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Editorial: BernCo’s $12.2M visitors center not ready for prime time

Bernalillo County’s proposed Route 66 Visitors Center is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

Or the $12.2 million project plan before the feasibility study.

Or the 4,400-square-foot restaurant and commercial kitchen before the management plan.

Thankfully, the County Commission unanimously voted last month to pump the brakes a bit and get a marketing study before construction begins on Nine Mile Hill, at West Central and 136th Street.

County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley is being kind when she says the county “missed a step” in the planning process. She’s the one who introduced the resolution requiring a third-party consultant to evaluate “proposed uses for the Route 66 Visitors Center and to ascertain whether or not there is a current or future market” for them. And she’s absolutely right that an economic needs study is “something most businesses do” before investing $12.2 million in a venture.

But then, businesses spend their own money, not yours.

The term “visitors center” likely conjures up an expanded rest stop with rest rooms, brochures and maybe snack machines and coffee – something lacking on the way into town on eastbound Interstate 40, though readily available at the travel center/truck stop also on Central atop Nine Mile Hill as well as the Route 66 Casino/Laguna Burger properties on both sides of the interstate several miles west.

Adding a museum could make sense, depending on what’s curated, because just a few exits into Albuquerque there’s the Albuquerque Museum (history and art), the New Mexico Museum of Natural History (including a Dynamax theater and planetarium) and Explora! Children’s Museum (hands-on learning for all ages). Farther in, there’s the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (cataloguing our state’s nuclear legacy), and up Interstate 25 there’s the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum (self explanatory, right?).

And those are just the top-of-mind museum sites.

As for event space, that usually is part of a community center, though perhaps this could be a two-for-one proposition.

When it comes to the commercial kitchen and taproom, there are valid concerns that these types of businesses take expertise to be done well, that even when done well success can be elusive, and that the county has offered few to zero details on who will run them, for what cost to taxpayers and for what clientele.

Not to mention, why is the county going to compete with private-sector enterprises? And who will staff this and pay the salaries or organize the volunteers?

(Nonprofit West Central Community Development Group – run by Albuquerque City Councilor Klarissa Peña’s husband – has been designated operator and manager, but what visitors center/restaurant/bar experience does its officials have?)

Though the county will own the center, the city and state have kicked in several million dollars, with more in the pipeline. More than $1 million has already been spent on land and architectural services.

Peña, who is pushing the project with Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, says it grew from the original 15,000 square feet and $8.2 million price tag after additional community input.

But wants don’t equal needs, and just because you build it doesn’t mean visitors will come.

So kudos to O’Malley for pushing for more details and a full study of the project – albeit after the fact – and to the rest of the commission for supporting the study unanimously.

Because our residents have plenty of needs before we fund an unvetted enterprise for imaginary visitors.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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