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AED leader reflects on 25 years bringing biz to ABQ

Gary Tonjes, who has been the president of Albuquerque Economic Development for 25 years, is retiring at the end of the month. Photographed on Wednesday July 22, 2020. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Gary Tonjes graduated from Eastern New Mexico University in the late 1970s, he returned to his hometown of Albuquerque looking for work.

However, he didn’t find much in the private sector.

So, more than a decade later and after stints working in Texas and Missouri, Tonjes jumped at the chance to move back to New Mexico as the president of Albuquerque Economic Development – aiming to help ensure the next generation of graduates would have a wider range of job opportunities to choose from.

“I always believed in Albuquerque,” said Tonjes, who started the position in November 1994. “They didn’t have to sell me.”

On Friday, Tonjes will conclude his 25-year tenure at the head of AED.

During an Economic Forum of Albuquerque event earlier this month, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the economic development organization brought more than 100,000 jobs to Central New Mexico under Tonjes’ stewardship.

“We owe you a huge debt of gratitude,” Keller told Tonjes during the event.

Albuquerque’s business leaders, too, lined up to praise Tonjes’ humility, work ethic and other positive traits.

“Gary was really about changing people’s lives,” said Steve Maestas, CEO of Maestas Development Group.

New Mexico grew quickly in the years leading up to the Great Recession. For Tonjes, one of the highlights from that period was luring Eclipse Aviation to Albuquerque from Arizona in 2000. At its peak, Tonjes said the aircraft manufacturer employed more than 2000 employees.

“They had the community buzzing in so many positive ways,” he said.

More recently, AED has helped attract several household names to the region. Netflix purchased Albuquerque Studios in 2019 and Facebook opened a $1 billion data center in Los Lunas last year, with more construction on the way.

Tonjes praised Facebook in particular, saying he and his team felt fortunate to be part of a high-profile project that required a lot of legwork.

Of course, there were setbacks along the way as well. The 2008 recession pushed Eclipse and a number of other companies into bankruptcy and robbed the city of its positive momentum.

“Not only did we lose Eclipse, but we lost tens of thousands of jobs during that period,” Tonjes said.

Tonjes was also frustrated that the city missed out on Tesla production facilities twice: once in 2007 and again in 2014. He said the electric car company could have created a multiplier effect that brought other technology companies to the city, as it did in Reno.

Along the way, Tonjes said Albuquerque has learned from its mistakes and become a more appealing place for companies to relocate.

Even with retirement on the horizon and a road trip across the West beckoning, Tonjes’ excitement about current and upcoming projects in Albuquerque was unmistakable. He praised projects ranging from Mesa Del Sol’s development to the proposed New Mexico United stadium that promise to make Albuquerque a vibrant city to live and work.

“New Mexico is, today, far more competitive than it has been,” Tonjes told the Journal. “Frankly, more competitive than it’s been since I joined the organization.”


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