GUEST COLUMN

Downtown eyesore persists

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We are rapidly approaching the midway point in yet another year. Local media carry news stories about the future of the City of Las Cruces and its new budget, its new strategic plan for the next five years, proposed funding to continue renovation of the historic Amador Hotel and other ongoing plans to revitalize Downtown. But, oddly enough, there’s been zero mention of the persistent “elephant in the room” sitting at the southern gateway to Downtown Las Cruces.

Anyone who has lived in Las Cruces for more than a decade, and even relative newcomers like myself, have gotten an eyeful of the partially completed, two-story skeletal steel, concrete blocks and slump brick monstrosity that looms over one of the city’s busiest intersections at South Main and Amador. Former Councilman Jack Eakman dubbed the building at 430 S. Main Street the “eyesore of District 4.” Ironically, the hulking structure and surrounding property purchased in 2008 by El Paso developer John Hoffman from the county sits directly across the street from the offices of the handsome, new Convention and Visitors Bureau tasked with promoting tourism in Las Cruces and its resurging downtown district.

City officials and city council members have come and gone in the ensuing years, trying in a number of false starts to work with the owner and his representatives to issue building permits and see that city codes are followed in the property’s development. Hoffman ultimately became so frustrated with building code requirements that he ceased development plans and signed a long-term lease with the non-profit Las Cruces Community Partners (LCCP), headed by local developer Bob Pofahl, to handle the property. City officials have stated they never have seen a copy of the lease agreement.

A local news story printed in 2019 reported that LCCP, which had acquired a 50-year lease of the property from Hoffman, had planned as far back as 2017 to convert the incomplete structure and surrounding property into a restaurant, office space and a retail complex. But lack of progress on the project led to the expiration of two building permits.

A Bulletin story in August 2018 reported that the city council had authorized then-City Manager Stuart Ed to begin negotiations with Hoffman to purchase the property. However, Ed was quoted as saying those efforts were thwarted because the owner and lessee had refused to allow access to the property to the city’s appraiser. However, subsequent emails between Hoffman’s representatives obtained through an Inspection of Publication Records Act request indicate that arrangements were ultimately made for city reps to access the property.

More recently, emails show that Mayor Pro Tem Kasandra Gandara in late 2020 met with Pofahl, who had been in discussion with a local retailer interested in converting the shell of a building into a bicycle shop, taproom and coffee shop. What transpired from that meeting is unknown.

What I do know is that my entreaties to receive up-to-date information from Mayor Ken Miyagishima and District 4 Councilor Johana Bencomo have been deflected with obfuscation and excuses about why nothing has been done. The mayor told me in an email that the city had something in the works with the property owner, but that Covid-19 interrupted plans for a face-to-face meeting. He has pledged the city will be “open and transparent” about handling the Hoffman property conundrum. Really? Bencomo said in an email the city’s hands are tied since the “city does not have an ordinance to compel private property owners to finish or remove a business, unless it’s a threat to public safety.” The developer has secured his middle finger salute to Las Cruces with ugly chain link fencing to deter trespassers.

I was hopeful with the city’s hiring of Ifo Pili as the new city manager that a conclusion to this long-running nightmare might finally be at hand. We shall see. Pili has tasked Assistant City Manager Eric Enriquez, who oversees the city’s Fire, Community Development and Public Works departments, with tackling the District 4 eyesore situation. That’s good news. However, the bad news is: as of June 14, when I spoke with Enriquez, he showed he knows little about the situation. However, he assured me he would talk with the Community Development Department director and city’s legal department to start “gathering the history” about 430 S. Main St.

“This is something I will take on,” Enriquez said. “Win, lose or draw. I will tackle it. If we need to change things, we will.”

When asked if the city council has taken the advice of former councilman Eakman and adopted a new ordinance to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future, Enriquez responded in the negative. Enriquez said he will be looking at whether the solution perhaps lies within the city’s existing family of codes or with property maintenance, public nuisance or vacant properties ordinances.

“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Enriquez said. “I need to see what the plan was and what’s going on. You’ve got blight. We need to take care of the blight. No excuses. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

So, what’s it costing Hoffman to poke Las Cruces in the eye? According to county tax records, the El Pasoan paid just a little more than $3,000 in 2020 on property valued in 2016 at $265,800.

But what is the “District 4 eyesore” costing Las Cruces citizens for aesthetically marring the look of the southern gateway to Downtown and retarding Downtown revitalization? After 13 years, it’s priceless.

I certainly hope Enriquez will succeed where others have failed the public all these years due to staff turnover, bureaucratic strictures and what appears to be a sheer lack of political will to slay this elephant. The time for resolution is way past due. Please do something! Employ eminent domain. Declare the property a public nuisance and take legal action if necessary. Time’s a wastin’ and my eyes are mighty “sore.”

Rob McCorkle is a former wire editor, newspaper reporter and magazine writer, and served as a media relations specialist at UTEP and several Texas state agencies during his career. He and his wife retired here in 2016.