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County might buy Alvarado Square

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County is looking for a new Downtown home.

County executives say they are analyzing the idea of buying and renovating PNM’s old Alvarado Square building. It would allow the county to consolidate many of its offices – now scattered across the Downtown core – into one location.

“We’re a long way from making a final decision,” County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins said in an interview. “I‘m going to ask for a clear explanation of the cost and how we will recover those costs before we make a decision.”

The landmark Alvarado building, vacated by the Public Service Co. of New Mexico last year, spans across Silver Avenue and is available for $11.1 million. It’s among the options the county is examining.

Much of the county’s workforce is now housed in the 11-story Government Center on Civic Plaza, shared with the city of Albuquerque. The county owns half the building. The county has a handful of other buildings Downtown, including the old courthouse, just south of the Government Center; the assessor’s office, across the street at Fifth and Tijeras; and Union Square, near the railroad tracks and Central.

Consolidating them all under one roof has been a county goal for years. In 2008, the county sold about $42 million in bonds to buy the Cavan Building, which housed the old Petroleum Club building at 500 Marquette. The county reversed the decision and repaid the bonds.

Alvarado Square is much cheaper and not as fancy. It’s considered “Class B” space, not “Class A” like 500 Marquette.

County Commissioner Wayne Johnson said he’s willing to consider a move depending on “how the consolidation plan would work.”

“We have to demonstrate that this is an important part of the county being fiscally responsible before I can support it,” he said.

County Manager Tom Zdunek said that improving service to the public is a priority.

If the county moves, he said, he wants to have a “customer service center” where people can pay their property taxes, pay a recreation fee or file paperwork – all in one spot.

“There is the argument that if we had all our services in one building it would be more convenient for our customers,” Hart Stebbins said.

Alvarado Square is available for $45 a square foot, a price held down because it has no dedicated parking of its own. There are, however, garages nearby.

Parking “certainly is a hurdle for us to consider,” Zdunek said. “We’re evaluating other options for what parking is available.”

Alvarado Square was built in 1978-79 for about $18 million, the equivalent of about $53 million today when adjusted for inflation.

Zdunek said Alvarado Square could meet the county’s needs, probably with some room for growth. There could be a customer service center on the first floor, in addition to space that can be turned into a 150-seat meeting chambers.

The chambers at the Government Center can hold 240 people. Hart Stebbins said anything the county builds would be less expensive and wouldn’t feature stadium-style seating.

As for the county’s current space, Zdunek said employees are both too spread out over too many places and cramped for space.

The county might sell the old courthouse – there have been inquiries on it, he said – and either lease or sell the assessor’s office building. The county’s space in the Government Center would be offered to the city first or rented to other agencies, such as the water authority.

Some employees would move out of Union Square, but it would stay open, Zdunek said. It’s possible some of the Sheriff’s Department employees now housed in a building they share with Albuquerque police could move to the new consolidated county office, he said.

The county has about $175 million in reserves, and about $14 million is either uncommitted or beyond what’s required under state law and to keep the county’s “AAA” credit rating.

Zdunek said the county could finance a building purchase by tapping some of those reserves and borrowing some money through revenue bonds. It’s possible that reduced operating costs could produce savings to make payments on the bonds, he said.

PNM doesn’t actually own Alvarado Square. It’s owned by Minneapolis-based Hunter Keith Industries Inc.

Any building purchase would require County Commission approval.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal