The Council chamber was crowded at the June 16 meeting, the agenda long, the AC on max and new Chief Administrative Officer Ed Adams getting along just fine with Councilors. And everyone was ready for the July break. The Council will reconvene Aug. 4.
Councilors passed several bills extending building moratoriums until planning is finished for the affected areas. They also proclaimed hazardous fire conditions, restricting open fires and smoking in the city but allowing people in the Bosque for now. Bus ridership has skyrocketed along with the price of gas, so money allocated for 10 new buses should bring relief.
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Grand ScaleMayor Martin Chavez, councilors and local business leaders are bubbling with enthusiasm for a proposed development at Broadway and Central—an 11,000-seat event center and arena. The event center would be located in the east end of the project, which is bounded by the intersection of the First Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Second Street and Central. The project would include a 450-room hotel near the Convention Center, with retail shops between the two.The project is estimated to cost between $350 and $400 million. Councilor Isaac Benton, whose district includes the site, moved the administration bill authorizing a $700,000 contract for a viability assessment. The contract is with ABQ Downtown Development Team, a consortium of local and out-of-state businessesthat would build the arena project.Business leaders who spoke supporting the arena include Hyatt Regency General Manager Karl Holme, Downtown Action Team Executive Director Brian Morris, Convention Center Manager Dale Lockett and Larry Smith, speaking for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. State Sen. Shannon Robinson proposed the state fairgrounds as an alternate location.
Councilor Don Harris said it was the business community’s responsibility to educate the public about why the development could improve the economy of the entire city. Councilor Ken Sanchez asked what happened to studies analyzing previous Downtown arena proposals. He said voters should have the final decision about a tax increase to pay for it. Councilor Rey Garduño said an old study couldn’t answer new questions and that the city needs the project to increase gross receipts tax revenues.Councilor Trudy Jones said it was a great opportunity for Albuquerque to catch up with the rest of the United States. Councilor Debbie O’Malley said it was one of the most exciting, ambitious things she’d seen in a long time.Council President Brad Winter said the Council had rushed the bill through without the normal committee vetting, and the project would require public financing. Much of the public, he added, was hearing about the project for the first time. He had questions about the objectivity of the study. Benton said virtually no comparable projects were done without public funding. Because of the unique site, Benton said they needed to get started so they could nail down costs by the end of the year and decide whether the development was feasible. Ed Adams said the city would have lots of third parties participating in the study to ensure objectivity.
The bill authorizing $700,000 for the study passed 7-2, Winter and Sanchez opposed. But other councilors and city business leaders painted a picture rosier than a sunburned pig. The site, a depressing jigsaw of parking lots, is aching for higher and better use. The preliminary rendering of this utterly enticing project looks gorgeous. There’s no point studying other locations because this issue is about boosting Downtown and resuscitating the Convention Center, not about building an arena.But the city doesn’t need another Balloon Museum-type money pit. Questions arise about issues other than finances and traffic congestion. Does anyone actually think the study will consider the Do Not Build option? Will there be any safeguards against exploding construction costs? Is it possible to book enough events to make the arena profitable? Will Albuquerque audiences faithfully support high-ticket concerts? Will the public have a chance to vote on any necessary tax increases?Will any retail facilities be occupied by local stores and restaurants? Will tourist-oriented shops draw business away from Old Town? Will the economic climate in three years encourage local and long-distance travel? Higher gross receipts are a selling point, but will the developers wrangle a TIDD agreement that allocates any tax revenue increase to their own expenses? Will there ever be a full-service Downtown grocery?
Small ScaleGarduño sponsored a bill appropriating $25,000 for STEPS—the Southeast Team for Entrepreneurial Success program. Also known as the Sirolli Project, STEPS helps would-be business owners with concepts, preparation, marketing, product development and financial management.
Supporter Javier Benavidez, who worked for former City Councilor Martin Heinrich, said the project encourages local business startups, which do not always receive public support. Centered in the Southeast Heights, STEPS was begun by Heinrich. Joanne Landry, who called herself a STEPS success, said the group has helped create 127 jobs. The bill passed unanimously.
In its first two years, STEPS received $65,000 from the city and county and produced 127 jobs, for an average of $512 spent per job. By a one-dimensional, back-of-the-envelope, apples-to-oranges rough estimate, about 1,525 people might work at the proposed Downtown arena project. At $400 million, that works out to about $263,000 per job.