UT System: Support for Asarco purchase

By Robert Gray | El Paso Inc.

Image provided by www.recastingthesmelter.com/Project Navigator

UT System Asarco purchase

A map of the former Asarco site shows the parcels for sale, including about 241 acres that abut the UTEP campus. The Don Haskins Center, Sun Bowl, and the Student Recreation and Fitness Center are visible in the top right. The 100-acre parcel on the other side of Interstate 10 is where smelter operations were centered.

The proposed purchase of the old Asarco property by the University of Texas System is “widely supported” by the board of regents and the system chancellor, board chair Paul Foster said last week.

UT System regents were briefed by UTEP’s senior leadership on Thursday about the possible purchase of the entire 450-acre property, but the board took no action and a deal has not been negotiated.

“My guess is we will revisit it at each board meeting, but I think it will be at least a year until any kind of transaction could be concluded,” Foster told El Paso Inc.

The $80-million cleanup of the old Asarco copper smelter has entered its final phase, but is not set to finish until the third quarter of 2015, according to the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the project, Roberto Puga.

“We are charging toward the finish line,” Puga said.

If the UT System were to acquire the property, which borders the university, it would “easily” double the footprint of the campus and give it room to grow for decades, UTEP President Diana Natalicio said.

“It’s a very big step for us,” Natalicio said. “Its proximity to Downtown and its proximity to our campus make it a property we should look at seriously.”

The board, which governs the University of Texas System, made a rare visit to El Paso last week, holding its regular board meeting at UTEP as the university’s Centennial Celebration draws to a close.

Foster said there have been discussions about a possible price for the land but they have not been made public, and the board has not identified a specific funding source yet.

“You always have the Permanent University Fund and other debt financing mechanisms in the System, and UTEP has a number of other resources available,” Foster said.

The Texas oil boom has pushed the Permanent University Fund, or PUF, to record levels. Oil and gas royalties from state land has helped push the fund above $17 billion.

The former Asarco property is divided into two large pieces by Interstate 10. The largest piece sits next to UTEP, east of the interstate. It has been cleaned to residential standards, which means most anything can be built there, Puga said.

“That’s land UTEP can use directly to expand the campus for on-campus housing, recreational activities – however the campus may expand,” Foster said.

But the land that lies between the U.S.-Mexico border and Interstate 10, where the smelter and the massive stacks were once, was more polluted. When the cleanup there is finished, it will accommodate most anything but residential, according to Puga.

“It represents more of an educational opportunity, because there is going to be ongoing environmental monitoring and reporting responsibilities associated with the land,” Foster said.

Proceeds from the sale of the property will go into a trust to pay for the continued monitoring of the site and to cover any contingencies, according to Puga.

Foster is a member of MountainStar Sports Group, the owners of the Chihuahuas baseball team. The group launched a public campaign last month to court Major League Soccer and has said one possible location for a stadium is the former Asarco property.

Foster said reports that MountainStar is negotiating for the former Asarco land “are not true.”

UTEP is mostly landlocked, hemmed in by Interstate 10 to the southwest, residential neighborhoods to the south and North Mesa Street to the east. The Asarco land gives UTEP the opportunity to grow, Natalicio said.

“What we are trying to do is ensure that 50 years from now, whoever is here will have an opportunity to grow the campus in any way they want to do,” Natalicio said. “You’ve got to think long-term about some of these things.”

Source: http://www.elpasoinc.com/news/local_news/article_7430bb0e-68ed-11e4-9622-7354839edb45.html