One of Albuquerque’s shining high-tech startups has put the city on notice that it may leave Downtown and potentially the state if something isn’t done about the “marked deterioration in the safety and security of the downtown Albuquerque area.”
Lavu, which launched in 2010, sent a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez and Mayor Richard Berry earlier this week decrying the crime and “consistent and ongoing verbal harassment by homeless and recently released inmates” that his employees have been having to endure.
“I cannot stress enough to the both of you how serious the lack of safety in downtown Albuquerque has become for Lavu,” company President Ohad Jehassi wrote. “So much that there are now serious discussions at the Board of Director level at Lavu as to the need of Lavu to move … so that Lavu can assure employees that they need not risk their life, health or property when coming to or leaving from work.”
Jehassi met with members of the Berry administration, including Police Chief Gorden Eden, on Wednesday to discuss his concerns. Gilbert Montaño, Mayor Berry’s chief of staff, called it a positive and productive meeting.
“As a result of the meeting, we are focused and have implemented a new tactical plan to address those concerns,” he said.
While he declined to go into specifics, Montaño said overtime has been approved to increase the presence of officers trained in crisis intervention, including dealing with individuals with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
“Part of the (tactical) plan employs and allows for more officers to saturate that area,” he added. “Some other issues we don’t have control over. Jail drop off has always been a point of contention.”
Bernalillo County runs the Metropolitan Detention Center and decides where inmates who are being released are dropped off.
The Journal was unable to reach Jehassi for comment late Friday. But he issued a statement to KOB-TV, saying the meeting went well.
“Our meeting with the mayor’s office was very encouraging,” he told the news station. “We are optimistic that his administration will work with us to improve safety conditions in downtown Albuquerque, not only for our employees, but for our entire community. As a contributor to our city’s growing economy, we understand how important the downtown district is and Lavu remains invested in Albuquerque’s success.”
Stolen news vehicle
Ironically, a KOB vehicle was stolen in Downtown Albuquerque on Friday while the station’s crew was working on the Lavu story.
Michelle Donaldson, KOB news director, said the crew watched as the SUV was stolen near First and Central.
“I have a rule, that you can never be the lead of your own newscast,” Donaldson said. “So this violates that rule.”
KOB recovered the vehicle within a half hour without police assistance by following the GPS tracking device that was on board, she said.
“We went to that location and recovered our own stolen vehicle,” Donaldson said.
She said the thief was no longer with the SUV and it had already been damaged. The SUV was locked and the keys were not left inside.
“I’m relieved that our people are OK and I’m relieved that we’ve recovered our property, but I’m very angry that somebody can walk up to a parked, locked, vehicle in front of you in this city and drive it away,” Donaldson said. “It’s a helpless feeling to know you can’t do anything about it.”
Crime has become the main issue in the mayor’s race, with many candidates arguing that the situation has reached crisis level. The National Insurance Crime Bureau recently reported that the Albuquerque area had the highest per-capita rate of auto thefts in the country.
Lavu’s concerns a priority
Lavu developed software that allows restaurants and hotels to conduct their business on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.
It currently employs 117 people, 86 of them at its offices in the Theater Building at Central Avenue and First Street. The company has 31 positions open. Roughly 20,000 food and beverage businesses in 88 countries use its systems.
Montaño said addressing Lavu’s concerns is “an absolute priority.”
“Having businesses thrive and feel safe, that’s a priority and will remain a priority to the end of our term,” he said. “It’s a priority. It is something we will constantly address whether it’s Lavu or another business.”
Jehassi’s letter chronicled a series of incidents over the last four months that prompted him to demand that something be done.
⋄ At 5:30 p.m. on June 15, one of the company’s female employees was the victim of an attempted mugging as she walked from Lavu to the parking structure a block away.
⋄ On June 10, another employee’s vehicle was broken into in the parking structure on Second Street. His laptop and iPad were stolen.
⋄ On March 19, a night shift employee found his vehicle window shattered in the parking garage.
“There are frequently situations occurring that are concerning for our employees to encounter – employees have witnessed physical altercations break out in front of them, drug dealing, drug use and public nudity,” Jehassi wrote.
He goes on to state that the sidewalk in front of their building and across the street is usually littered with empty alcohol containers, garbage “and sometimes with excrement and urine.”
Jehassi also states that one of his employees recently filed an official complaint with the company “alleging that the working conditions at Lavu are unsafe and that an imminent danger exists for Lavu employees.”
CofC worried, too
Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is very concerned about crime in Downtown Albuquerque. The organization’s offices are in the same area as Lavu’s offices. Cole said the problems in the area became serious enough that about seven months ago the chamber asked its landlord to secure the front door. Visitors must now announce themselves through an intercom system, and they are buzzed in.
“We’re doing everything we can to join with our (District Attorney), Mayor Berry and Chief Eden, all of whom have been very cooperative, to find ways to fix the problem,” Cole said. “The business community is part of that effort because increased crime in the city has created an economic disadvantage for our area and as a result, we need to marshal our forces and get it fixed.”