Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Dozens of workers swarm around an unfinished building at West Mesa High School,
welding, fitting and fabricating. Behind them, an enormous crane soars into a sunny sky.
In November, crews broke ground on an $18.8 million upgrade for the aging school on Fortuna Road NW, launching a plan to add more than 60 new classrooms and a refurbished courtyard.
This project, and others underway at area schools, are designed to provide the best possible learning environments for teachers and students.
But they also provide a less obvious benefit – jobs.
Construction workers, plumbers, electricians, engineering firms, decorators, architects and contractors all depend on Albuquerque Public Schools, which dominates the local construction industry. Since 2009, the district has accounted for 65 percent to 85 percent of all building permits in the city and Bernalillo County, according to an APS analysis of city and county data.
That percentage is so high because New Mexico is still struggling with the aftermath of the economic crash that hit in late 2007 and slowed other sources of commercial construction, said Mike Puelle, CEO of Associated General Contractors New Mexico.
“There has been an extended downturn – our industry has never fully recovered from the Great Recession,” he said. “We would love to see all the markets come back, including the private market. … For a guy like me, I love seeing cranes. I don’t see enough of them.”
But there is hope of a revival, Puelle said, and a major bright spot is the recent voter approval of APS’ $575 million bond and mill levy on Feb. 2. Central New Mexico Community College also received a green light for its $84 million bond.
The bulk of the money will go toward school construction and renovation.
This August, APS will begin a flurry of activity – pumping $12 million a month into the economy over the next year and a half by upgrading gym facilities, adding classroom wings and breaking ground on new buildings.
Puelle said the work is badly needed.
“The public sector has been very important in commercial construction,” he said. “We tried not to think about the bond failing.”
School bonds and mill levies generally are widely supported, but this year was more tense than usual as APS and CNM created controversy over early voting sites.
In the weeks leading up to the election, some residents of the northwest quadrant argued that they intentionally were disenfranchised because the district and CNM failed to place an early voting site near their homes.
An early voting site was later added there, along with a second in Rio Rancho, and administrators stressed that they had no nefarious intent.
In the end, voters put their doubts aside.
The APS bond passed with 69.7 percent support, and the APS mill levy and CNM bond both received 65.4 percent backing. More than 30,000 people cast ballots – double the norm for these types of elections.
David Grieves, founding partner at Chavez-Grieves Consulting Engineers, was surprised and relieved by the result.
“We were concerned early on,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to pass by that much – I expected it to be closer.”
The father of two has seen many bond elections come and go.
For the past 20 years, he has been part of YES! For Our Children’s Future, an advocacy committee that collects money for pro-bond efforts, including the prominent “Growing My World” ad campaign featuring a little girl giving a thumbs up.
Grieves stressed that YES! For Our Children’s Future only gets involved in bond/mill levy elections, staying away from school board endorsements and superintendent hires.
“We are simply on the infrastructure side of the equation,” said Grieves, the group’s co-chair.
He compared YES! to a booster club: It isn’t a nonprofit organization or a political action committee and generally raises less than $100,000. The group – made up of 35 people from areas such as construction, economic development and real estate – does not have to file financial information with the secretary of state.
Legally, APS can’t directly advocate for the bond, but it is allowed to print educational material on projects in line for funding. YES! used that public data to come up with its own ads and a related website, growingmyworld.org.
The district did link to growingmyworld.org from its own informational site on the Feb. 2 bond election, but Grieves said YES! operates independently.
“We are doing this for the kids,” he said. “New Mexico is not going to be the state it needs to be unless our kids are well educated.”
Angela Martinez, an Albuquerque real-estate agent and co-chair of YES!, echoed that sentiment.
She joined the committee a decade ago and said she was motivated by a desire to see students get the best possible facilities.
But economic growth is also an important byproduct, Martinez said.
“This goes back deep into the economy,” she said. “We need to be constantly feeding the economy to build it.”
APS statistics show that the district employs 60 people on a typical $10 million project and will have about 10 in progress at any time under the newly approved bond and mill levy. Those 600 workers spend money on things like rent, food and services, supporting another 6,000 people in a variety of industries.
School construction and renovation are particularly important in New Mexico, which is recovering relatively slowly from the Great Recession when compared to its neighbors.
The Land of Enchantment lost 1,500 construction jobs last year, or 3.5 percent, according to Associated General Contractors of America, one of only six states to see a drop along with North Dakota, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Albuquerque is performing slightly better than the state as a whole. A new AGC ranking of construction employment growth in more than 300 metro areas shows the Duke City added 100 construction jobs in 2015, a 0.5 percent increase that brings the total construction workforce to 21,400.
The list placed Albuquerque in the middle of the pack overall at 188th, while Santa Fe and Las Cruces came in a dismal 333rd and 341st, respectively, though their construction industries are relatively small, each employing under 3,000 people.
Puelle, the local AGC leader, said things have started to pick up in Albuquerque, but he feels those strides could have been reversed if the bond and mill levy had bitten the dust.
“We have watched the metro area make improvements in 2015, and I absolutely think that if it had failed, we would have seen that stall,” he said. “We would like to see things rebound across the state, but, of course, Albuquerque is the biggest metro area so Albuquerque is key to that.”
Without steady work, New Mexico runs the risk of losing skilled craftsmen to surrounding states or different careers, Puelle said.
And when they’re gone, it is hard to revive a strong workforce.
Terri L. Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, agreed, pointing to the impact of large projects such as the planned $50 million Northwest K-8 school, which will be funded by the recently passed bond/mill levy.
Also planned is the $8.4 million Family School West Side, offering a mix of classroom instruction and home schooling, the same model as the popular Desert Willow Family School in the northeast.
In total, APS has allocated $316 million to construction at its own facilities, while $58 million will flow to local charter schools for building upgrades. All of CNM’s $84 million bond is designated for construction.
Cole reiterated the power of this type of public spending to boost the state’s struggling economy.
“The impact of this kind of infrastructure spending cannot be overstated in its impact to put to work both the white-collar engineer and the blue-collar pipefitter,” Cole said.
“It almost goes without saying, and we are all a bit of a broken record here, but it’s true that Albuquerque and New Mexico are very slow to recover from the recession, so that fact also makes infrastructure spending right now incredibly important.”