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Optimism for Albuquerque is more than a pipe dream

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A reader wrote a letter to the editor in 2004 taking me to task for a column I had written expressing skepticism about what some geologists then believed was the looming exhaustion of the planet’s oil supplies and the inevitable end to civilization as we know it.

The column concluded, “The planet contains many resources, and, more important than oil, tungsten or tin is the human resource. As long as there is an economic incentive – and there is always an economic incentive – bright people will find ways to wring more oil out of every field, find oil in fields no one thought possible and, when it’s time, find a wholly unexpected way to propel cars and heat homes.”

John Derrig replied, “As an engineer, I know better. We have much work to do and we are 30 years late in starting.” And he asked, “Does Mr. Quigley also believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy?”

I didn’t respond, but if I had I would have said, “No, Mr. Derrig, I don’t believe in Santa Claus. I believe in you and people like you.”

I bring up this bit of history not to claim credit for having foreseen our present global oil glut (I did not foresee it), nor to rekindle an old debate. I bring it up because I realize that lately I’ve forgotten my own lesson: Smart people are everywhere, and they will find a way to revive our state.

My recent UpFront columns have raised the alarm about our anti-business culture, our declining population and our rising income inequality. There is no question our economic problems are significant and stubborn. Our difficulties and shortcomings have to be confronted honestly if they are to be solved. But they can be solved.

Indeed, people in our community are finding solutions. New sources of investment capital are becoming available. Some exciting new firms have started up. Some schools are getting good results with new approaches to education. Investors are revitalizing Downtown Albuquerque and Taos Ski Valley, both. Lea County is building on its people’s energy expertise to diversify away from its reliance on oil. The University of New Mexico is spinning out patents, and New Mexico State University is building a new college of osteopathy. And always, our state’s artists are exploring new ways of seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling.

This energy is seen all over America, according to James Fallows. Writing in The Atlantic, Fallows described his three-year journey to cities around the country that convinced him that far from going to the dogs, the United States is being reinvented and renewed from the grass roots up.

Fallows identified “11 signs a city will succeed” after visiting four dozen communities. Some of those signs are clearly visible in Albuquerque and elsewhere in our state. Public and private sector organizations collaborate to improve the city. The city has a downtown, a research university, a good community college, some innovative schools, and (no kidding) craft breweries. These communities want to attract new residents from everywhere in the world. They have big plans for civic improvement. They are more interested in finding practical solutions than in the national political skirmishing.

All of those things are true of Albuquerque.

There are two other things that are true of successful cities that I don’t think are true of Albuquerque.

Fallows would ask in every town he visited, “Who makes this town go?” Residents of successful cities could “pick out the local patriots.” It could be an activist, an artist, a politician, a businessperson, a radio personality or a saloon keeper. “What mattered was that the question had an answer,” Fallows wrote.

In every successful city, Fallows said, “people know the civic story.” Detroit’s story is that it is a city that is in the process of turning around. Sioux Falls, S.D., is big enough to be stimulating and small enough to be comfortable.

There are many wonderful people who work their tails off for our community, but I don’t know that I can pick out the local patriot who makes Albuquerque go.

I know what I like about living in Albuquerque, but I’m not sure if anyone knows what our civic story is.

I don’t think I’m anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus when I say that I expect that patriot and that civic story to come along in due course.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.