EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL # 8 Theories of Change

This came in from Jerry Kurtyka:

EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL

#8 Theories of Change

I promise, this will be my final screed here. When I managed the broadband project (BTOP) for the Library that was administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), NTIA provided regular webinars for us on timely topics of leadership related to the grant. Now, I’m no Uncle Sam fan but these people were pretty good and knew what they were about. The webinars were conducted by consultants and academics hired by NTIA for this purpose. One of the best was about how to evaluate the outcomes of your project. BTOP projects were large, expensive technology and education initiatives, so this was important.

NTIA emphasized having an evaluation plan so that you could identify measurable project objectives and lay out a plan of action to achieve your objectives. Between objectives and outcomes, they advised us to have a “theory of change,” a rationale for how your plan will bridge the divide between current and future desired states.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the city did that? Don’t quote the Plan El Paso because they only follow it in the breach. And, as for the so-called Strategic Plan facilitated by consultant Gilbert Moreno, well our CC identified things like Teamwork, Respect/Trust, Professionalism, Open Communications, City Growth/Prosperity, Transparency/Honesty as some of the outcomes to strive for. Am I alone here in seeing a disconnect between planned objectives and outcomes? They should have used the NTIA consultants who would have advised them to have a Theory of Change that I will henceforth refer to as a TOC, a reason why their objectives will be met from their planned actions. They obviously didn’t.

Let’s look back over the past ten years at some of the strategies proposed by the city to see if we can deduce a TOC in their conception, a city-building TOC. I can identify at least five such strategies here: Hipsters; Borderplex; New Urbanism; Field of Dreams; Trolley to Nowhere.

Hipsters. One of the first city-building strategies that I recall was when Wilson brought in Toronto urbanist Richard Florida, whom you may recall as the author of the 2002 best-seller, Rise of the Creative Class. This took some courage on her part and is to be commended. Basically, we were talking then about how to move the ambience here from what is essentially a pickup truck mentality to an urban hipster culture. Maybe she didn’t yet know how far down on Maslow’s Pyramid El Paso was then and still is. Florida’s TOC is that having a lot of knowledge-worker hipsters and gays is the key to prosperity, as shown by cities like San Francisco and Boston that have both in abundance and that leverage their knowledge economies. He identifies these people as scientists, engineers, university professors, poets, novelists, artists, designers, actors, entertainers, nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, analysts and opinion makers (i.e., educated Democrats) interacting in a milieu of talent, tolerance and technology. I’m guessing that we have a few of these types here who are probably looking to get out, like me. But this doesn’t look like any El Paso I’ve seen here in 20 years. This looks more like Santa Fe, a city of 70,000 that has a dozen bookstores compared to El Paso’s two Barnes & Noble stores for 700,000. Anyway, the only concrete action I am aware of to achieve hipster-dom here is the yet-to-be-finished art lofts in DTEP, hardly a TOC.

Borderplex. The next strategy to emerge came out of the Paso Del Norte Group (now Borderplex) that emphasized a regional focus to recruit so-called compatible industry clusters like the military, life sciences, tourism, manufacturing, business services, and logistics. IMHO, this strategy has a chance of working but I do not recall their articulating a TOC other than normal recruitment activities and tax incentives. If you recall, this was about the time that the city turned over its economic development effort to REDCO that was then rolled into the Borderplex after failing to produce results. The MCA and medical school are products of this effort and experienced a major setback this past year with the UMC-EPCH debacle. I do not know where Borderplex stands now but all we seem to get are call centers that, face it, are better than nothing. Another criticism of Borderplex is that this is pretty much what every other city is doing, so why should it succeed here versus Tulsa or Kansas City that have a lot more to offer in terms of educated and engaged citizens. The Borderplex strategy, if it succeeds, will give El Paso a working and a service class but I don’t think it will give us Richard Florida’s hipster class of cultural creatives. Still, it’s a living; even hipsters have to eat.

New Urbanism. This was another Wilson initiative back in 2012 that was handed to the city’s development director, Mathew McElroy. The idea was to implement new urbanist planning theories here that, basically, are about compacting the urban landscape to put housing closer to work and shopping, not easy in an area spread out 45 miles end-to-end like El Paso is. Really, new urbanism is the old urbanism pre-1950s before suburbs (i.e., safe places for white people). Back then you could ride a bus or even walk to work, school and shopping. El Paso trained its department heads and engineers in new urbanism principles and started to require that any design firm that wants to do capital work with the city has to have someone on the team accredited in new urbanism practices (is this why San Jacinto Plaza can’t seem to get done?). The Monticello developments you see on North Mesa embody new urbanism principles as do the DTEP residential lofts. It is a design strategy – a TOC – to create a more efficient city by applying these principles, not really an economic development strategy and it’s not very kid-friendly. I’m not sure where this is headed but it is criticized by bloggers David Karlsruhe and Martin Parades as “stack and pack,” which it kind of is.

Field of Dreams. I hesitate to beat the stadium dead horse more than it already has been beaten. The strategy was to revitalize DTEP with a AAA team that plays 70 nights a season here and the TOC was that the HOT would pay for it and the stadium would stimulate DTEP real estate development, too. We now know that the HOT idea was Mountainstar bait-and-switch. CC was so certain all this would happen that they delayed paying the bonds for another ten years, i.e., it’s a balloon payment, and told the CM not to issue them until after the election, adding $22M in interest to the total stadium cost. I think that only a few restaurants and clubs have opened, though Anson’s seems to be doing well and has good gringo fare, a rarity here. There certainly is some development downtown with two specialty hotels being renovated and you can’t argue that baseball has not been popular here. I don’t see much in the way of new businesses, however, it may be too early to tell. The biggest unintended consequence of the stadium was the catastrophic breach of trust between city government and its citizenry of which this blog is a prime example. Another consequence is the trickle-up effect (corporate welfare) to the team owners in the form of the public-funded services to the stadium.

Trolley to Nowhere. This may be the most egregious example of trickle-up economics here, surpassing even the stadium. This trolley is not a mass-transit strategy that is feasible only if it connects at least 20% of the workforce to their place of work, e.g., in Manhattan, not the case here. If the trolley were a transit strategy, it would run from the west side mall to UTEP to DTEP to Juarez, MCA and the east side malls. As it is, it circulates on a route already well-served by bus from DTEP to UTEP. So what is the trolley about? Easy answer – enhancing the value of the real estate along its route by creating a Disney World ambience and that only if it succeeds and doesn’t drain the city coffers even more. The Usual Suspects have their names all over this one. No wonder Cortney Niland was such a cheer leader for the trolley. I recall her trumpeting that these type projects have a “10:1 return.” 10:1 what? That’s what passes for a TOC in her mind because even the city has forecasted that it will run at a deficit. Maybe they think they’ll make it up on volume

Epilogue. These op-eds that Brutus has let me write over the last year have been a learning experience for me on issues of urbanism, El Paso politics and economics, and my own philosophy of cities. Clearly, I’m more of a libertarian cultural creative and prefer the ambience of book shops and coffee houses. But, like David and Martin, I appreciate the need for a cityscape that accommodates families and the elderly (of which I am now one) and that offers the ladders of social mobility to immigrants and graduates who want to live here and not have to leave for more opportunistic cities. I mean, if my hometown of Appleton WI had a good job waiting for me when I graduated college in 1969, I’d still be there because it was and is a great place to live and raise a family.

As a result of these op-eds, I have come to believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy or TOC for city-building but there is an organizing principle, that of focus – what is it you want to optimize, because you can’t optimize everything or you risk losing focus? An Aspen or a Carmel or a La Jolla optimizes ambience and services for tourists and wealthy residents, but not for their teachers, nurses and salon workers who cannot afford to live there. Houston optimizes opportunity – housing, employment and business -but at the cost of the environment, urban beauty, and convenience in that you have to get on a freeway for an hour to do anything. There’s no free lunch.

So, what is El Paso trying to optimize and does it make sense in the context of its capability? To me it seems that we tell ourselves it’s all good while we go about the real agenda of trickle-up economics, i.e., optimizing wealth creation for a donor class of investors, developers and builders at the expense of average homeowners, who see little in the way of job-creation and even less tax base offset for their contribution. It’s no wonder UTEP graduates leave their home town for greener pastures elsewhere. It is why El Paso grows, but doesn’t deepen and prosper.

If I were a dictator and could design my own capitol city, it would be on a scale somewhere between a Portland and a Houston, combining hipster ambience, environmental consciousness, economic dynamism, diversity, affordability and opportunity for all. Also, fresh seafood

Namaste

6 Responses to EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL # 8 Theories of Change

  1. BROWNFIELD says:

    Being isolated is an advantage for an airport. No other airports are poaching your catchment area. San Diego was once a N/S from ELP…was on a few of those flights with literally less than 50 pax on board. Once the DAL-ELP-SAN and the reverse died when Love was allowed longer flights doomed that one.

    Nice to see that government corruption continues to stifle growth in ELP. I still read the local blogs and do me one favor? Stop blaming the voters or lack of involvement in local issues by the voters. They know what futile is.

    As for me…living and working in Houston is like a dream. IAH Baby! Only airport in North America offering non stop to all inhabited continents on Earth.

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  2. Jerry K says:

    That would not explain the relatively better economies of Tucson and Albuquerque that are similarly isolated. At least El Paso is the bridge between Mexico and the US, that is also one of the major reasons it’s such a loser.

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    • Grounded says:

      It’s only one factor, but limited airline service is one more reason not to live, work, or do business here. I would disagree that Albuquerque is equally isolated. It’s ironic that so much money is being poured into our airport when connections are getting worse and I believe inbound traffic is down.

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    • Ah, but Tucson is close to Phoenix, a major population center. And, Albuquerque is not that comparable to El Paso. I was not thinking in terms of economies anyway. For that matter, how do we know that Albuquerque’s economy is that much better than ours?

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  3. Grounded says:

    Getting to and from El Paso by air is much harder, less convenient, and more expensive now than it was a year or two ago, due partly to the expiration of the Wright Amendment. Unless you are traveling just withinTexas or maybe to and from Phoenix, you now have fewer flight options. Some of those options take you way out of your way and often require multiple stops or connections.

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  4. Some very good points, but you seem to overlook the same major obstacle to real progress for El Paso, just as Council and all the advisory boards and citizens’ committees have done since forever. Plain and simple, and in one word: geography. Our location, so far off the beaten path, is going to forever keep us down, unless we develop something very, very unique, something to draw people this far off the beaten path. Consider, a lot of freight moves through here. But, that is the point. It moves through here, from somewhere else, to somewhere else. We lack access to so many things here, and we will always lack that access, simply because of geography. How many direct flights can you find out of El Paso that will get you to Portland, or Seattle, or La Jolla (or, any of a long, long list of places that have something unique to offer people)?

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