Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
In a State of the City address focused heavily on Albuquerque’s relative stability in the face of COVID-19, Mayor Tim Keller said he believes the city has the foundation needed for a strong recovery.
Keller used the address – his third since assuming office in late 2017 – to stress a point he has made repeatedly in recent months: Albuquerque has weathered the pandemic better than many communities because of efforts such as virus containment, sustaining services and offering help to families and businesses.
Keller’s speech, which was prerecorded at locations around the city and broadcast Sunday on KOAT-TV, covered much of the same ground as his regular COVID-19 briefings. He and senior-level city administrators touted the city’s child care programming, as well as the consistent effort to feed seniors and find foster homes for shelter animals despite the tumult of the pandemic.
“This crisis revealed the cracks in the system all across our country,” he said. “Here in Albuquerque, it also revealed our strengths.”
Keller and his leadership team highlighted the financial aid the city received during the pandemic and the financial aid it distributed. The city, which received $150 million in federal coronavirus relief money last spring, deployed $10 million for a small-business grant program and created other programs specifically for restaurants, microbusinesses and nonprofits. It also offered direct aid to low-income households and immigrants who did not qualify for any other relief.
As he has done several times in recent months, Keller displayed a graphic showing that Albuquerque has fared better than other regional cities, including El Paso, Phoenix and Oklahoma City, on COVID-19-specific metrics, such as virus cases per capita and test positivity rate.
“We are demonstrating every day that this city is special and that we are uniquely a healthier place to be right now,” he said. “And it’s not going unnoticed; now people are moving here, and our kids who have moved away are now boomeranging back home.”
Keller, who will soon launch his reelection campaign, also reiterated his reasons for optimism in 2021 and beyond.
That includes expected progress toward the city’s long-awaited Gateway Center, which will provide emergency shelter and services to the growing number of people who are homeless. Keller has for years made it a priority to create the centralized 24/7 shelter, but the project hit a roadblock a year ago when the University of New Mexico said the city could not build on its property. The city secured a different location: the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson, which it is buying for $15 million.
“It offers a good location, versatility and is home to facilities that will help meet people’s specific needs,” he said.
Although a recent city progress report said Albuquerque ranks last among six peer cities on key economic indicators, Keller said in his speech that the city is becoming a center for the film and space industries.
He cited Netflix’s expansion project at Mesa del Sol, which the city is supporting with $7 million in grants and in-kind infrastructure, and the possible Orion development. The aerospace company is exploring a major campus near the Albuquerque International Sunport that representatives have said could mean up to 1,000 jobs, and Keller in his speech said the company has just secured local manufacturing space to “start building out its team here.” He said more details will be forthcoming. The new space is about 200,000 square feet, according to Keller’s office.
Keller also addressed public safety, largely regarded as the city’s No. 1 challenge.
He highlighted both the city’s effort to continue hiring more police officers and its planned Community Safety Department, which is still being formed. The new department is expected to absorb some 911 calls – such as those related to behavioral health or abandoned cars – that police and firefighters normally would field.
Although Keller did not specifically mention the city’s rising violent crime rate, he said gun violence remains “stubbornly high.” He said Albuquerque is not immune from big-city challenges and needs a multifaceted public safety approach.
“It’s not about pretending one person or one mayor or one chief can solve all our problems in the short term,” said Keller, who recently appointed Harold Medina as police chief after asking former Chief Mike Geier to resign last year. “As much as politicians like to pretend there are easy answers, this takes so much more. Making our city safer in lasting ways requires resolve and dedication for a long road.”