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A fresh direction: Inside ABQ’s economic development plan

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

On July 20, at a press conference held at the under-development Glorieta Station site Downtown, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller presented his plan to develop the city’s economy.

The plan comprises six areas of focus – “increment of one,” buy local, smart recruitment, creative economy and film, international business and “placemaking” (see sidebar) – and covers a wide swath of initiatives aimed at addressing the employment and poverty issues that have long plagued the city.

Mayor Tim Keller says he hopes to increase the number of businesses in Albuquerque as well as the average wage across the city, among other goals. (Steve Knight/Albuquerque Journal)

In a recent interview with the Journal, Keller characterized the plan as a significant departure from that of previous administrations.

“They were always trying to land the elephant, always trying to get an Amazon or a Tesla to move here,” said Keller. “We want to increase opportunities for all types of businesses.”

The city’s director of economic development under Keller, Synthia Jaramillo, echoed that sentiment and said the plan is a reflection of “a whole new culture of collaboration that we’re looking to take outside of City Hall.”

To what extent does the plan represent a strategic shift, and to what extent does it echo the policies of Keller’s predecessors? According to Albuquerque Economic Development Inc., a not-for-profit that has recruited employers and performed other development activities on behalf of the city under multiple administrations, the plan includes both new approaches and initiatives that build upon on existing infrastructure and strategy.

Industry focus

Mayor Tim Keller says developing the Rail Yards is a crucial component of the “placemaking” area of focus. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

According to AED President Gary Tonjes, the city has agreed to spend $50,000 this year on business recruitment through its contract with AED. Tonjes said the city has made it clear that the recruitment efforts should focus on “a single industry or possibly two.”

“We’re in discussions with his staff about a sector or sectors to concentrate those efforts, but initial conversations have been around directed energy and aerospace,” said Tonjes in an email. “Historically, the city’s $50,000 contract with AED has been in support of a larger group of industries, so the dollars were spread quite thin.”

The administration plans to make Downtown’s Kimo Theatre a “creative hub for the film community.”

Tonjes characterized the economic development strategy of Keller’s predecessor, Richard Berry, as one of “build(ing) a solid foundation for making Albuquerque the kind of place where entrepreneurs can succeed.” The Keller administration, in Tonjes’ view, is “building on that foundation and introducing new strategies, especially those targeted toward local companies and residents.”

AED President Gary Tonjes

Tonjes said that both Berry and Keller have expressed strong support for AED’s Existing Business Development Program, which focuses on providing development services to local companies and was expanded under the Berry administration. Tonjes said the program team may serve as a resource to the Keller administration as the city executes of strategy of replacing some out-of-state vendors with local entities.

As for which part of the Keller administration’s strategy is likely to be most challenging, Tonjes said international business development can be “a very long game.”

“It takes a dedicated and consistent effort, properly funded, over the course of many years,” he said. “Thankfully, there has been some work done in that arena by the city, county and state in recent years on which to build.”

Measuring success

Hunter Sioshita, a manager at Zendo Coffee on Second Street Downtown, prepares a latte for a patron. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

When asked about the metrics his administration will use to evaluate the success of the plan, Keller pointed to two pieces of data: the number of businesses within city limits, which he said he is interpreting as a measure of entrepreneurship, and average wage rate across Albuquerque. According to the city’s Economic Development Department, there are 23,706 businesses in Albuquerque; the average wage rate in Bernalillo County was $913 per week as of the fourth quarter of 2017. The administration is seeking increases in both of those numbers.

“Historically, we’ve seen the opposite here: fewer companies and wages that are either flat or going down,” said Keller. “We really want to focus on broad growth.”

The mayor said he is “taking a risk” by laying out a comprehensive development plan and the rubric by which others – including, presumably, his political opposition – will be able to judge its success or failure.

Synthia Jaramillo (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Jaramillo said she is confident the administration can execute a comprehensive development agenda.

“We have to move the city forward,” she said.