A vision is important. Without knowing where you want to go, there isn’t much chance you will ever get there. So the five-year strategic document rolled out last week by Albuquerque Economic Development was welcome news.
The goal is a lofty one. That the greater Albuquerque area be recognized for having the highest quality of life and the most diverse, sustainable economy in the region. It sets out target clusters the group hopes will spur wage and job growth – metrics in which Albuquerque generally falls below both national averages and benchmark cities that range from Boise, Idaho, to El Paso to Omaha, Nebraska.
In fact its “big idea” metric is that it will move from having one of the lowest job growth rates in the country to being in the top 25% of mid-sized markets in the United States.
Playing to our strengths, AED says we already have competitiveness scores above the national average in the six target areas: aerospace, biosciences, renewable energy, digital media and film, corporate and professional services, and manufacturing that focuses on reshoring and onshoring opportunities.
The timing of AED’s public release was fortuitous, coming on the heels of separate lists that ranked New Mexico as 50th in best places to live, 50th in best places to retire and 49th in the annual Kids Count survey. Those are statewide rankings, but Albuquerque’s economic well being and that of the state are inextricably tied.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” said AED CEO Danielle Casey. “It is a highly aspirational vision. But if we don’t have one, we have no idea where we want to be someday.”
One key strategy is to spread the word nationally about our upsides in a highly competitive environment where cities of our size work hard to attract businesses. Pluses include a high number of people with professional and doctoral degrees (thanks to two national labs), a more affordable workforce and higher education institutions that want to be responsive to workforce needs. Plus, it’s usually sunny without much in the way of natural disasters.
Then there are the challenges. Crime, poverty, homelessness, ineffective education with low scores and too many dropouts made the list. You could add tax pyramiding, an anemic Downtown (a signature hotel hasn’t even opened yet after COVID throttled convention business) and a less-than-friendly business environment (think “reforms” that include a malpractice law that threatens our hospitals; attempts to raise the corporate income tax; state taxes on Social Security and pensions, etc.).
AED board chair Joe Farr correctly notes it will be hard to attract new companies Downtown if crime and homelessness aren’t reduced.
While we have a lot of advanced degrees, about 11% of Albuquerque’s 25 and up population holds less than a high school diploma. “Albuquerque seems to be able to recruit highly educated workers just fine,” said an AED consultant. “But it’s got a big problem with churning out its own educated workforce.” (Check our dismal literacy numbers.)
And yet, both the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College have been and remain committed to responding to workforce needs. “That’s huge,” said architect Dale Dekker, an AED board member.
We have had promising initiatives before, from the Sandia Science and Technology Park, to Innovate ABQ and the Lobo Rainforest. But as the recent rejection by the federal government for U.S. Space Command shows, until we get some collaboration across governing bodies, a great idea isn’t enough to change the trajectory of the city.
Speaking of facing challenges, the report gives Albuquerque better crime rankings than FBI statistics. An AED consultant says that’s through “a focus on the future as best as we can predict it.” He adds crime might increase even more in larger urban areas, improving our ranking. It’s a shame the report relies on quite frankly baffling metrics to describe our crime crisis – thus hurting its credibility.
Statistics aside, success will require the business and political worlds in New Mexico to agree on a path forward on issues ranging from crime to taxation to education. It can be done. Other places have made progress while we have lagged. AED has laid out a vision. As always, the challenge will be to make it reality. And Dekker adds an exclamation point when he says, “we can’t spend years figuring this out.”
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.