El Paso will play ball in 2014 -- if Mayor John Cook doesn't strike the deal with his veto authority.
"We're very happy, very excited for El Paso and don't believe the mayor will veto this project," said local businessman and philanthropist Paul Foster of MountainStar Sports Group, the private investment group bringing the Tucson Padres to El Paso. "We're moving forward."
After more than six hours of passionate public discussion Tuesday, the City Council approved a contract with MountainStar for the lease of the $50 million ballpark that will be built Downtown and house the Triple-A minor league team.
Cook left the council chambers immediately after the approval and would not comment on whether he plans to veto the vote. Under the citycharter, he has five days to do so. Three-fourths of the representatives -- six of the eight -- could vote to override his veto.
More than 100 people spoke in favor of or in opposition to the ballpark, which the council in June agreed to build where City Hall now stands if MountainStar Sports secured a team. The June action was challenged by a certified petition, which asked that the vote be rescinded, but the council voted down that option Tuesday.
Instead, the council voted 4-3 in favor of approving the contract, after which the audience erupted in cheers, high-fives and congratulatory handshakes. A few opponents still in the room promised that their fight against the ballpark and the demolition of City Hall wasn't over.
City Reps. Ann Morgan Lilly, Susie Byrd, Dr. Michiel Noe and Cortney Niland voted in favor of the contract. Reps. Eddie Holguin, Carl Robinson and Emma Acosta voted against it. Rep. Steve Ortega was on his honeymoon and did not attend the meeting, but he had expressed his support for the project from the beginning.
The Pacific Coast League on Tuesday told MountainStar it had approved the sale, transfer and relocation of the Tucson team to El Paso for the 2014 season with conditions,including that the city agreed to move forward with the lease and ballpark construction.
Tuesday, the council cemented the deal with the MountainStar group by approving the lease contract.
The 25-year lease carries a base rent of $20,000 a year, with an increase of 10 percent every five years. The lease also calls for a 50-cent ticket surcharge for the city, with a 10 percent increase every five years. The city will also receive $24,000 a year with a 10 percent increase every five years, with other parking revenues split between the city and MountainStar.
The contract also calls for the originally proposed no-compete clause to be removed. That means the El Paso Diablos, who now lease the city-owned Cohen Stadium, can continue to play there past 2016 if the city extends their lease.
Also Tuesday, the council approved a ballpark development agreement that establishes a process and schedule for the design and construction of the ballpark, as well as a nonrelocation agreement that keeps the team in El Paso for at least 25 years and sets penalties if the team is relocated.
The council also approved an $81 million City Hall Relocation and Ballpark Capital Improvement Plan, which sets into motion the purchase of buildings into which city offices will be moved, allocates money for the move and identifies funding sources for the plan. The $81 million includes the cost of the ballpark construction.
The proposed purchase of the El Paso Times building and another on Texas Avenue were postponed, although the City Council accepted Foster's donation of the Luther Building. City Manager Joyce Wilson said the city is still working out what offices will move where, but she added that the move is now expected to happen in March and that demolition and construction would follow soon after.
Moving forward, MountainStar now expects to receive approval from Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball, which in essence is a rubber-stamp approval of the Pacific Coast League's recommendation, officials said. That approval could come within a few days, MountainStar investors said.
The majority of opponents who spoke during Tuesday's meeting said they supported a ballpark, but wanted the opportunity to vote on the stadium and where it should be located. Saying they believed the process skirted the democratic process, some opponents threatened to recall those elected officials who voted in favor of demolishing City Hall to make room for the ballpark.
"This will cause irreparable harm to Downtown El Paso," said former County Commissioner Charlie Hooten.
Many said that they didn't believe the expense of relocating city offices and the Insights El Paso Science Museum was financially prudent, and some advocated still for Cohen Stadium to be renovated to accommodate the new team.
Foster said he believes the city, including those who opposed the deal, will be happy with the ballpark, the team and the economic boost they will bring to the city and Downtown.
First, he said, the excitement over Triple-A baseball must translate to ticket sales.
"The city needs to support it, we gotta fill seats, we gotta sell tickets, promotions, season tickets, all those things," Foster said. "When we do that, the rest will follow."
Those in favor of the ballpark shared an array of views, speaking for progress, revitalization, economic development opportunities -- and hope for the future.
Veronica Soto, executive director of the Downtown Management District, said the taxing district that works to improve the Downtown area strongly supported the ballpark and the November bond propositions.
Soto couldn't hold back her tears as she spoke to the council on a personal note.
"My most important title is spelled M-O-M," she said. "And as a mother, I would love for this city to be a viable option for my children when they grow up. I want them to have the same opportunities here that they would have anywhere else."
Josh Hunt, one of the MountainStar partners, said baseball "means quality, affordable family entertainment for El Paso," and he added that the level of baseball and entertainment at the ballpark is something El Paso has never had.
His father, Woody Hunt, focused more on the bigger picture, saying the ballpark is just one component in what's needed to provide economic development for the city.
"We have to look at the medical school, the children's hospital and other assets to improve our community," the senior Hunt said. "It doesn't end here."
Cindy Ramirez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6151.
About the veto
According to the city charter, Mayor John Cook has until Sunday to exercise his veto power. Here is the section of the city charter that pertains to a mayor's veto:
-- Veto. Ordinances and resolutions finally adopted by the Council shall be filed in the office of the City Clerk and signed by the Mayor before they take effect. If the Mayor vetoes the ordinance or resolution, reasons shall be set forth by the Mayor in writing, and the ordinance or resolution with those reasons shall be returned to the Council. However, the Mayor shall not have any veto power over any City Council action which removes the City Manager. To override the Mayor's veto, three fourths of all of the Representatives must vote in favor of the returned ordinance or resolution, in which event the adopted ordinance or resolution shall become law. If the Mayor shall either fail to approve or object in writing to any adopted ordinance or resolution within five days after it has been filed with the City Clerk, exclusive of the day of filing, it shall become law."