Rio Rancho is gaining a reputation among metro-area business movers and shakers of being an up-and-coming place to keep an eye on.
A breakfast-hour networking meeting started in May by the commercial real estate association NAIOP now draws dozens of business people to schmooze and drink coffee at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho.
And Rio Rancho and Sandoval County business leaders last month launched a new economic development initiative, the Sandoval Economic Alliance.
The buzz is evident in construction activity.
Presbyterian began work in June on an $86 million project to expand its Rio Rancho hospital. Opposite the hospital, at Unser Pavilion, there are several new restaurants and businesses, and a Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union branch is under construction.
Other new commercial outlets being built include a Dion’s Pizza on Unser and a Walmart Neighborhood Market at Southern and N.M. 528. Farther north, there are plans for TJ Maxx, Bed Bath & Beyond and Michael’s stores near the southwest corner of Enchanted Hills and N.M. 528.
Mayor Gregg Hull, who was elected in April, wrote a letter to the Journal saying he, city councilors and staff are working with the business and development community to ensure projects like these “come about as smoothly as possible.”
Jeanie Springer-Knight of Springer5 Investments, who helped get the NAIOP meetings going, is excited about the energy.
“I’ve heard four different people comment on how great it is to work in Rio Rancho now,” Springer-Knight said recently.
She and other business leaders attribute the new energy to new faces at City Hall.
“There was change at the top with Keith Riesberg (the new city manager hired last year) and other new hires. Staff are now very responsive and practical instead of putting up roadblocks.” Springer-Knight said.
Although Presbyterian’s administrative director of real estate, Jim Jeppson, said he found city staff “easy to work with and knowledgeable” during the construction of Rust Medical, which opened in October 2011, some small-business owners who opened in Rio Rancho a few years ago found the opposite.
They complained of a “don’t care” attitude at City Hall, frustrating delays, and red tape that cost them time and money.
“I thought the city of Rio Rancho was really difficult to deal with in helping people start a small business,” said Bob Long, owner of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio franchise in Albuquerque, who opened a Rio Rancho location in late summer 2012.
Long said city staff made him hire an architect for modifications to an existing building that required no structural changes.
“If I’d known ahead, I would have opened closer to Cottonwood Mall in Albuquerque, instead of Rio Rancho,” Long said.
Noelle and Reece Killebrew had a similar experience when they opened LA Boxing – now called UFC Gym – on Rio Rancho Blvd. in early 2013. They said the city made them install a fire suppression system in the space after they took down a dividing wall. It cost $20,000 and delayed the business opening, while they were already paying $7,000 per month in rent.
It’s unclear whether that type of requirement would be different now, but city councilors Chuck Wilkins and Shelby Smith said they too encountered red tape when opening their businesses and it spurred them to run for elected office.
Smith was elected as District 5 councilor this spring. He and his wife, Tanya Smith, a former Rio Rancho Deputy Police Chief, opened Hellbox Crossfit fitness center on Jan. 1, 2012.
“There was a prevailing attitude in City Hall that citizens and businesses were there for them, not the other way around,” Smith said in a recent interview. “It was shocking the unprofessional mentality I got from my own city.”
Smith says there’s been a 180-degree change in the past couple of years. He attributes it to the arrival on the city council of businessmen Wilkins and Mark Scott, who were elected in 2012. Scott has a lighting business; Wilkins is a Farmers insurance agent.
Wilkins said that, in 2007, city staff made him repeatedly redesign a waterline for his office building.
“That’s what got me interested in city government,” Wilkins said.
He believes the changes started with new leadership at City Hall.
Riesberg, the city manager hired in April 2013, said in a recent interview that one of his first tasks was to meet with business leaders to open up lines of communication.
“I heard of our reputation for being difficult to deal with,” Riesberg said.
Another was to make Matt Geisel, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau director, the business liaison.
“I wanted businesses, if they do have concerns, to have a staff person they can talk to,” Riesberg said.
He also asked Assistant City Manager Laura Fitzpatrick to analyze city departments. She made 33 recommendations that included improvements in communications, employee training and encouraging a problem-solving approach.
Garret Price, vice president land acquisition and development for the Pulte Group that opened the Loma Colorado community in 2007, says the change has been welcome.
“I truly believe the new city manager Keith (Riesberg) has set the tone over there that they are open for business,” Price said. In the past, he said, “Leadership would say they were open for business but it wasn’t reflected at the staff level.”
Still, Riesberg is modest about his role.
“The change that we’ve seen is attributable to many individuals, the Governing Body and front line staff,” he said.