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Impact on city’s image concerns leaders

Copyright © 2014
Albuquerque Journal

Art dealer Craig Watson used to visit Albuquerque about four times a year for auctions and shows.

But he doesn’t expect to make the four-hour drive from Cortez, Colo., again — not after hearing about the city’s police shooting of a mentally ill homeless man March 16.

“It looks too dangerous,” Watson told the Journal in an interview. “Nothing’s been done. It affects my attitude of where I want to do business, for sure.”

Watson is one of roughly a dozen potential visitors, retirees or business people from around the country who have contacted the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce to express reservations about visiting the city since the death of James M. Boyd.

Outrage over the shootings has civic leaders wondering about the damage to Albuquerque’s reputation across the country.

“The comments that we’ve received have run the gamut from people who had visited Albuquerque with the Balloon Fiesta and won’t come back to the event to people considering Albuquerque to retire in and have changed their mind about that decision,” chamber president Terri Cole said Wednesday.

“We’ve also had a couple of emails from people interested in creating a business here, and they decided now that they’re not going to move forward with that.”

Brad Winter, the senior member of the City Council, said he’s “absolutely” concerned about the city’s reputation. Police released video of the Boyd shooting last week — it shows him appearing to turn away from officers just before he’s shot — and news organizations across the country picked it up.

“It went viral,” Winter said. “Public safety absolutely is a big concern. What are we going to do to fix this?”

Councilor Rey Garduño, who represents the Southeast Heights, said he hopes people won’t lose hope and fail to do what’s needed to improve the police department.

“I think it does hurt an area, a region when it’s spoken of in derisive terms,” Garduño said. “… My hope is we can get rid of these cowboys or whoever’s causing these problems.”

Albuquerque is already the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is examining whether APD has a pattern or practice of violating people’s civil rights through the use of force. Representatives of the DOJ, in fact, visited the city on Wednesday to meet with local activists.

And earlier Tuesday, hours before the latest incident, hundreds of demonstrators poured in to Downtown to protest the number of police shootings.

The backlash certainly has the attention of local business leaders.

“We have fielded a few calls and emails into our office from potential visitors,” said Tania Armenta of the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has a contract to market the city. “We are concerned, as the city’s image is critical to the work we do to improve the economic vitality of the area.”

Cole said she has responded to people who contact the Chamber of Commerce by assuring them that Albuquerque is a safe city, though the chamber shares their concern about the “disturbing” video of the Boyd shooting.

The video “is not good for Albuquerque or for our reputation,” Cole said. “The sooner that the DOJ releases their report, and the mayor makes some decisions about what the initiatives for the future will be, the better. We are looking forward to supporting and participating with him and others in whatever those initiatives will be.”

The controversy coincides with Tesla Motors’ announcement this year that it’s considering New Mexico, among other places, for the construction of a massive battery plant.

Cole said that how Albuquerque responds to the shootings may be a factor.

“I think Tesla will understand that almost every city in America is trying to figure out how to address these kinds of situations,” Cole said. “What we do from this point forward is going to matter more to Tesla than what happened, provided the proper leadership (actions) are taken thoroughly and quickly.”

Mayor Richard Berry wasn’t immediately available for comment Wednesday because of a minor medical procedure, an official said. But his economic development director, Gary Oppedahl, addressed the city’s reputation in a written statement.

“The mayor has taken steps to ensure a comprehensive and thorough examination of the (Boyd) case,” Oppedahl said. “Moreover, we believe most people will continue to recognize Albuquerque as a premier destination for visiting or relocating.”

As for Watson, who deals in Navajo rugs, he’s not likely to come back, he said, unless he sees big changes in the police department.

“I can do plenty of business elsewhere,” he said.

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