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Laguna Corp. Protests Expo, Downs Deal

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Laguna Development Corp. is formally protesting Expo New Mexico’s controversial award of a 25-year lease to the Downs at Albuquerque.

Skip Sayre, chief of sales and marketing for the corporation, confirmed Wednesday that Laguna Development, which operates Route 66 and Dancing Eagle casinos west of Albuquerque for Laguna Pueblo, has sent documents to Expo protesting the award.

Expo issued a “request for proposals” last summer seeking bids from parties interested in leasing the racetrack and casino at the state fairgrounds and gave them 30 days to respond. Only two entities – Laguna Development and the Downs at Albuquerque – submitted bids.

Both bids involved building multi-million-dollar casinos and other improvements to the fairgrounds.

The RFP process was criticized by neighborhood groups, some members of the State Fair Commission, a consultant for the state Legislative Finance Committee and others as being too rushed, too restrictive in its response window and tilted in favor of the Downs, which has leased the property since 1985.

Expo officials maintained that the process was fair and that, because the Downs’ lease was expiring in six months, they had to act quickly to maintain the cash flow provided by the Downs’ lease payments. The Downs’ current lease expired at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Expo spokesman Michael Henningsen confirmed Wednesday that a protest had been filed, but he declined to release it until Expo’s attorney, Mark G. Shoesmith, OK’d its release. Shoesmith was unavailable on Wednesday.

Without the documents, it is unclear what Laguna is seeking from the state or what its options are if the state upholds the award.

Critics, including four members of the seven-member, governor-appointed State Fair Commission, complained that they had been prevented from reviewing the proposals until shortly before being asked to vote yes or no on the Downs’ proposal.

A three-member “evaluation committee” appointed by Martinez reviewed both proposals and recommended that interim Expo manager Dan Mourning, another Martinez appointee, negotiate a lease with the Downs at Albuquerque.

The lease was then narrowly approved on a 4-3 vote in November at a meeting some commission members said was supposed to discuss the lease – not to vote on it.

The state Board of Finance, chaired by Gov. Susana Martinez, approved the deal Dec. 20.

The protest will be handled through the state General Services Department’s Purchasing Division, which is responsible for enforcing the state Procurement Code, according to department spokesman Tim Korte.

Korte said Wednesday the agency had not yet received Laguna Development’s protest documents.

In a related move, Henningsen said the Downs at Albuquerque paid Expo $420,000 on Wednesday to satisfy an increase in rent state legislators had required in exchange for extending its lease, originally set to expire on Jan. 11, 2010, another two years.

The Downs could have “offset” the increase through “cooperative advertising” with Expo as it did in 2011, but opted for a lump-sum payment at the lease’s expiration.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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