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Too Soon To Throw Money at Rail Yards

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While I share Mayor Richard Berry’s frustration over the lack of progress at the Albuquerque Rail Yards I am more concerned over the current proposal to “invest” up to $750,000 of scarce capital funds in a project that has no finalized development plan.

Certainly car shows, growers’ markets and food truck days are legitimate activities for city sponsorship, but I question that this is the appropriate location.

We already have a Saturday Downtown growers’ market at Robinson Park and several others in the Downtown vicinity on different days. Conversely, there are no growers’ markets in the city of Albuquerque west of the river.

Wouldn’t a food truck event be more useful and practical during the workweek on Civic Plaza? After all, that would put it within walking distance of several thousand Downtown workers.

And Balloon Fiesta Park, with its grassy area for exhibit cars, ample parking for non-exhibitor attendees and accommodation for vendors seems a better suited venue for a car show.

Progress on the rail yards came to a screeching halt on Feb. 29, 2009 when the Urban Land Institute delivered its final report on their rail yard study.

Unfortunately for the rail yard boosters and in particular supporters of the Wheels Museum, that study reported conclusions on the economic potential and museum viability that were very different from what we had been hearing from the boosters.

In particular, with respect to the Wheels Museum, the study required the museum to begin paying market rent after one year, develop a viable business plan, acquire two vintage locomotives and amass an endowment of $60 million dollars. According to the Wheels Museum Form 990 for the period ending June 30, 2010, they had $14,000 in cash and a collection valued at less than $50,000.

This is not meant to be a criticism of the Wheels Museum but rather to point up a well recognized fact that museums of this sort are very expensive to operate and require either very wealthy benefactors or huge infusions of public money.

Since there doesn’t appear to be a benefactor on the scene, and recognizing that the ULI report identified the blacksmith shop as the initial site for the Wheels Museum, one has to ask whether this $750,000 is actually the first of who knows how many installments of public funds to support a private museum.

It has been less than 60 days since the City Council approved an agreement with Samitaur, a Calilfornia-based design and development firm, to develop a master plan for the rail yards site. The first of what is proposed to be several public input meetings has yet to be held. Yet the city now seems to be competing with its own selected developer by dictating programming for the site.

Will Samitaur be required to accommodate these uses in the final plan as they have been required to do with Wheels Museum? Why don’t we let Samitaur do the job we asked them to do, without interference, and proceed from there.

Alan Schwartz previously served on the Albuquerque Environmental Planning Commission.

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