to hard copies of the full report on that day.  The next day, the MACI leadership collected the hard copies of the full report.

In October 2017, City staff and study consultants will meet with MACI board members to review the study findings.