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Film center could be ‘game changer’ for Rail Yards

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

An NBC crew works at the Albuquerque Rail Yards last week. A study says a potential community college film center could be “transformative” for the Rail Yards. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

A consultant hired to study the financial feasibility of redeveloping the Albuquerque Rail Yards called a planned community college film center a “game changer” – one that could “define the economic purpose of the site” in lieu of waiting for another potentially hard-to-find anchor.

Portland-based Leland Consulting Group called Central New Mexico Community College’s proposed Film Production Center of Excellence “an exciting and potentially transformative use” at the Rail Yards. The firm’s recent draft report to the city said officials should “do everything in their power” to ensure it comes to fruition.

The city and CNM in January signed a one-year memorandum of understanding saying they would “jointly investigate the possibility of locating a Film Production Center of Excellence” at the Rail Yards. The college has not yet executed a lease and said late last month it is still examining the potential project. It has $300,000 in state funds and a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Wells Fargo to plan the project. The college is also seeking $3.5 million for the project’s first phase as part of an $84 million bond issue going to voters this fall.

Leland’s latest report to the city – a draft “Summary of Market Analysis and Development Scenarios” dated May 7, 2019 – said the film center would be positive for a number of reasons, saying it would demonstrate redevelopment momentum, bring hundreds of students and professors – and their discretionary funds – to the site, and potentially spread the Rail Yards’ capital and operating costs among various partners. In addition, Leland said, CNM’s existing connections within the film industry could serve to attract other users.

“CNM can be one catalyst that pulls other innovative tenants and employers with it,” says the report, written by Leland’s Brian Vannerman.

The planned film center is especially valuable given what Leland’s report deems “economic warning signs” in Albuquerque.

While Vannerman wrote that Albuquerque seems to have recovered from the depths of the recession, and has seen some population and economic output growth, his report questioned the viability of adding much mixed employment space at the Rail Yards. It cited the largely stagnant lease rates at existing Downtown area office and industrial properties, and a real estate analysis that found prime Downtown locations are not commanding high enough rents to justify new construction.

Leland also noted a recent report by the Urban Land Institute “that indicates other western metro areas are more likely to attract outside development and investment dollars than Albuquerque.”

A consultant hired to help the city of Albuquerque with its Rail Yards redevelopment strategy says a planned Central New Mexico Community College film production center could play a vital role in the property’s overall revitalization. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“All of this underscores and emphasizes the importance of achieving incremental successes, leveraging key anchor institutions and uses such as CNM and the Rail Yards market, and the risk of pursuing ‘one big tenant’ and a ‘silver bullet’ strategy at the expense of incremental momentum (though big tenants are possible),” Leland’s report said.

The 27-acre Rail Yards site is located about a half-mile south of the heart of Downtown. Mayor Tim Keller has made redevelopment of the property – which hosts the seasonal Rail Yards Market, the Wheels Museum and occasional film productions, but is otherwise mostly dormant – one of his top priorities, deeming it a potential economic development engine. The state Legislature earlier this year appropriated $7.5 million in capital outlay funds to aid in the effort, and the city is seeking another $5 million as part of a general obligation bond package going to voters this fall.

Though the city and CNM have not signed a lease or selected a specific site for the film center, CNM President Katharine Winograd said the college is eager to join the project.

“CNM is committed to building a new CNM Film Production Center of Excellence to support the workforce needs of the fast-growing film industry in Albuquerque and New Mexico,” Winograd said in a written statement. “Mayor Keller’s vision for the development of the historic Rail Yards is very exciting for our community and CNM is grateful to be a part of it.”

Leland’s 28-page report fulfills a portion of the firm’s responsibilities under its $54,944 contract with the city. But the firm has missed contractual deadlines for several other obligations. It has yet to provide a financial analysis for renovating existing buildings and erecting new ones on vacant parts of the site, nor has it produced an estimated cost for remediation of the site. Leland was also supposed to have analyzed options for Rail Yards governance and evaluated infrastructure upgrades needed to ready the site for construction.

The contract says that should have been done by late April. By late May, Leland should have filed a report with action plans for up to three proposed development pathways.

Karen Iverson, the city’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency manager, said the timelines have shifted for several reasons, including meeting schedules, and she expects a final report by the end of July.

“It’s a complicated project,” she said. “We want to make sure we take the time to have a thoughtful, meaningful product to move the conversation forward.”

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