Is it too late to save the stacks?

Debate revives over fate of Asarco towers

By David Crowder / El Paso Inc. staff writer

Plans are in the works to demolish the 826-foot-tall smoke stack at the old Asarco smelter next February.

But there’s a late move afoot to stop the demolition and try to save the site’s two remaining smokestacks.

“It’s going to take a groundswell to stop it,” said Robert Ardovino, owner of Ardovino’s Desert Crossing Restaurant in Sunland Park, N.M. “There’s a multitude of people who might be interested in seeing it stay up and finding a way to make money.”

Ardovino was involved in the fight with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to prevent the Asarco copper smelter from reopening.

Now, with that fight won, he thinks it’s time for El Paso to think hard about preserving at least one of the towering landmarks.

“We need time to discuss it. We don’t need a February date to blow it up,” he said.

Ardovino said others who have joined the push to delay the demolition include state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, City Council members Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega, and Gary Sapp, president of Hunt Development.

Woody Hunt, former chair of the University of Texas System board regents and the head of Hunt Companies Inc., would also like to see the process slowed down.

Hunt said he supports letting El Pasoans consider the alternatives to demolition, which would include looking at what other cities have done to turn old industrial sites into attractions.

“A lot of us, including myself, certainly have a sense that we should at least have a community discussion because once it is down, it is down,” he said. “That is what is really being raised here.

“Before the dynamite goes off, let’s think of all of that, and I am certainly supportive of that.”

The 400-acre Asarco property is tied up in bankruptcy court, and the trustee in charge of planning the February demolition is Robert Puga.

“My charge was to knock everything on the property down,” Puga said. “There was never a provision to preserve anything on the site.”

Two stacks have already come down and work goes on daily clearing the site for an eventual sale and redevelopment.

But Puga will propose preserving Asarco’s original adobe administration building, the brick structure that was the plant’s powerhouse, and the base of the towering stack that still bears the name of the former smelter.

Going through with the demolition as planned would cost about $1 million, which would come from the $52 million budgeted for cleaning up the site, he said.

$14 million

Saving the tallest stack would cost an estimated $14 million to bring it up to federal standards for possible seismic activity, insuring it and maintaining lighting required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“I can’t use the trust resources to do it, so someone else, the city or county, would have to step up and show they have the capacity to do it,” Puga said.

“Last year, I said I’ll give the community a year to come back to me with that proposal. Well, it’s been more than a year and no one came forward,” he said. “So, I went ahead with my demolition plans.”

At a Nov. 3 community meeting at the El Paso Public Library in Downtown, Puga said, he will propose saving the bottom 10 feet of the main stack as a historical monument.

The display would include murals and plaques as a memorial to Asarco’s contribution to El Paso’s development.

“I think it would be a great compromise,” Puga said of preserving the base of Asarco’s main stack.

Only recently, he said, did he hear about the new talk of sparing one or both of the stacks.

Puga said he plans to meet with Sapp, Ardovino and possibly Rodriguez at the Asarco site on Monday to discuss the main stack’s stability.

As for any effort to raise $14 million to save it, he said, “I would be obliged to look at it, but I just don’t see it happening, and there would be mixed feelings about it. A lot of people say ‘knock it down.’ “

Both Sapp and Ardovino said they are appalled by the idea of saving only the stump of one tower.

“That’s got to be the most insulting idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” Ardovino said. “That’s going to be an easy talk down.”

Sapp said his main objective is to delay the demolition of the stacks set for Presidents Day weekend in February.

“We want time to talk about it,” he said.

Sapp, a longtime executive in Hunt’s vast development enterprise, said his “epiphany” on the issue came just a month ago when he visited Baltimore and saw what that city did with its Inner Harbor.

“Twenty years ago, it was the dirtiest, nastiest remnant of a dead shipping industry,” he said. “When they decided to redo the water front, they took out everything that wasn’t part of 19th century industrial Baltimore.

“The cornerstone for the redevelopment is a huge four-story power plant with its four smoke stacks.”

That building is now home to high-end retail and office space and condos.

Sapp noted that San Antonio has redeveloped a sprawling quarry not far from its city center, converting its major buildings into the Alamo Quarry Market. Durham, N.C., has saved the Lucky Strike Tower in the midst of the American Tobacco Historic District.

Those are iconic structures that played a big part in the cities’ history, he said.

Asarco’s legacy

“The legacy of industrial properties isn’t always a pretty one, but in most cases they represented the industrial activities that were the source of community prosperity,” Sapp said. “As that old industry falls out of favor, it’s not uncommon for them to die an agonizing, ugly death.

“Asarco is no exception. The Asarco legacy in the late 1800s was a point in time when El Paso was the hub of the Southwest mining industry.”

The smelter contributed significantly to El Paso’s prosperity from its early days into the 1900s and to the development of Sunset Heights, Chihuahuita and, most of all, the College of Mines, which became UTEP, Sapp said.

“The professors at the College of Mines were Asarco’s engineers, geologists and metallurgists,” he said.

“Doesn’t it make sense to take a breath and have a community dialogue, gather some additional facts and make an informed decision?” he said. “Or, do we let the employee of a bankruptcy trust make that decision for us?”

Among those who emphatically disagree is Carlos Rodriguez, a leader in the Ex-Asarco Workers organization. He doesn’t want any of Asarco preserved, least of all the main symbol of a company that polluted so much of El Paso and Juárez for so many years.

“We’re against it,” he said. “We’ve been active with this struggle for almost eight years.

“The base of the stack is the most contaminated part of it.”

But a former co-worker of Rodriguez’s, Danny Arrellano, who suffers from a rare and debilitating blood disease he said was caused by worksite contaminants, thinks the debate over the stacks’ future is worth having.

“I understand the way Carlos feels, but you have to have an open mind,” he said. “If it comes down, no one will know it was there.

“Asarco did a lot of good in El Paso. There’s good and bad in everything. I want my children and grandchildren to know about it.”

He said he would like to see a museum on the site to commemorate Asarco’s history and “how the community got together and stopped it.”