La Zona Chismosa: Part II- Wearing out the Whetting Stone
by Jenni Burton
Posted on April 5, 2007
I spent the better part of the last two weeks on foot interviewing some of the most promising Downtown business owners about the Empowerment Zone Corporation and their experiences in obtaining (or not as the case may be) loans and other public assistance. I do not have the space this week to post all of my interviews, but here are a few of those responses edited for brevity, clarity and- in the case of Park Kerr- colorful language. I know, “What happened to Jenni the potty mouth?” Well, kids…there are some words even I won’t repeat.
Morris Pittle: Owner/ Copywriter/ Ad Director Two Ton Creative
“[Obtaining an Empowerment Zone Loan] was very process heavy, which was expected. I don’t expect any organization, which provides financing options to be less than at least reasonably process driven. We went through a tremendous amount of paperwork, and had several discussions, before we found out that we just didn’t qualify based on their charter- or whatever you want to call it. We went through this whole thing. We had this really great product. They saw the whole conceptual level of Downtown revitalization. Revitalizing the Zone. We just didn’t qualify. And I don’t remember the specifics. I didn’t have enough percentage of people working here living in the Zone. And it was brought up to me one time, this is horrible, hire somebody to clean your office that lives in the Zone. And it was suggested that we make an attempt at that. And quite frankly that defeats the purpose. I really try to function as lean and efficiently as possible. Everything from using an automated receptionist instead of hiring somebody to do that, to us cleaning our own office. Our model is one of efficiency. It needs to be. We’re trying to be. I don’t remember specifically that there was something in the nature of our product and how it relates to the zone. I work in an intellectual based product…
“…I think you have to have a perception of the whole picture, the big picture and then work contrary to that. I don’t think that there’s big picture thinking going on there. So I would say that they just didn’t take the time or take the effort…I don’t know how everybody feels about Richard Florida- I know that there’s mixed feelings. I know that his concepts and his ideas have been brought to El Paso. We fit within his model, perfectly, ideally- for better or worse. I for one think that everything taken in moderation and then digested is the proper way to look at all situations…If the Empowerment Zone could physically come down here and see that beyond that; we have people coming in almost on a nightly basis who are recording music here, or we have artists coming in. Just the other day we needed some painting done and we brought guys in who lived in the Zone. When we did Shapleigh, we hired people from the Zone. It’s not like I don’t, I just don’t have them on payroll. So once again it comes down to shortsightedness, or an inability to see the bigger picture. My business model is very progressive based on the traditional ad agency model. Nationally this is the trend. This is what companies are doing in order to survive. So I think that the Empowerment Zone needs to stop and take a look at- I don’t think it’s possible for them to look at every situation individually, but I think they need to be a little bit more open to specific cases… ‘Is this one that we should review?’
“But if I step back and look at the bigger picture and think philosophically about it, it gets under my skin…It was not accessible, it was not proactive, it was what it was, and had we gotten it I would have been thrilled.”
Rollo Urbina: Owner- Lobby Coffee/ Barrio Skate Shop:
“My experience was really short with the Empowerment Zone. About a year ago…I was reaching a point where I really wanted to optimize my sales and I needed a little capital to get a stronger inventory. I’m kind of a simple man and I don’t have many assets that I can use as collateral to get money. I started digging around and I found out about the Empowerment Zone…At the time I approached the Empowerment Zone with my friend Gabe. At the time my friend Gabe was the owner of the Crescent Moon Café, which is now Lobby Coffee [which Rollo now owns in partnership]. We both thought that we had a great business plan and that these people would help us out. Now in my particular case…I kind of gave (Phyllis) a rough idea of what I was trying to do, where I was located and who I employed. And she started asking me how much money do you want, she really thought she had to break it down the process to me. You know, what a government subsidy was and how the capital worked. It really wasn’t necessary. I really believe in a lot of ways that I was being talked down to…Not too many people exactly sell skateboards and stuff. To somebody in their middle years…the idea of selling skateboards and selling the whole scene to the kids is something unfeasible- they don’t see money in that. In particular, I was only trying to apply for three or four thousand dollars to jump start a shoe inventory, and when I talked to the lady at the Empowerment Zone she told me that, ‘We’re looking to lend out more.’ She really didn’t think that what I had going on was something that she was interested in…
“…I started asking around about who got turned down, and who got money. And once again, it wasn’t about the future of Downtown. It was about who was in this inner circle of friends…I don’t think this is libel. I don’t think this is slander on my part. Evidence has been printed out in the El Paso Times. The lady definitely belittled my ideas. ‘Selling skateboards?’…Somebody who sees the particular market that I do, that’s hard to capitalize…
“…I’ve had moms, I’ve had dads, I’ve had teachers, I’ve had grandmas come by my shop and cry. And they say, ‘You have been a huge change in my kid’s life. If you can do it, they can do it.’ Teachers around the neighborhood ask me to come talk to their kids, ‘It’s the Barrio Skate Shop Guy…’ I’m Mr. Downtown. I don’t live on the Westside. I don’t come in from the Eastside. I don’t live out there and then come in here to work and make money and then leave. And I want to work here. I’ve been doing this consciously for the last five years planning this out.
“It upsets me that these people won’t look at me twice. But their willing to lend out money to the party boy from whatever side of town he is, to open up a bar to get me drunk to get over the fact that I didn’t get the money. There’s something wrong with that. How are you empowering me by opening up a bar next to where I live? You’re not empowering me….You’re taking me further down a spiral.”
W. Park Kerr: Owner- El Paso Chile Company:
“As an entrepreneur, I feel that an organization such as the Empowerment Zone is beyond critical and vital to El Paso. We need to encourage and facilitate the next generation of entrepreneurs of El Paso, because there are very bright and talented men and women here who are dying on the vine.
“And what the Empowerment Zone represented to me was a financial vehicle so that the next Park Kerr or the next Trey Apodaca or the next George Cisneros could go to the EZ with a weird idea, and they would help set themselves up for business and set them up for success.
“My bad experience was a very strange experience. We asked them to give us a six month loan to put a new roof on the building across the street from the El Paso Chile Company. Our vision was to turn our building on Texas Street into a design studio- and let me define that. We have employed graphic design students from UTEP to come work at the design department of the Chile Company.
“Our vision was to move all of our design across the street: graphic art, marketing, advertising as well as industrial design across the street. We were not looking for a loan or a grant. We just needed a quick loan for some repairs. That request was denied. Let me tell you what that request meant for El Paso. When a graphic designer starts, that intern might make $10 and hour. We have to keep our talent in El Paso. And the only way to turn on students graduating from the University of Texas at El Paso- and these students are extremely talented, but they leave because this is the land of no opportunity. So by employing them here, hopefully they’ll open their own little agencies or have experience with El Paso Chile and move on to Mithoff Partners or Laster Group or Two Ton Creative. And plus employing designers who are making $25, $35, $50 thousand a year- these are middle class people who are buying houses and paying taxes. But we were declined that short term loan for no good reason except that sadly the Empowerment Zone was run as Phyllis Rawley’s bizarre personal fiefdom.
“We are often approached by entrepreneurs with weird ideas, and I refer them to the Empowerment Zone. I tell them, “Go to Empowerment Zone. Get a grant. Start your business.” They turn down everything. They turned down a group of artists looking for a $250 grant to have an art happening Downtown, and they declined that. That’s Miguel Bonilla at the Shine Gallery. That kind of stuff is just hellacious, and then they throw away $300,000 on those ridiculous street festivals? That kind of seed money, divided up…who is the next Park Kerr? How do we find him and how do we keep him here?
“The bigger picture of the Empowerment Zone is economic development, and we have to develop our entrepreneurs…We need to fund our creative class in El Paso. The issue is succeed or fail. It’s about creating a scene. So there are a few new galleries downtown, a boutique movie theatre- it makes El Paso more fun, and it keeps our creative class here. Losing our Creative Class is a huge problem for El Paso. They end up leaving here or dying on the vine. Or they take some horrible job somewhere and stop painting, stop sculpting, or writing poetry, or playing music. We need them because it makes this city more fun….
“…And as an El Pasoan, I feel that the financial mismanagement and the rape of the Empowerment Zone is criminal. And I feel that Phyllis Rawley and her board of directors should be fully investigated and indicted. The most surprising thing to me is that somebody gave her a job. The only job she should have should be washing dishes in the Federal penitentiary.
“Phyllis had one good idea, and that was to do a street festival on Texas Street. You get a street festival, and you build it and they will come. All kinds of people walking up and down Texas Street- looking at the buildings, thinking oh, how cool…looking at the possibilities. When people went to the Empowerment Zone after that, and started talking about how, “Oh I want a chopper shop here.” The answer was no. “Oh, I want a gallery.” The answer was no…She shut these people down and sent them off and turned them away unless they were cronies of hers. There was a tremendous amount of cronyism there. How do we get that money back?”
“I suggested to Phyllis that she put together a group of entrepreneurs, half men- half women, and when someone has a great idea they don’t pitch a banking committee, because money is a whore’s business. It’s not interesting. But they pitch a committee of entrepreneurs. You know, people like Morris or Nancy Laster- public relations people, people who are smart. So if you have an idea you approach this committee…don’t go to the banks…go to this committee and pitch this committee. Part of this is going to be- your mentor is ‘Park Kerr’, and he’s going to fast track you for success. Or you want to be in the blue jean business- oh great- Cesar Viramontes will fast track you for success, and he will help you get your product on the market tomorrow. Set our El Pasoans up for success, so they can buy homes, buy cars, stay in El Paso, and make it cool. She took one look at me, and (sighs in exasperation).”
I’ll let you all digest this all. Next week: analysis, and counterpoint.
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