If you look at an aerial view of the 236-acre rectangle of land that is Expo New Mexico – the site of the annual New Mexico State Fair and year-round home to a racetrack and casino – you will notice a color theme: gray.
The site sits amid urban Albuquerque, and the gray is concrete and blacktop. From above, the place looks like one big parking lot, surrounded by concrete block walls and dotted with buildings.
If you start with the assumption that the main activity of the fairgrounds is to serve the influx of people to the annual State Fair, then you begin to understand the layout. To provide adequate parking for the tens of thousands of people who attend the State Fair each September requires lots of paved open space.
David Vogel sees things differently.
“A wasteland,” Vogel says as we meander around the south end of the grounds. We’re in one of those seas of blacktop, a parking lot that also serves as a venue for the weekend flea market. Traffic whizzes by on Central Avenue just on the other side of a tall wall.
“Just look at this expanse of blacktop,” Vogel says. “Nothing’s happening here.”
For the past three years, Vogel has been leading a volunteer effort to re-imagine the State Fair property, which is owned by the state of New Mexico although it sits inside the city of Albuquerque, as an open, engaging public commons. An urban forest. An oasis. A place for walkers, for families, for equestrians. A 21st century Central Park of New Mexico.
“I keep thinking of this pearl, this pearl in the middle of the city in the middle of the state,” Vogel says as we walk over to the horse barns and pig pens on the north side of the grounds.
“Take down the walls,” he says. “Open it up to pedestrians and the neighborhoods. Sidewalk cafes. Sustainable businesses.”
When many people think of the fairgrounds, they recall a September afternoon spent in the shade of the big elm trees that line Main Street, the pedestrian road that leads to the cattle and horse barns, the Indian and Hispanic arts buildings, the mini-doughnuts, the Ferris wheel, the Asbury pies.
That grassy, shady part of the fairgrounds is lovely, but it amounts to only a sliver of the property.
Vogel and I were ambling through the fairgrounds on a weekday morning, and it was deader than a graveyard. Vogel had walked through on the previous Sunday and had found an even greater lack of humans because the staff wasn’t on site.
The Expo management has tried for decades to drum up year-round business on the fairgrounds to improve its bottom line. It rents out its buildings for art shows and horse shows, concerts and trade events. The new casino has brought some money and energy to the southeastern corner of the property.
Still, Expo New Mexico has been in the red for years, and the latest financial audit was dismal, showing a steep drop of operating revenue and an operating loss of nearly $2.5 million.
Vogel sees those numbers as evidence the place is being kept alive past its usefulness or relevance to the detriment of the public good.
“It belongs to the citizens,” Vogel says. “It could be such an asset to the city and the state. The potential is really quite remarkable.”
Expo New Mexico General Manager Dan Mourning didn’t respond to several requests to comment on – or mount a defense to – what amounts to a proposal to shut his place down and re-purpose the grounds. That’s too bad, because it’s more difficult to have a good discussion of where the fairground stands and what it might become without the voice of the people who run it.
Vogel, a former health care executive, is now an economic development consultant, and he’s volunteering his time to pursue his dream of a fairgrounds transformation. He has been meeting with fairgrounds neighbors, Albuquerque city councilors, Bernalillo County commissioners and state lawmakers and drawing up sketches for what a transformation might look like.
This isn’t the first time someone has eyed that big chunk of land in the city and thought it might be a good idea to move the annual fair elsewhere – one idea was Mesa del Sol – and use the property differently. The state has studied moving the fair at least twice and both times concluded that it would cost too much to re-create the fairgrounds. In 2008, the state commissioned a study that concluded the fairgrounds site could accommodate an equestrian center and a commercial district and open access to nearby neighborhoods, but the plan was never acted on.
Vogel has a head full of ideas about how to transform the fairgrounds. But he acknowledges that his ideas aren’t the most important.
“We need a re-envisioning process with input from all of the stakeholders,” Vogel says. “The stakeholders are all over the state and especially in the surrounding neighborhoods.”
If you have ideas or a vision for the fairgrounds and you’re interested in being part of the discussion, drop Vogel a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Several neighborhood associations have signed on in their support for a new beginning for the fairgrounds. If you’d like Vogel to meet with your neighborhood association, you can also drop him a line.
What are the chances of any of this happening? Well, Vogel has been tilting at this windmill for three years now. It would take a groundswell of individuals persuading elected officials to make the change. And then it would take oodles of money to make the place worthy of a destination.
If enough people want something different, they can make it so. If there isn’t sufficient enthusiasm for a change, well then, I’ll see you at the fair.