Two weeks ago, the county signed a one-year contract worth up to $60,000 with local economic development expert Mark Lautman.
Lautman began working with the county three years ago, when County Commissioner Don Chapman and County Manager Phil Rios, worried about the local impact of the Great Recession, asked him to address community leaders at a conference, he said Monday.
The report Lautman prepared for the conference contained some startling findings about the county: Household income had fallen about 20 percent and nearly 30 percent of economic base jobs had left.
The county subsequently hired Lautman’s firm, Lautman Economic Architecture LLC, and appointed a task force to put together an in-depth assessment and strategy. They drafted a report as they met regularly, often with county staff, and then held almost 20 public and private meetings in the last three months of 2013.
Lautman’s latest contract contains four major responsibilities, which are designed to implement much of the assessment and strategy, and to avoid a catastrophic economic future for the county. He said he will subcontract much of the work, while retaining oversight of the overall project.
In 90 days, the contract requires him to set up a new public-private economic development corporation.
The regional EDC will be responsible for procuring about 70 percent of the needed economic base jobs, which involve the local production of goods or services and their purchase by people or organizations outside the state, Lautman said.
Lautman plans to pull together stakeholders, tweak the county’s strategy, form a business planning committee and put together a business plan and program of work to make the new EDC fully operational, according to the contract.
He said he has no insight into the negotiations between the City of Rio Rancho and the Rio Rancho Economic Development Corporation.
“Once the EDC is established, the county expects to assume a role of a supporting partner,” the contract says, “leaving primary leadership to the private sector.”
The second priority is health and social services, which the contract says is “perhaps the region’s single greatest economic base job-creation opportunity.”
Subcontractor Richard Draper has four months to form a working group, define the program of work, carry out research, find additional funding, identify opportunities and formulate next steps.
“The initiative envisions a concentration of public and private institutions engaged in education, research, innovation and enterprise development in support of the expansion and transformation of the healthcare industry in the mountain west region,” the contract says.
Lautman said he has convened the major players. He hopes to use seed money from the county, along with private funds, to launch a health care and education training complex, which he says can move the needle on job creation.
WESST Enterprise Center will be the subcontractor for the third initiative: an enterprise development center in Bernalillo at the El Zócalo facility.
The county wants to contract “with a regional business incubation organization to develop and manage the center” and to slowly replace the existing tenants with “new economic base job creation enterprises.”
The idea is to incubate rural economic development initiatives, Lautman said, and to help start up and spin off private economic base jobs.
“The county will provide administrative staff on site and play a significant economic and management role in the center until it becomes self-sustained,” the contract says.
The final initiative in the contract involves forest restoration, which should attract federal dollars and lead to job creation.
The federal government is willing to pay for forest thinning to reduce fire threats, Lautman said.
The local forests present a chance for economic development. If county residents get the contract for forest thinning, they can use equipment to remove biomass, transport it to a mill for lumber, and convert the scraps into landscaping mulch or pellets for stoves, Lautman said.
County leaders are pursuing the forest-thinning opportunity, fearing that drought and the worsening fire seasons could cause a lot of rural businesses to fold.
Lautman discussed a couple other economic development opportunities he hopes to pursue.
“Independent or solo work are economic base jobs performed from a home office, workshop, studio, or mobile platform instead of the traditional corporate employer workplace,” the county strategy says. Those individuals are often “consultants, writers, artists, digital animators, financial advisers, accountants, designees, medical transcriptionists, IT workers, etc.”
That work is probably the fastest-growing sector, Lautman said, but the county needs a plan for supporting it.
Lautman also plans to test out an idea, starting in Cuba, for aligning workforce readiness with the labor needs of companies looking to relocate.