I was in Denver recently for a friend's wedding.
I hadn't been there in about 30 years, the result of living in Michigan for 25 of them.
It was my first time using Denver International Airport, which was much easier to maneuver than I had been led to believe. Traveling light helped.
I didn't spend much time in the Mile High City. Maybe 30 hours, tops. It was a quick-in, quick-out kind of thing, due to a tight schedule back home.
But I was there long enough to feel its energy, the kind of forward, positive energy that I think some civic leaders are trying to create here.
Denver was decked out in its Christmas finest. The pedestrian malls, with their horse-drawn carriages and light rail, were buzzing. Westword, the alternative weekly, was crammed with ads for concerts, clubs, restaurants and sporting events. A drive up Colfax Avenue made me yearn for that kind of variety of cuisine, entertainment and neighborhoods.
Denver's a big place. There are more than 3 million people in the metro area; more than 600,000 in the city proper. That's not much bigger than the El Paso-Juarez metroplex, which has more than 2 million people, more than 600,000 of them in El Paso.
Of course, our dynamics are different. Our geography is different. Our cultural makeup is different. Our border location is very different. So is our economy. We're much poorer.
But, if there is a grand vision to all the changes about to start taking place Downtown, you can picture what El Paso could become.
Imagine it 10 years from now.
There will be Triple-A baseball stadium where City Hall stands, at least until the spring. Love or hate the way it was pushed through (I was uneasy with it myself), having a venue like that, and the chance to attend a much higher quality of baseball than El Paso's ever had, will be a positive for us.
Especially if the parent San Diego Padres' new owners improve the quality of their minor league system like I believe they will.
Baseball can put us on the map in other ways. The Pacific Coast League is one step below the majors, so not only will future, current and former star players come and go from here to San Diego, but those players can have good experiences here, and speak well of El Paso (and the food and unique culture) along the way.
Don't forget that PCL transactions are reported daily in a variety of media, from ESPN and its hugely popular baseball website to the agate pages of sports sections across the country. Talk about cheap publicity.
The stadium can be one building block in a city-wide progression fueled by a revitalized Downtown. Imagine the new Downtown arena we're going to build, one that can accommodate more, and bigger, shows and sporting events than we're used to. Wouldn't it be nice to see Neil Young or Lady Gaga here instead of Albuquerque?
Imagine El Paso's new arena being home to one of the NBA Development League's teams, an NCAA regional basketball tournament, NBA exhibition games and more.
That could be another stepping stone on our path to becoming a secondary market, or one step below major market status — if that's what we want. Maybe because I tasted major city life living just outside of Detroit for so many years, but I do want that (hey, maybe we'll build a commuter train system to alleviate I-10 traffic!).
I think of all the major and medium acts whose tour itineraries I get on a routine basis. The vast majority of them don't include an El Paso date. But a new Downtown arena that can hold up to about 15,000 people and has all the versatility, luxury suites and other revenue-generating amenities needed to compete in today's event world is another step in the right direction.
It's an arena we can grow into.
The building is one of several projects, totaling $473 million, that voters approved last month. There's more, of course. A new children's museum. Parks improvements. An aquatic center. Museum improvements.
A pedestrian pathway to connect the El Paso Museum of Art and the rest of the cultural district with the Union Plaza area, which isn't part of the bond election, is in the works.
I wonder what's going to become of that big chunk of land along I-10 when the railroad leaves. Picture it as a long ribbon park, with a pedestrian path, maybe even a natural amphitheater for events like Music Under the Stars, where you can bring your own beer.
They're parts of a puzzle, the foundation of future growth that could result in, thanks to the medical school, things like the much-needed improvement of health care in this town and the retention of more of the city's young as economic development types try to recruit more business here.
There are plenty of skeptics out there, with good reason. The area's woeful record of public corruption has shaken our faith in city leaders, as has the way the stadium project was ramrodded through.
Who's to say the bond money will be spent wisely, or legally? Who's to say there's enough vision in local government and business circles? Who's to say this area can transform?
I, for one, have faith. I'm a born idealist.
I don't want El Paso to become another Denver. I want it to become a better El Paso.