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Albuquerque economic developers are setting lofty goals for stimulating job creation in the metro area, boosting the city’s brand nationally and working to overcome some of its most stubbornly entrenched problems.
A first-of-its-kind five-year strategic plan commissioned by Albuquerque Economic Development was released Tuesday by AED officials. It lays out the organization’s vision: That the greater Albuquerque area be known and recognized for having the highest quality of life and the most diverse, sustainable economy in the region.
It’s going to be a heavy lift, said AED President and CEO Danielle Casey.
“That is a highly aspirational vision. But if we don’t have one, we have no idea where we want to be someday,” Casey said in an interview. “… I’ll be frank. I don’t see this vision happening in the next five years. But that was also why this five-year strategy is really the start of moving forward for the next 20 (years).”
Dale Dekker, founding principal of architecture firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini and an AED board member, said it’s a pivotal moment in the state’s history. As critical infrastructure spending from the government ramps up, U.S. companies look to move more operations closer to home, and the country generally emerges from the pandemic, Dekker said there’s a window for New Mexico to capitalize on — but it won’t stay open forever.
“We can’t spend years figuring this out,” Dekker said. “We’re going to have to move uber fast, and that’s just kind of the way it is.”
Job growth targeted
AED’s specific five-year goal is that Albuquerque rank in the top 25% of midsized markets in the U.S. for job growth. That would be a coup for the metro area, which saw just 0.7% job growth in the past five years, placing it in the bottom 25% for cities with a population of between 500,000 and 1 million people, Casey said.
AED also looked at where Albuquerque ranks on a number of metrics as compared to 10 other metro areas that compete for some of the same economic development opportunities: Dallas; Phoenix; Salt Lake City; Boise, Idaho; Colorado Springs; Des Moines, Iowa; El Paso; Omaha, Nebraska; Tucson, Arizona; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The plan also hones in on six “target clusters” of industries that already have some momentum locally and that AED leaders believe could help grow the region: aerospace, biosciences, renewable energy, digital media and film, corporate and professional services, and manufacturing. Because of its limited resources, Casey said AED will start by choosing two of those industries to focus on. A focus on corporate and professional services, for example, could include approaching firms that already operate call centers in the metro area, and working with them to relocate other departments of their business here — their marketing team, for example, Casey said, or their accounting departments.
Albuquerque does plenty well, and AED’s leaders plan to capitalize on and market the region’s strengths: A high number of people with professional and doctorate degrees, the synergy of multiple national labs, a more affordable workforce, higher education institutes that want to be responsive to workforce needs and, yes, the sunny, mostly natural disaster-free, climate.
The hurdles AED lays out aren’t insignificant — or new. Crime, poverty, homelessness, ineffective education and workforce preparation, and a lack of national and major publicly traded companies are just a few that made the list.
AED’s study asserts that violent and property crime in Albuquerque’s metro area is lower than the national average — but higher than all the other 10 cities, except Tulsa. The most recent crime statistics released by the FBI, however, show that Albuquerque outstrips the national average in both violent and property crime rates.
“I think we all realize that there probably is a rational nexus between crime, poverty and (an) education system that maybe isn’t performing at its peak,” Dekker said.
Joe Farr, president of Duke City Commercial real estate firm and AED board chair, said it will be hard to attract new companies to relocate Downtown, for example, if crime and homelessness aren’t reduced.
Still, Ioanna Morfessis of IO.INC, a consultant that contributed to AED’s report, wrote in an email that, “without exception,” all of the 80 stakeholders she interviewed — from the public, private, educational and civic sectors — were “very optimistic” about the region’s future.
“There is a somber acknowledgement that some fundamental human issues need to be addressed, as they are root causes, especially with respect to poverty,” Morfessis wrote. “Yes, it is possible to work toward ameliorating this condition and it will require a sustained commitment on the part of the entire community — all sectors and over a long period of time.”
Albuquerque’s workforce offerings are a bit of a mixed bag. Barry Matherly, president and CEO of Global Hickey, the consultant that led AED’s strategic plan development, said the metro area does have a large, competitively priced workforce — a good thing for businesses that want to hire here.
“One of the positive things about the region is, due to your basically lower cost of living there, people are able to get by with less,” said Matherly, who is based in New York.
Albuquerque’s wage growth is also lower than all its competitive markets, according to data compiled for the plan.
When it comes to workers’ level of education, things get a little more complicated. On the one hand, Albuquerque stacks up quite well in terms of high-level and professional degrees — likely thanks mostly to the presence of New Mexico’s national labs. About 2.2% of Albuquerque’s 25-and-older population holds a doctorate degree — more than any of AED’s 10 competitor markets.
But Albuquerque’s high school diploma and bachelor’s degree stats aren’t nearly as impressive. About 11.2% of Albuquerque’s 25-and-up population holds less than a high school diploma, according to data presented in AED’s report — or somewhere in the middle of the pack. About 17.3% hold a bachelor’s degree, near the bottom of the heap.
In other words, Matherly said, Albuquerque seems to be able to recruit highly educated workers just fine — but it’s got a big problem with churning out its own educated workforce.
“The more stable pipeline is to grow up through your university system so you are producing your own talent,” he said.
Matherly and Dekker both said that leaders at Central New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico are committed to responding to workforce needs.
“That’s huge,” Dekker said. “… We don’t have to invent that.”
While Sandia National Laboratories and the Los Alamos National Lab have brought plenty of advanced degree-holders to the region, Casey said not enough of that brainpower is being transferred from the labs to the marketplace.
“Innovation is off the hook, but we’re not commercializing it here,” she said.
Industrial real estate
Available industrial real estate is another sticking point in the Albuquerque area.
Matherly, whose company’s largest division provides site-selection consulting, said having available speculative space — facilities built by developers without a tenant lined up — is attractive to large companies.
“It has always been the case that a ready-to-go site … just quickens the timeframe,” Matherly said.
It also makes investment in a new market less risky for companies, Matherly said — an especially important quality for CEOs emerging from the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of dirt at Sandia Science and Tech Park, just hanging out,” Casey said. “… I can’t imagine that if we had speculative space at Sandia Science and Tech Park, they wouldn’t be full.”
Casey, who joined AED last year after the retirement of longtime AED head Gary Tonjes, said bolstering Albuquerque’s reputation is a necessary step in AED’s long-term plan. She said that, during her interview for the job, she was asked what Albuquerque needed to do to attract business.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Well, let’s at least start with building a national brand because I haven’t heard anything about Albuquerque in 10 years’, ” Casey said. ” ‘… I don’t really have an impression of it.’ ”
Casey emphasized that the strategic plan is just one part of a yearslong process to try and spur growth in the metro area.
“This is where the real work begins,” she said.