Editorial: BernCo needs to keep an eye on visitor center’s ROI - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: BernCo needs to keep an eye on visitor center’s ROI

Back in 2019, Bernalillo County approved a multimillion-dollar Route 66 Visitor’s Center without an economic feasibility study. In addition to a visitor’s center, plans included a 4,400-square-foot restaurant and commercial kitchen, a taproom, museum, amphitheater and drive-in movie.

In 2020, an after-the-fact study determined it could take at least three years for the center to be self-sustaining, meaning it would need help to pay its estimated $360,021 in annual personnel, utility and other operational expenses.

Even then, the Economic & Planning Systems Inc. study warned “unless event utilization is on the high end, the facility is likely to operate at a deficit.” What’s “the high end”? The study said it would take 120 events booked each year with average attendance of at least 100 people each (comparable Albuquerque and Santa Fe venues in the study averaged about 60 events per year).

Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, a longtime proponent, dismissed the caution, saying it would not take years to be self-sustaining because “we already have people waiting in line.” He told the Editorial Board that year Disney was interested in the project.

That same year, private event center operator Noah’s filed for bankruptcy and closed its locations, including one on the West Side of Albuquerque.

Now, in 2022, there’s been a ribbon-cutting and preview celebration, but the doors to the $13.1 million center remain locked. It is supposed to open some time next year.

The West Central Community Development Group, run by Albuquerque City Councilor Klarissa Peña’s husband, has a cozy contract with the county to operate the center, which was originally 15,000 square feet for $8.2 million, but quickly ballooned to 21,500 square feet for $13.1 million.

And the group’s executive director, Luis Hernandez, has further extended that murky timeline to self-sufficiency.

“Whether that’s three years or five years or 10 years, I don’t know. It all depends on how popular Route 66 really is.”

It certainly does, as well as how well run the center is, and what it offers that consumers want that isn’t available somewhere else. The group proposed a single half-time paid employee to start, increasing as necessary, which the report diplomatically said was “not a viable business model.” It estimated five full-time employees are needed to keep doors open enough hours and carry out necessary functions.

In the meantime, Albuquerque and Bernalillo County taxpayers will split a $500,000 check to West Community Development Group every year.

Those taxpayers deserve a regular, transparent accounting of how well, or not, the Route 66 Visitors Center is doing.

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.

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