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Editorial: Downtown businesses need a recovery plan, not just patchwork

Nearly two years ago, in his first year in office, Mayor Tim Keller said: “We rise and fall on Downtown.” Keller called himself the “promoter in chief” in marketing the city as a destination for visitors, conventions and sports during the annual meeting of Visit Albuquerque.

Today, Downtown is in a shambles, both economically and visibly. The tourism industry is essentially dead due to the pandemic and the related cancellations of major events such as Balloon Fiesta, the State Fair and Isotopes baseball. And the mayor’s efforts to tackle serious Downtown crime and homelessness with initiatives such as a new police substation at the Alvarado Transportation Center have produced little, if any, progress.

Then, to add insult to injury, came the early morning riot of June 1, during which many buildings along a several-block stretch of Central Avenue were vandalized. And it would have been worse if Albuquerque police had not intervened, albeit late, and rescued the KiMo Theatre from hooligans on the roof. Police feared the historic theater was about to be torched. Several other buildings were imperiled by 33 separate fires set Downtown.

A homeless man from Detroit who frequently walks Albuquerque’s Downtown streets told the Journal’s Rick Nathanson for a story published June 28 that the urban blight reminds him of areas of the Motor City: “dreary, depressed and ugly.”

Now, a month after the riot, the windows and doors of dozens of storefronts along Central Avenue and along some side streets remain boarded up with plywood. It’s unclear how many of them are boarded up because of damage inflicted by rioters and how many are boarded up as a protective measure. The city provided plywood for several properties after owners expressed concerns about further violence.

Several Downtown businesses had been preparing to reopen after weeks of closure due to the pandemic when the rioters hit, including Filling Philly’s. Rioters broke out multiple windows and stole all of that restaurant’s craft beer. Then, the vandals used the restaurant’s tables to build a bonfire in an intersection on Central.

The restaurant was still able to reopen, although questions persist about how the $16,000 of damages will be covered. Store general manager Jim Benvie said Filling Philly’s insurance policy doesn’t cover civil unrest or rioting. Other businesses damaged in the riot say they also lack such coverage.

Among businesses and buildings that were vandalized but remain open are the One Central building, the Banque Lofts, Harvest Foundation dispensary, the Silver Street Market, Jimmy John’s restaurant and Third Central Plaza. Businesses that remain closed and boarded up, either because of COVID restrictions, riot damage, vandalism prevention or all of the above, include Effex nightclub, Brixens bar and restaurant, Bourbon and Boots Western bar, Lindy’s restaurant and New Mexico Bank and Trust. The Sunshine Theater, KiMo Theatre and The Box performance space were vandalized but are expected to reopen when COVID restrictions are eased.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Department said the city is working on replacing broken windows “on a case-by-case basis.” That’s hardly a recovery plan.

Downtown businesses need a breath of new life, but are instead smothered by unsightly plywood, the pandemic and what appears to be a wait and watch law enforcement policy when it comes to rioters damaging property.

Jerry Mosher, who owns the Banque Lofts building and One Central Apartments, says the violence and damage have made it even more difficult to attract business to the Downtown area. He says he has tenants who want to move out and businesses that have backed out of their leases. Apparently lessees want a city that protects both people and property.

Downtown businesses are crying out for a plan, and the city’s responses thus far have been patchwork. Mayor Keller was right two years ago when he said cities rise and fall with their downtown areas. Short, midrange and long-term planning is needed to revitalize the Downtown area.

Mr. Mayor, what is your plan? Should damaged businesses send their repair bills to City Hall? Are there innovative programs or partnerships that can resuscitate our Downtown? Your time is now. What is it that you intend to do?

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.