RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Albuquerque mayoral candidates tackled everything from economic development on the West Side to legalizing marijuana and splitting up the Albuquerque Public Schools district during a forum at the Don Newton Taylor Ranch Community Center on Tuesday night.
About 90 people attended the forum, which was hosted by the West Side Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. Organizers said all eight mayoral candidates were invited, but County Commissioner Wayne Johnson and businessman Ricardo Chaves did not attend.
While participating candidates weren’t all asked the same questions, economic development on the West Side emerged as one of the common themes, with several candidates being asked to address the topic.
“The question isn’t how we build more bridges, the question is how do we create more jobs so that people who live on the West Side can live, work and play on the West Side,” Brian Colón, an attorney and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said, attributing the “insightful” observation to Deanna Archuleta, who dropped out of the mayoral race earlier this year.
“For me, I think we need to do infill growth… I’m one of the candidates that’s standing tall saying, ‘Look, I want planned growth and development here on the West Side,'” Colón said. “I’m willing to say that we need to use economic development tools for our city to provide good planned growth. With good planned growth you can spur job creation. I want to build up businesses that we have on the West Side, but I also want to spend time attracting businesses to the West Side.”
He said there are already businesses in Albuquerque that want to expand to the West Side, but they’re holding off because of the crime problem.
“The first thing we have to do is address the crime issue,” Colón said. “Then we’ve got to incentivize small businesses here on the West Side to take their business to the next level and also have continued conversations about bringing in external entities to build their jobs here.”
Michelle Garcia Holmes, a retired APD detective and former attorney general chief of staff, said she would hire a new economic development director and hold a summit with small businesses to discuss what the city can do to help them.
“We’re always looking for that next big business; we give them tax breaks,” she said. “When they’re done feeding off of us they leave, and then what are we left with? Joblessness, right? I want to look at our over 50,000 small businesses that we have right here. Let’s give them incentives. Let’s help them grow by one. If we can take 25 percent of our small businesses and help them grow by one or two we can do that. I think we can do that.”
Susan Wheeler-Deichsel, co-founder of the civic group Urban ABQ, was asked how she would ensure that water would be available for West Side growth.
“I don’t support the Santolina project,” she said. “That will bring us back a lot of water possibilities because water is a huge issue with respect to that. I do think those folks that are part of that should be offered land swaps. And I think that’s a real possibility that has to be looked at.”
And she agreed with Colón that the city should give businesses incentives to grow on the West Side and for larger businesses to set up shop in the area.
State Auditor Tim Keller was asked to weigh in on tax breaks given to Santolina, Mesa del Sol and others.
“I’ve been working on tax incentive reform for almost 10 years,” Keller said, noting that the bills he got through the legislature that would have required a return on investment calculation on those tax breaks were vetoed by both Gov. Bill Richardson and Gov. Susana Martinez.
“What I believe is we should use these tools when there is a return on investment
and when they are good for the community,” Keller said. “I stood against SunCal. I was one of the deciding votes against SunCal. I have a long history fighting subsidized sprawl, and certainly I will continue to do that. But I do believe these tools are tools and they can be used for good or they can be used for bad.”
Keller added that he believes in engaging the community, and he would like to have an employee at every community center in the city getting input on all major issues, including proposed industrial revenue bonds and tax increment development districts.
City Councilor Dan Lewis, who has represented the West Side for eight years, was questioned about his proposal to split up APS and whether that would segregate the Albuquerque community.
“Absolutely not,” he responded. “Colorado Springs has eight different school districts. It’s smaller than Albuquerque, has eight school districts … and they produce great results … Our numbers are failing when it comes to graduation rates. We could do so much better.”
Lewis said APS can be split up in such a way that the new smaller districts would continue to share the tax base so that economic disparities aren’t created.
“Let’s make our school district smaller, closer to the people it serves, more accountable (and) more transparent,” he said. “There’s some great examples of that. Rio Rancho Public Schools spends half the money per student than APS does. It’s one of the most successful school districts in the state, and it broke off from APS.”
Recent University of New Mexico graduate Gus Pedrotty, meanwhile, drew both gasps and laughs when he talked about legalizing marijuana as a way to get a handle on the heroin epidemic and associated crime.
“There are actually ways we can diminish that marketplace, and one of the ways we do that is legalizing marijuana. He said it. The 22 year old said it,” Pedrotty said, as the audience erupted into laughter. “I’m sorry. I know it’s contentious, and I know that it feels uncomfortable for a lot of us. But it’s a trend on the state level, on the federal level and it reduces opioid deaths.”
He argued that marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and that if it is legalized and sold in stores, it would have a big impact on those trafficking heroin.