So it came as a surprise to see how passionately readers responded to a column about city buses.
In Sunday’s UpFront, I said the city’s plan to create a high-speed bus line in a dedicated lane along Central Avenue is part of a larger strategy to reinvent Albuquerque.
Our city is a collection of mostly nondescript subdivisions connected by monotonous commercial strips, a concrete desert of very wide streets and hectares of parking lots. Officials like Mayor Richard J. Berry and Councilor Isaac Benton hope to capitalize on some of our distinctive neighborhoods to create an urban environment that will attract the people who will help create our city’s next economy. In addition to our usual pursuit of manufacturers and call centers that might want to locate here, Berry, Benton and others hope a more interesting city will become a destination for creative and energetic people. In addition to being “open for business,” as the politicians like to say, Albuquerque would be open to the new and the interesting.
Transportation is just a piece of this reinvention. The Innovation District on Central and Broadway, zoning changes that allow higher density in some neighborhoods, wider sidewalks and more storefronts, safer walking and bicycling, open space, a more inviting riverside system of trails, the rehabilitation of old Route 66 motels, and a high-speed Internet backbone are all part of it. So are University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College efforts to create entrepreneurship programs.
An Albuquerque native who now lives in Dublin, Ireland, got the idea immediately. “If you concentrate on cars, you are separating and dispersing people, but if you concentrate on transport, you enable the intensification that brings people together,” he wrote in an e-mail. Mass transit helps create “the kind of exciting street life that I can no longer live without.”
The rest of the mail was at best skeptical.
“Why would business want to come to Downtown Albuquerque when New Mexico has the second highest crime rate in the U.S. and ranks near the top for poverty?” one reader said.
“The creative class doesn’t want to live here thanks to Berry’s mismanagement of this city,” another said.
“How much are gas- or diesel-guzzling buses going to impress the creative people we hope to attract” when motor vehicle pollution is suspected as a cause of dementia? a reader asked. (Many city buses run on natural gas.)
Will any of this work? I’m not talking about buses. I’m talking about the reinvention of our city.
I have no idea.
What I do know is that we have to try something. We live in a community that cannot hold onto its young people when it comes time to find work. We live in a community that struggles to do some of the basic things well, like policing ourselves. We live in a community that seems to go out of its way to look for the worst in itself and always manages to find it.
Albuquerque-area employment peaked in 2008 – seven years ago! – decreased by 22,500 jobs during the recession and still has not recovered the lost jobs. We have been adding jobs at a rate of less than 2 percent, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions. Our manufacturing and construction industry sectors have been hammered. Leisure and hospitality (hotel clerks, waiters and waitresses etc.) is the only sector that has been adding jobs consistently. The most recent DWS report says Albuquerque added all of 300 jobs in the goods-producing sectors over the most recent 12-month period for which there are data. The rest of the job growth was in services. Enrollment in our state’s universities is declining, which could mean younger people are leaving New Mexico after high school graduation.
I submit that our economy is stagnant because our thinking is stagnant. Albuquerque entered a new world in 2008 when the world’s financial system froze, government deficits soared and real estate values collapsed. We continue to behave as if our problems could be solved if we could just keep driving the cost of doing business here a little bit lower, hoping that alone would overcome our remote location, small market size and undertrained labor force.
Berry, Benton, UNM, CNM and others are trying to create an environment in which a new economy can develop organically. If anyone else has a better idea, he or she has been awfully quiet.
UpFront is a daily front page news and opinion column. To reach Journal writer Winthrop Quigley, email firstname.lastname@example.org.