What's Driving El Paso's Cool Factor?
October 17, 2012

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Downtown El Paso has undergone a revitalization.

EL PASO, Texas -- To truly appreciate my hometown I had to take a leave of absence.

My first job out of college was as a night cops reporter at the newspaper in Waco, Texas. I spent two years in the heart of the state learning the ABCs of journalism.

Then I moved back to El Paso where I was born and raised. It's the westernmost fringe of Texas where people can pronounce my name as I've pronounced it my whole life. It was good to be home.

As I settled back in, my border city surprised me in the most delightful way. The subject of that surprise over the past five years is what inspired an upcoming news story.

The surprise, to put it plainly, is El Paso suddenly got cool. Many young professionals like myself have been moving back armed with a nostalgia for home and an dogged ambition to make it better.

The result of their reverse migration is a flurry of new high-quality, locally owned businesses, particularly in the restaurant and entertainment sector. You'll rarely, if ever, find me at a chain restaurant where the waiters are strangers and the meal tastes defrosted.

At the places I frequent now, I am greeted by a wait staff I know by first name and an owner who brings by the newest craft beer selection before sitting at my table for a chat. The food is creative and delicious and the ambiance welcoming. We're talking light years away from dinner at Applebee's.

I always wondered about the reasons behind this new and hipper El Paso. This summer the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas offered a partial answer.

In their latest study, the bank's researchers discovered that per capita income in Texas border cities like El Paso has been rising rapidly over the past decade. It's rising faster than the national average, even during the national recession.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A group of young people enjoys the new night spots in downtown El Paso.

So what's behind the income rise? To a large extent, cross-border trade. Billions of dollars worth of goods cross our border every day and the companies moving the goods need certain services to function. These are services in fields like finance, real estate, legal, administration and technology.

In El Paso and other Texas border cities these professions have taken the place of thousands of manufacturing jobs that used to reign prior to the North American Free Trade Agreement. These jobs pay higher wages and require a more skilled workforce.

Turns out this highly skilled workforce appreciates a good Happy Hour. They are the ones feeding the quality restaurants and cafes I love to frequent. In the past five years more and more have been popping up across the city.

While El Paso and other border cities still have many challenges to overcome, there is finally good news for locals to enjoy. That's led to renewed local pride and confidence that will continue to bring good news in the near future.