Robert Ardovino: Smokestacks an important part of El Paso history

By Robert Ardovino \ Guest columnist for El Paso Times

People often ask how I became a proponent of stack preservation.

My history with these stacks started at a young age, with orange skies on the school playground and the taste of sulfur in my mouth. Many of my friends from this time are no longer here to share their unfortunate stories of how Asarco affected them. Inexplicable illness and mortality runs common through the lives of both former smelter workers and the people it affected. For this reason, I joined a group that helped close Asarco down – a historic day.

The stack is not just part of my history, but El Paso’s history. The stack represents thousands of families who bettered their lives through hard work, realizing the American dream here on our border. The smelter’s contributions led to the growth and development of our community, including support for the establishment of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, later Texas Western College, and now UTEP.

El Pasoans recognize the importance of this history. In June, 2010, an El Paso Times poll put 58 percent in favor of smokestack preservation. Trustee Robert Puga stated that the turn-of-the-century powerhouse would be saved during remediation of the site. Mr. Puga also said, “The stacks are, I think, an important cultural icon in El Paso.”

We have presented a concept of how this landmark is destined to be recognized as a historic monument, memorializing not only the former smelter workers but all the citizens of this regions it has effected.

Then Mr. Puga wrongly asserted that stack preservation would cost $14 million. Public attitudes changed on this information – released without an actual stack inspection. Save The Stacks formed, commissioning a $50,000 plus engineering analysis of the stack, confirming the stack is strong, straight and solid. Moreover, the cost of stack maintenance over the next 50 years is now estimated at $3 million – $11 million less than asserted. Most importantly, the citizens of El Paso – through local funding and local efforts – have met all the requirements Mr. Puga had dictated for stack preservation.

We should look at our history, actual facts, and public opinion, and weigh all this against an outside interest – namely, the trust led by Robert Puga, which has no background in El Paso, no interest in preserving our history, and no interest in saving our landmarks. Even the historic powerhouse is now slated for demolition. Why commit historic landmarks for demolition? The bottom line. The trust thinks it will make more money by selling land free of buildings. This is not local taxpayer money; it is money associated with Asarco’s bankruptcy.

In other communities – such as San Antonio, Baltimore and Cleveland – historic smokestacks have been converted into attractions that generate revenue for their owners. In El Paso, the decisions of outsiders cannot dictate our future.

In 2011, strong city leaders approved a comprehensive plan for a more vibrant El Paso – an El Paso with a vision that is strong, straight, and solid. Recent elections reaffirmed its relevance. Plan El Paso calls for “restoration and strategic repair of historic structures, which can serve as valuable tourism opportunities. Use these buildings and include new ones to create a rich cultural center for residents and visitors. Museums could potentially honor the history of Asarco and those who worked there, and the industrial heritage of the United States and Mexico.”

The tallest monument in the United States is the St. Louis arch, at 630 feet. The second is the San Jacinto Monument, at 570 feet. Strong, straight and solid, our monument stands 826 feet tall!

On Tuesday, please support City Council by asking them to stand up for our heritage. Let us keep our history, and not give up that right to one person who has no stake in our community. We must stand straight, strong and solid in support of what is our history, and demand that this stack — our monument – remain.

Robert Ardovino is a founder of the Save The Stacks organization.


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