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What Will the Downs Become?

By Charles D. Brunt
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Expo New Mexico should look more like Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Rawhide Western Town in Chandler, Ariz., or the sprawling soccer complex at Santa Ana Pueblo, according to three of the 19 people who have submitted ideas to state officials for redeveloping roughly one-third of the aging, 236-acre state fairgrounds.
        Gov. Bill Richardson renewed interest in redeveloping a parcel of the 70-year-old fairgrounds in May after the state Racing Commission — whose members he appointed — approved the Downs at Albuquerque's request to move from Expo to a proposed $65 million site in Moriarty.
        Moving the racino, owned in part by longtime Richardson ally and campaign contributor Paul Blanchard, will strip about $2 million in annual rent from Expo's nearly $16 million budget. On a good year, Expo — a state enterprise that must pay its own way — will eke out about $1 million in profit.
        At Richardson's direction, the state Department of Finance and Administration issued a "request for information" in July, seeking ideas for redeveloping the 97 acres leased by the racino — a move that will likely mean the end of horse racing at the State Fair. The lease expires in 2010.
        Nineteen responses were received by the Aug. 15 deadline, said department spokeswoman Nicole Gillespie.
        The ideas range from amusement parks and technology complexes to community gardens and a professional soccer stadium.
        Retired firefighter David Gonzales revived a proposal he first made to State Fair officials in 2002 when he pitched the idea of a Western Village for the fairgrounds.
        He's now expanded the idea into a Disneyesque theme park that includes not only his Legends Ghost Town, but a park of international pavilions featuring the culture, music and foods from nations throughout the world.
        The Western-themed village — which could resemble Rawhide Western Town at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Ariz. — would be the centerpiece of the park and the gateway to the international pavilions, he said.
        "An important element to all this is the educational aspect," Gonzales said. Each pavilion would give visitors a taste — literally and figuratively — of what it would be like to visit that particular locale.
        Gonzales, a former State Fair vendor, said his international park would draw visitors year-round. Initial funding for the venue would come from public and private sources, he said, possibly with investment from foreign governments interested in promoting tourism.
        Basil Akers with the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership would like to see a year-round entertainment venue like the famed Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark — one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe.
        Adjacent to the park, he'd like to see a "manufacturing innovation and technology complex."
        "It would be a place where you could do a fairly fast assembly and/or testing of manufacturing technologies or agricultural technologies," Akers said.
        Unlike business parks that specialize in manufacturing, this complex would be a place to test emerging technologies before they're applied to manufacturing, agricultural or other uses.
        Because the complex would take up about 30 of the available 97 acres, it leaves plenty of room for other complementary uses, Akers said.
        The Fair West Neighborhood Association, which represents about 620 households immediately west of Expo New Mexico, proposes converting about 30 acres of the racetrack infield into 10 full-sized soccer fields, including four that are lighted for night play.
        By renovating the existing grandstand and adding one on the east side of the property, a soccer stadium could be formed.
        "That could be the linchpin for attracting a professional soccer team to Albuquerque," said association president Tim Newell.
        The proposal also says existing youth soccer leagues — including the American Youth Soccer Organization and the Duke City Soccer League — and the New Mexico Activities Association, which governs high school soccer, already have to compete for space and playing time at area soccer fields, including those at the State Farm Insurance Soccer Complex at Santa Ana Pueblo and Albuquerque's Balloon Fiesta Park.
        Balloon Fiesta Park, he said, is unavailable for two months each fall for the Balloon Fiesta, and during wine festivals, athletic events, dog shows, bicycle races, golf competitions and other events. The park, the proposal says, is "steadily used and is not particularly maintained for soccer."
        Newell said he has no cost estimates for the conversion at Expo New Mexico, but said, "It's not very expensive overall, considering all the things that could be done for the whole complex, and I think under proper guidance, it could be revenue-generating for the fairgrounds."
        The association estimates the facility could generate $250,000 per year from league and tournament play, and another $100,000 from concessions.
        Taking a cue from the Sheryl M. Williams Stapleton African American Performing Arts Center at Expo, The Asian American Association of New Mexico would like to see an Asian American Center built on about four acres at the southeast corner of Central and Louisiana.
        Association members envision a 37,000-square-foot multipurpose center with a theater, amphitheater, dance studio, kitchen and dining facility, museum, library, computer center, meeting rooms, garden and picnic area, classrooms and association offices.
        Association board member Bobbie Nobles put initial construction costs at $7.5 million, most of which would be sought from state funds. State legislators have already provided about $30,000 for design and planning costs.
        The center would generate revenue through Asian-related vocational training and apprenticeships in culinary arts, business start-up, restaurant management, salon operation and other fields, according to the association's proposal. It could also offer Kumon Method classes in math and language, a lecture series, performing arts presentations, visa advisory services, a Tour of Asia restaurant and Asian craft and trade stores.
        Association president Hwa soon "Sue" Thorson, said the center would serve as a gathering spot for the Asian American community and help introduce others to Asian cultures and people. The center would also provide needed jobs for the neighborhood and help expand and diversify the local economy.
        Other ideas submitted include a bicycling arena, community gardens and a produce market, an alternative energy exposition, an equestrian center, and a community for the vision and hearing impaired that could include an apartment complex, day-care facility and an auditorium.
        Gillespie said Friday that the 19 responses were still being evaluated by her department, Expo New Mexico staff and the Governor's Office.
        "All three of those entities had a chance to review the comprehensive proposals that were submitted as part of the (request for information)," she said.
        "The next step that's going to happen is (issuance of) a formal request for proposals," she said.
        "It should be coming out soon, but I don't have any specific timeline," Gillespie said.