El Pasoans see historic value in Asarco smelter landmark

By David Burge – El Paso Times

EL PASO — A large majority of El Pasoans favor keeping the Asarco smokestack as a monument to the city’s history, according to an El Paso Times poll. The price of doing so could run in the millions of dollars.

Nearly 58 percent of respondents said the smokestack at the shuttered copper smelter is of historic importance and should be preserved. About 29 percent said it should be torn down, and about 13 percent either did not care or had no opinion.

The Reuel Group did the survey for the Times. It polled 2,134 likely voters who live in the city limits. The poll was conducted June 26-27 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Russell Autry, president of The Reuel Group, said the poll showed a groundswell of support for preserving the smokestack.

The city is working on a master plan that will guide development for the next 25 years. The first phase looks at what should be done with nearly 500 acres surrounding the Asarco plant and three transit corridors — Remcon Circle, Five Points and Oregon Street.

Officials with consultant Dover, Kohl & Partners said at a meeting on Wednesday that the costs of keeping the smokestack could be significant. The city hired the Florida company to do the study.

It said preliminary figures indicate that it would take “tens of millions of dollars” to bring the stack up to seismic code, and that its annual maintenance would run in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” No concrete figures were yet available, officials said.

The Times’ poll, though, is consistent with an unscientific survey done by Dover when it started the public-comment portion of the city’s study.

Sixty-eight percent supported preserving the smokestack if cost were not a factor, and 32 percent were opposed, said Megan McLaughlin of Dover.

El Pasoans have suggested using the smokestack to gather solar power, as a place to display public art, to fly a large U.S. flag or as part of a regional attraction such as an amusement park, aquarium or history park, she said.

City planner Mathew McElroy said he was not surprised by the Times’ poll results.

Creating some sort of monument recognizing Asarco’s place in El Paso’s history would be worth considering, he said.

“If you look at degrees of separation, almost everyone in this town knows somebody who worked at Asarco or has a family member who worked there,” McElroy said.

Asarco announced last year that it was ending a seven-year fight to restart the plant. The company has had a presence in El Paso for more than 110 years.

Asarco shut down the smelter in 1999, when copper prices fell.

Mayor John Cook said he did not really care whether the smokestack was preserved or torn down. His goal was always to make sure that the plant never restarted operations, he said.

Many other El Pasoans, past and present, are passionate about the smokestack and see it as an important symbol.

Alex Marquez said the smokestack represents a “big chunk of El Paso’s history.” Marquez grew up in El Paso but now lives in Phoenix.

“It’s as important as the big Star on the Mountain,” he said. “You see it as soon as you drive into town.”

West Side resident Norman Kutcher said he would also like to see the smokestack preserved, calling it a “bookmark in history.”

Richard Teschner, who lives in the neighborhood surrounding Rim Road, said he would prefer that the smokestack not be torn down.

He wants to know how much it would cost to tear it down and whether it has any contaminants inside that could go into the air if it’s razed.

Risher Gilbert, who lives in the same neighborhood, wants the smokestack demolished.

“To me, it symbolizes the pollution that was spewed on our community by Asarco,” she said.

She would like to see at least part of the Asarco land used as open space with hiking and biking trails. She would like those trails to eventually connect to the Franklin Mountains.

UTEP student and West Side resident Noemi Soto said the smokestack is a negative symbol and should go.

“It’s not a good memory for many people,” she said.

David Burge may be reached at dburge@elpasotimes.com; 546-6126.

Gustavo Reveles Acosta contributed to this story.