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Fair Board To Weigh Options

(Marla Brose/ Journal)
(Marla Brose/ Journal)

If the New Mexico State Fair Commission were to turn down a controversial new 25-year lease for the Downs at Albuquerque, it wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the financially troubled 75-year-old fairgrounds, opponents of the lease say.

However, “if it’s voted down, then we’ll have to make some serious decisions,” said interim Expo manager Dan Mourning, who issued the proposal last July.

The Downs’ current lease expires on Jan. 11.

Meeting today
The State Fair Commission is scheduled to meet in special session at 10 a.m. today in the auditorium of the Sheryl M. Williams Stapleton African American Performing Arts Center at Expo New Mexico, 300 San Pedro NE. Commissioners are slated to discuss a proposed 25-year lease for the Downs at Albuquerque. A vote is not expected, although a legal notice announcing the special session says it is possible.

Among the commission’s options are:

•  Requiring changes in the proposed lease.

•  Directing Expo officials to begin negotiations with the other bidder, Laguna Development Corp.

•  Recommending the issuance of a new “request for proposals” for leasing the land, which the Downs has leased since 1985.

The commission is scheduled to hold a workshop today to discuss the lease.

Expo New Mexico, the 236-acre fairgrounds that hosts the State Fair, is nearly $2 million in debt. As a state enterprise that must pay its own way, Expo finances are heavily reliant on the annual $2 million lease payments.

And Mourning has said the fairgrounds, which hosts the annual State Fair, can’t survive without the $2 million lease payments.

But Commissioners Bennie Roybal and Charlotte Rode, as well as Democratic state Sens. Tim Keller and Cisco McSorley, say the fair can tread water until a new RFP is issued that considers community comment and gives parties more time to respond.

They suggest having the Legislature extend the current lease one more year while that occurs.

Shortly after his appointment by Gov. Susana Martinez in April, Mourning signed a lease with Downs vice president Traci Wolf, extending the terms until Jan. 11, 2013. Keller said he’s confident the Legislature would approve that extension, giving Expo officials time to issue a new RFP.

A majority of the seven-member, governor-appointed commission was on the verge of giving the proposed Downs lease a thumbs-down at a Nov. 9 meeting, saying it had no input in drafting the “request for proposals” that led to the proposed lease.

McSorley, Keller and several commissioners said the 30-day period that bidders were given to respond to the RFP was insufficient and that the process was too secretive and rushed. Commissioners were not allowed to review the proposed lease until a few days before Nov. 9 and had to sign confidentiality agreements to do so. They were asked to vote either “yes” or “no,” with no chance for amendments.

Submitting proposals were the Downs – owned by former Downs president Paul Blanchard and Louisiana businessmen Bill Windham and John S. Turner – and Laguna Development Corp., which operates the tribally owned Route 66 and Dancing Eagle casinos west of Albuquerque. Both proposals call for construction of a multimillion-dollar casino.

Commissioner Larry Kennedy withdrew his motion to approve the lease when it seemed headed for defeat during the four-hour meeting on Nov. 9.

Commissioners instead voted to hold today’s special session/workshop and then vote next month. A legal notice announcing the workshop included a line that said the commission could take action on the lease today, but at least two commissioners criticized that line as contradicting the commission’s Nov. 9 actions.

Roybal, who said he does not oppose a racino at the fairgrounds and enjoys horse racing, said the RFP process was too closed and too rushed and left the public questioning its overall fairness.

Doing it right, he said, means involving State Fair commissioners, neighbors and others in the process.

“If we did a new RFP and put it out for 90 days, I think most everyone would be happy,” Roybal said.

Rode, who has lived near the fairgrounds her whole life, said there’s money available to keep the fairgrounds afloat while a new RFP is worked out. “We have a signed lease in place,” which, with legislative approval, would extend the lease another year, she said.

Rode also noted the Downs owes Expo $420,000 – the amount legislators tacked on to the lease in exchange for extending it from Jan. 11, 2010, to Jan. 11, 2012. That’s the money Expo could use to stay afloat until the Legislature can approve a lease extension, she said. The session begins Jan. 17.

Mourning said Rode and others are speculating about what the Legislature might do.

“We can talk about … what could be, what the Legislature could do, but I can only deal from the position of what is at hand,” Mourning said. He said the $420,000 will not be enough to cover the Downs’ $166,000 monthly payments because other expenses and debts must be addressed.

McSorley commended Roybal, Rode and fellow commissioners Kenneth “Buster” Goff of Hobbs and Kenneth “Twister” Smith of Caballo for what he described as not bending to “pressure from the Governor’s Office” to rubber-stamp the proposed lease. And he said he’s confident lawmakers would approve another one-year extension.

Should the commission turn down the Downs’ proposed lease, officials with Laguna Development Corp. – whose initial proposal would have paid Expo $3 million a year after its third year at Expo – have said they would be eager to negotiate a lease for the racino property.

The Downs wants to build a $20 million, 52,000-square-foot casino about 550 feet north of Central and about 650 feet west of Louisiana.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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