Mall subsidy a close call, says new County Commissioner Gandara
by Sito Negron
Posted on January 30, 2009
New El Paso County Commissioner Willie Gandara, who may be the swing vote for the Farah building mall development tax abatement proposal, would not tip his hand late Friday, saying he still was gathering information.
The lobbying at the county was fierce, with project developer West Miller of Regency, which is partnering with Paul Foster on the proposal, reportedly working the commissioners. On the other side, Artemio de la Vega, developer of the Las Palmas shopping center in East El Paso, was lobbying against the proposal.
Miller could not be reached for comment.
De la Vega said that all the reasons to oppose the project still stood: The downgrading of the project from when it first was proposed as a "high-end" mall to the current proposal, a standard strip center, albeit with landscaping and building variations to give it a unique look, and "lifestyle amenities"; and the potential for the project to use the tax abatements as a financial cushion that would allow it to steal tenants from other shopping centers.
Friday, he added another reason -- the shaky economy.
"It makes no sense to subsidize a development when we have this shaky economy," he said, noting a Dec. 22 story in the Wall Street Journal outlining how commercial developers were among the groups seeking help from Washington, D.C. In addition, he said, retailers such as Circuit City are closing stores around the nation and in El Paso, including in his Las Palmas center.
"The bottom line is we have to backfill vacant spaces and we're having a harder time doing it because of this ghost shopping center," he said.
Miller has said that the mall would be unique among El Paso's retail clusters, and argued that detailed safeguards in the agreement would protect the city and county from tax losses. De la Vega and other critics have argued the agreement offers no true protection to existing retailers and will leave empty buildings and spaces in malls and strip centers.
The project, approved by the City Council, went before the county once already and failed. Miller at the time said the project was dead if it didn't involve both city and county subsidies, and it was widely expected that the project would be brought back before the Commissioners Court once two new commissioners, Anna Perez and Gandara, took office Jan. 1.
There presumably are two votes in favor of the development, those of County Commissioner Veronica Escobar, who was the lone vote in favor last time around and who Friday sent a newsletter stating her reasons for supporting the project, and Perez.
"If the developer can make the deal work, they'd have to make the investment first, and per the 381 agreement, they'd be reimbursed only after costs are analyzed," Escobar wrote.
Commissioner Dan Haggerty missed the previous vote, and County Judge Anthony Cobos voted against the project.
Gandara declined to be specific about what his questions were Friday, providing general statements such as "at the end of the day we're looking at creating jobs, how will we better serve our community?" and "you're looking at how do you make lives of constituents better, and in my district how to bring down property taxes."
He said when asked if there was any particular detail in which he was interested that "if one thing is not working in the best interest of constituents it's got a domino effect."
When told it was late Friday afternoon, and asked how late he expected staff to be available to answer questions and analyze the issue, he said, "We've got the keys to this place so … since I've taken office my staff has been here until 8-9 at night.
"I wanted to come in and take baby steps and (learn to) crawl, but in this case we're being forced to run."
For background on the issue:
-- City, Foster-Regency sign Farah Building shopping center subsidy contract: The execution of the contract likely means that the developers plan on going back to the county after January, when two new members of the Commissioners Court take over. Posted Nov. 6, 2008
-- Downed deal: County votes against tax rebates for Foster-Regency mall: “We’re not doing anything now. There won’t be a shopping center built. Until we get an incentive that we can live with that we’ve requested from the city and county, we cannot go forward. We wish we could but we cannot.” -- Regency's West Miller. Posted Oct. 13, 2008
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