New Mexico’s space and creative technology industries could get a $200 million boost from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Build Back Better Regional Challenge.”
The EDA short-listed grant proposals from two community coalitions — one led by Central New Mexico Community College and the other by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce — as finalists for up to $100 million each.
If awarded, the money would significantly pump up local industry growth in both the space and creative sectors with new facilities and programs to support businesses and workforce development in the Mid-Rio Grande Corridor.
The two proposals, submitted separately by each local coalition, are among 60 finalists out of 529 grant requests made by groups nationwide. The CNM and Hispano Chamber-led coalitions will now receive $500,000 each to build out their initial proposals into much more detailed plans for submission to the EDA in March.
The EDA — a federal agency run by the U.S. Commerce Department — will next select between 20 and 30 coalition proposals for grant awards, up to a maximum of $100 million for each winning coalition.
The grant money comes from $3 billion allotted to the EDA early this year as stimulus funding under the American Rescue Plan to assist states and local communities with economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The EDA earmarked $1 billion of that for its Build Back Better challenge to develop and strengthen regional industry clusters across the country.
Space industry cluster
The CNM-led “Space Valley Coalition” — which includes the New Space NM industry alliance, the NM Trade Alliance and the NM Spaceport Authority — is proposing to build a large “Space Valley Center” in Albuquerque that would serve as a central location for space-related industry development in New Mexico. The new facility would include a large auditorium to accommodate up to 750 people, breakout rooms with space for up to 150 people, business offices, and lab areas for space companies.
It would become New Mexico’s premier gathering and co-working place for the space industry, said T.J. Cook of CNM Ingenuity, which manages all of CNM’s commercial programs.
Today’s myriad space-related companies and organizations would come together there for meetings, conferences, networking and collaboration. Space-focused business accelerators and incubator programs would expand their current programs, services and resources there. And CNM and partner organizations would locate some space-related workforce education and training programs there.
The center’s vision and mission would be similar to the Rainforest Innovations building at the Innovate ABQ development zone Downtown, where public, private and academic organizations and individuals coalesce to advance entrepreneurship, technology innovation and startup companies, Cook said.
“The Space Valley Center would bring the community together in one central place like Rainforest Innovations, but here the glue would be the space industry and economy,” Cook told the Journal.
It could also propel New Mexico’s space industry into national prominence, attracting space-related conferences large and small to Albuquerque, enticing space-based companies and entrepreneurs to set up business operations here, and providing government agencies and professionals with a place specially designed for space issues and development, said NM Trade Alliance President Randy Trask. Center facilities would be built to Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, standards, allowing U.S. defense entities, other government agencies, and companies with clearance to hold classified meetings and conferences there.
That would make the center one of the only large SCIF-standard facilities in the nation not located on a U.S. military base.
“Currently, those types of facilities are in high demand, because most are on military bases, and the ones that aren’t are too small and are often located in places that are hard to get to,” Trask told the Journal. “The center would make us one of the top two best facilities in the country for these kinds of large classified meetings.”
Apart from the space center, the coalition proposal also seeks funding to construct a multipurpose building with rooms, labs, bays and storage space at the vertical launch area of Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, said CNM Ingenuity CEO Kyle Lee. It would be equipped to facilitate rocket assembly and preparation, payload integration and processing, and mission control.
Funding would also be channeled into new space-related workforce development programs, and to help set up a new space-focused venture fund of up to $25 million to invest in up to 30 New Mexico companies over 10 years. That would include a “venture studio” to provide business development service to those companies.
If the coalition won the full $100 million EDA grant to fund all the proposed projects, the Mid-Region Council of Governments estimates it would create $540 million in economic growth over 10 years, generating at least 1,000 direct jobs and thousands more indirect jobs.
Creative tech cluster
The Hispano Chamber-led coalition is a network of financial institutions, colleges, nonprofits and city governments, each working to make Central and Northern New Mexico a leader in creative technologies ranging from animation to artificial intelligence.
If the coalition, known as “Create New Mexico,” receives EDA funding, it would finance eight coordinated projects in the creative technology sector, each one headed by a different organization.
Proposed projects range from a city of Santa Fe effort to establish a mixed-use manufacturing and entrepreneurial hub in the city, to a proposal by the nonprofit Stagecoach Foundation to host boot camps focused on creative technology within the film and television industry.
Hispano Chamber Grant Development Director Ryan Chavez said bringing disparate organizations together will help boost collaborative opportunities among creative sectors that often stay trapped in their own silos.
“This is really an effort to bring everyone together and get on the same page, so that we can build a sustainable cluster,” Chavez told the Journal.
The coalition has taken a broad definition of what constitutes creative technology. That includes AI, animation, video games and 3-D modeling and printing, among other jobs that require both creative skill and technological know-how.
“It takes more of a combination of left brain and right brain for this type of creative technology,” she said.
Chavez said New Mexico, particularly in the Mid-Rio Grande and North Central areas, is well positioned to capitalize on the sector.
The coalition said both areas have a higher concentration of jobs than the national average. But there are some barriers to growth, such as poor Internet access, which contributes to an urban-rural divide.
“We have some infrastructure and broadband issues that make it harder for rural and sometimes Native American communities to access the internet, which is a huge part of creative tech,” Chavez said.
Another challenge is a shortage of venture capital funding, although organizations like Santa Fe-based Creative Startups and the Albuquerque-based micro-lending institution DreamSpring will work to bridge that gap within the sector under the Chamber proposal.
Metta Smith of DreamSpring said that organization would provide virtual and in-person technical assistance to entrepreneurs on lines of credit, financial literacy and other topics.
“A lot of our clients, especially if they’re startups, they’ve never taken out a business loan before,” Smith said.
Additionally, a new seed fund will support creative technology entrepreneurs, providing at least 25 loans by year-end 2022. Smith said 80% of loan recipients would be women or ethnic minorities.
“Post-pandemic, these are the businesses that have had to show incredible resilience,” Smith said.
Chavez said the coalition will use its $500,000 EDA grant to build an even broader network of partners for the more detailed proposal now due in March.