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Route 66 visitor center may need 3 years to become sustainable, study says

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A rendering of the planned West Central Route 66 Visitor Center. (Mullen Heller Architecture)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County is scheduled to break ground this year on a $12 million-plus visitor center on West Central that the county has said is expected to generate enough money to sustain itself.

But a new analysis says the facility will likely run at a deficit for at least three years and require subsidies to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual operating costs.

The study also found that the planned West Central Route 66 Visitor Center has potential as a “destination attraction” but that its long-term success will depend heavily on the community’s desire to rent it out for weddings, banquets and other events – likely needing over 100 large-scale paid functions every year to achieve profitability.

The findings come from a new report by Economic & Planning Systems Inc. The county contracted the Denver-based firm to perform a market analysis and feasibility study of the visitor center, planned for Central and 136th Street.

County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, a longtime proponent of the project who represents the southwestern part of the county, disagrees with some of the findings. He contends it will not take years to achieve sustainability since the community is already clamoring for the space.

“We already have people waiting in line,” he said.

Bernalillo County, the city of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico have collectively pumped millions of dollars into the project, which is supposed to include a museum, gift shop, taproom, banquet room, large kitchen, amphitheater and parking lot designed to accommodate drive-in movies.

The center has evolved in terms of size and cost, according to county records. A 2018 master plan for the project included two buildings totaling 15,000 square feet and a total estimated price of $8.2 million. But county documents from October reflect a single 21,500-square-foot building that will cost $12.2 million – changes officials say reflect greater community input and the roughness of early price estimates.

With construction nearing, County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley in October pushed for a market analysis of the project, saying the county had “missed a step” by proceeding without one.

O’Malley said she wanted a sense of the associated operating and maintenance costs since the county will own the building and is ultimately responsible. While she said this week that many operational details must still “be fleshed out,” the report made her more confident about moving forward.

“I think it has the ability to be successful,” she said of the center.

The EPS report says the Route 66 Visitor Center has potential to attract people to western Albuquerque as it will appeal to both tourists and locals “interested in the allure of Route 66 history, architecture, and culture.”

But the consultant predicts it will take at least three years to reach event stabilization during which time the venue will require help to pay its estimated $360,021 in personnel, utility and other operational expenses.

And even after the startup phase, the venue will require frequent paid activity to achieve sustainability.

“Unless event utilization is on the high end, the facility is likely to operate at a deficit,” the report says.

The report calculates high usage as 120 events per year with average attendance of at least 100 people apiece. That would be significantly more than other area museum and cultural centers the report looked at for comparison; the comparable Albuquerque and Santa Fe venues the analysis considered average about 60 events per year.

But privately owned, dedicated event centers the consultant examined often have far more; the report says Noah’s of Albuquerque in the city’s northwest quadrant hosts 280 events per year.

Quezada said the Route 66 Visitor Center would fill a void in the community’s southwestern quadrant and that he has no doubt it will attract enough rentals.

“There is nothing up there but homes – tons of homes, tons of people who spend money, people who want to have events, people who want to get married, people who want to have quinceñeras. And guess what. They want to do it on their side of town,” he said.

EPS’ report proposes a budget based on a high level of rental activity. It estimates $492,321 annually in expenses, while revenue could reach $574,750 – a profit of $82,429.

But that does not include the building’s annual maintenance of an estimated $129,000 per year.

The county would be responsible for the maintenance and any potential deficits, the report says.

The report also called into question some other assumptions about the project.

That includes the staffing plan proposed by the West Central Community Development Group, the nonprofit the county has selected as the venue’s operator and manager.

The group proposed a single half-time paid employee to start and increasing as necessary, which the new report said is “not a viable business model.” EPS estimates that the center requires the equivalent of five full-time employees to keep its doors open enough hours and carry out the necessary functions.

The report also noted that the center’s location “in a relatively undeveloped” area nine miles outside of Downtown Albuquerque might make it hard to attract a taproom operator as brewery customers already have many local options closer to where they live and work.

But Quezada disputes that, too, saying several have already expressed interest. He said he cannot identify them because they must go through the county’s proposal process.

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