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ABQ gets prestigious ‘Living Cities’ grant

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque will join the likes of San Francisco, Seattle and two other cities in potentially qualifying for tens of millions of dollars from a national consortium of charitable groups and banks – money that could be put toward Downtown revitalization as part an effort to improve “economic mobility.”

Mayor Richard Berry

BERRY: “This really opens up the door”

Mayor Richard Berry told the Journal on Wednesday that his office will lead the effort, in partnership with the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union.

The money is available through “Living Cities,” a collaborative effort by 22 of the world’s largest charitable foundations and financial institutions. Communities across the country applied, but only five cities were selected. They will receive initial grants of $100,000 each to plan out ways to help low-income people and improve their communities. Besides Albuquerque, the other four are Seattle, San Francisco, San Antonio, Texas, and New Orleans.

Future funding in the form of low- or no-interest loans and grants depends on proposals generated in the planning process.

The “Living Cities” selection is an endorsement, the mayor said, of local efforts to bring a “bus rapid transit” system to Central Avenue, revitalize Downtown and improve economic development through UNM’s “Innovate ABQ” effort at the old First Baptist Church. All of those projects might receive financial help through “Living Cities.”

“This really opens up the door for Albuquerque,” Berry said in a meeting with Journal reporters and editors. “That’s good company to be in.”

UNM President Bob Frank said he’s incredibly excited and hopeful about the opportunity.

“New Mexico should be the biggest innovation state in the country with the labs and the opportunity we have here,” he said. “… I think it’s the biggest moment the city’s ever had.”

The city will spend the next year planning how it might use the funding. Millions could be at stake.

In the last round, the five cities chosen initially ended up getting $12 million to $20 million each.

That effort resulted in about $85 million in grants, low- or no-interest loans and similar funding.

Berry and other civic leaders who spoke with the Journal on Wednesday were reluctant to say how Albuquerque might use any money it receives.

“There’s a million ways to use it,” Frank said. “The only thing that limits us is our creativity in the planning process.”

But it’s possible the city could get financial help to plan improvements to the bus system and at the First Baptist Church site. Entrepreneurs might also have access to funding they could use to help start businesses.

Frank has led an effort that appears to have been critical to Albuquerque’s selection – a plan to create a research district based out of the old First Baptist Church complex at Central and Broadway. The goal is to create a place where start-up companies, researchers, students and entrepreneurs are all housed together, spurring creativity and innovation.

The city’s plans for a bus-rapid transit – a system that mimics light rail, only with buses that have their own dedicated lanes – also piqued the interest of “Living Cities.”

Berry said Albuquerque’s application was organized under a theme of both Downtown revitalization and “economic mobility.” The city has several programs aimed at helping people improve their job skills to boost their careers or find new ones.

Terry Laudick, president and chief executive officer of New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union, said the initiative is aimed at helping people help themselves.

It’s “not about picking a city for urban renewal,” he said. “This is about targeting low-income individuals and presenting them opportunities for self-help and mutual self-help.”

Laudick’s credit union has contributed $3 million to the “Innovate ABQ” project. One of the credit union’s executives, Robin Brulé, will move over to City Hall to coordinate the “Living Cities” effort.

“The Mayor’s Office will be the backbone of this initiative,” she said.

She and others involved in the effort said the help from “Living Cities” could spur other investment in Albuquerque.

Gary Oppedahl, Albuquerque’s director of economic development, said there’s “money on the sidelines that been waiting” for the right time to invest.

The “Living Cities” group includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bank of America, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and others.

Berry said the city must work hard over the next year planning how it can take advantage of the chance for national help.

“We’re in the game in a big way, with only four other cities in the country,” he said. “Lots and lots of cities vied for this.”

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