Alibi V.16 No.15 • April 12-18, 2007 

Council Watch

Balloons: 1, Wal-Mart: 0

The April 4 meeting kicked off with a staple appearance by Albuquerque Animal Control, which featured a police officer parading a terrier puppy on the floor of the City Council. Once the puppy was whisked from the scene, the meeting went from sweet to serious, with city councilors focusing their attention on a bill that would approve the city’s purchase of a large plot of land in a small subdivision in the Vista del Norte neighborhood. The plot is nearby Balloon Fiesta Park and is used as a landing site by the majority of balloons that take flight over the city. The site was being eyed by other bidders, namely big-box stores, with Wal-Mart as the lead contender.

Councilors unanimously passed a bill to name the West Mesa Community Center children’s library after Albuquerque resident John Elwell, who died while on duty for the city. Councilor Brad Winter inquired about city recycling, which will be available to multi-family dwellings in the city by this summer.

Issue Council's Take Reporter's Take
Balloon Fiesta vs. Big Box

Councilor Debbie O’Malley sponsored a bill to save a large plot of land in Vista del Norte from big-box development. The plot is a prime landing space used by at least 70 percent of balloonists in the city and is one of the few remaining safe landing zones near Balloon Fiesta Park. The space is also used for recreation, primarily by youth soccer leagues. The land in question is situated at the entry to a quaint subdivision in the Vista Del Norte neighborhood, and many residents attended the meeting donning matching T-shirts to show their solidarity and support for the bill.

Residents spoke passionately about their sense of community and the benefits of the Balloon Fiesta to their neighborhood and the city. Speakers also voiced concerns about “evaporating” open space in Albuquerque. Gary Bennet, president of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, spoke in defense of the open space, urging councilors to recognize the Fiesta’s reliance on such a large field. Public supporters outnumbered detractors, a few of whom offered fervent speeches in favor of big business and free enterprise. One speaker accused the Vista del Norte neighborhood of mobilizing to support the bill based solely on anti-Wal-Mart bias.
There was some concern among the Council regarding funding for the purchase of the land. O’Malley clarified that she had not yet received a response from the mayor’s office with details on alternative sources of funding. The bill suggested using existing funds, two G.O. bonds relegated for the purchase of land, to make the acquisition. Most councilors, it appeared, were in agreement that the Balloon Fiesta brings major business to the city and boosts the economy immensely. With so little open space, O’Malley argued, the city needs to preserve this plot not only for the balloons, but for posterity. The councilors also recognized that ballooning is an Albuquerque tradition and an integral part of our city’s reputation, both nationwide and abroad.

Councilor Ken Sanchez questioned how much funding was available for the acquisition, while Councilor Craig Loy disclosed that his company had placed A.T.M.s at Balloon Fiesta Park. The Council determined that there was no conflict of interest, and Loy confessed that he had wanted to avoid voting on the issue, as he had mixed feelings. Initially, he said, he’d planned to vote against the bill, because of concerns regarding private vs. public property rights. But, said Loy, he’d never believed that the location was appropriate for a big-box store such as Wal-Mart. Councilor Isaac Benton said he shared Loy’s concerns about setting precedents for private vs. public property rights, but noted the importance of the Balloon Fiesta. Benton also mentioned his concerns about the lack of services in the neighborhood and suggested the possibility of zoning the area for a small grocery store. Sanchez felt it was a shame the city didn’t purchase the land sooner. When the bill passed unanimously, the audience exploded in applause.
Building a Wal-Mart or other big-box store on one of the few safe landing sites for our city’s beloved balloons is obviously bad business. Councilors did right by their constituents in preserving this open space for the generations of city residents and visitors who cherish the Balloon Fiesta. Moreover, they’ve moved to maintain one of the city’s greatest economic and cultural strengths. The Balloon Fiesta brings more money, more acclaim and more business to this desert community than any big-box store ever could. Low-priced food and cheap, Hong Kong electronics are no substitute for Albuquerque’s longtime tradition of ballooning.