Blue Flame Building, The Albatross that is Downtown Redevelopment

The Blue Flame building is the perfect example of the idiocy of downtown redevelopment through government funded flights of fancy. As soon as the government took over the building it went from a well-known piece of downtown history to a building that changed hands from the government to a criminal to the latest downtown poster boy.

The 15-floor Blue Flame Building is the sixth largest building of El Paso’s seven skyscrapers. According to initial media reports in 2012, the Blue-flame building was being mentioned as a possible site for City Hall. It is owned by Paul Foster, one of the proponents of the downtown arena and an investor in the baseball team slated to make its home there. But soon everyone realized what an albatross the building really is.

In 1996, the El Paso Natural Gas Co. left the Blue Flame Building. They changed their name to El Paso Corp. and relocated to Houston. On their way out they unloaded the building and most-likely took a tax write-off by giving it to the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD). This was the last time the building had a significant impact upon the community of El Paso. As soon as EPISD accepted it became property-tax exempt and a burden to the taxpayer’s of the community.

Proponents of downtown development have always championed the notion that once you move in a large group of people then investment in downtown will follow. EPISD moved in a bunch of people and then promptly moved them out because putting people downtown does not stimulate the downtown economy. Even Paul Foster, who is a champion of downtown redevelopment, is currently an investor in the baseball team expected in the new arena and an owner of various buildings downtown sees the futility of this and sends a significant portion of his employees to Phoenix.

In a March 29, 1999, a performance review of El Paso Independent School District by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts provided the following data about the Blue Flame Building.  The school district was spending approximately $200,000 a year in leased space. When El Paso Natural Gas offered the Blue Flame building the school district assumed it would save taxpayer funds, although the business community warned them it would not. The building had a replacement value of $17 million. After spending $2.1 million in renovations the school district spent $637,078 during the 1997-98 school year in maintenance and upkeep. In addition to the renovations, the El Paso Independent School district $2 million to buy parking space for its employees.

In December 2000, the voters rejected a $398 million bond. Some in the community speculated that the votes rejected the bond request because of the general sense that EPISD was financially mismanaged. The Blue Flame building was a constant irritant to the voters.

By early January 2001, EPISD started to abandon the Blue Flame building in a cost-cutting effort. EPISD employees were relieved to be out of downtown.

During a January 22, 2001 El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees meeting, after much discussion about moving the last 137 employees out of the building, Richard Telles made a motion “that the Board allow six months for the Blue Ribbon Committee to make recommendations to the Board on uses for the Blue Flame Building (Education Center-Downtown), with an interim report to be brought back to the Board in three months”. The motion passed unanimously.

The proponents of downtown redevelopment were making a last-ditch effort to keep EPISD invested in the building so that they could see their vision materialize.

With much fanfare, Bob Jones who in his words was hoping to spur downtown development purchased the Blue Flame Building for $1.63 million in 2004. He spent $1 million on the Mills Building.

Interestingly, it turns out that Bob Jones was a consultant for Franklin Land and Resources, Inc., a subsidiary of El Paso Electric that purchased, renovated and lost over $36 million in the Cortez and the Paso Del Norte hotels, before the electric company finally did away with them when they filed for bankruptcy. Part of Evern Wall’s gift to El Pasoans in the high electric rates they pay. This experience made Bob Jones the perfect developer to spur downtown proudly proclaimed the business community.

By May 2006 Bob Jones, facing various criminal allegations, sold his two building to Paul Foster for an undisclosed amount.  According to media reports, the proceeds of the sale of the buildings went to pay off some of Jones’ debts involving a failed hospital boutique. In February 2011, Bob Jones was sentenced to jail.

And now, in 2013 we are once again facing the latest prospect of having El Paso taxpayers fund another downtown revitalization program for another visionary. And once again, the making of a fiasco is in the works. The Blue Flame building, once a jewel of downtown, still sits barren and empty because it isn’t good enough for city hall. I wonder why?