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Editorial: Gathering of Nations belongs in Albuquerque

News that the University of New Mexico’s arena will no longer host the highly popular Gathering of Nations sent economic shock waves through the city, and for good reason: The annual event, which has been held here for at least three decades, pumps more than $20 million into the local economy each year, according to Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce figures.

The 33rd annual Gathering of Nations, which packed the Pit last weekend, attracted about 3,000 dancers from more than 700 tribes around the United States, Canada and Mexico – and numerous locals and tourists.

Event founder Derek Mathews said he was “appalled” that, rather than speak with him directly about UNM’s decision to stop hosting the event, he received a letter in the mail notifying him that UNM was canceling its contract.

UNM Executive Vice President David Harris said the event has become “prohibitively costly” for the university to continue hosting it.

UNM said it lost $2,300 on the 2015 powwow. To call that “prohibitively costly” is patently absurd at an institution with an annual budget of about $2.8 billion. The amount is pocket change.

Powwow organizers say they pay for security and other expenses. It would be interesting to see if UNM’s “costs” include time allocated for a bunch of people already on the public payroll. And this is the same institution where a basketball assistant allegedly ripped off or misspent over $63,000 – an amount that would cover 27 years of last year’s powwow deficit.

State taxpayers also just helped finance a $60 million Pit renovation. How about some return on investment for something besides the athletics department?

Mayor Richard Berry and Dan Mourning, general manager of the Expo New Mexico fairgrounds, said they will do everything they can to lure the event to Expo’s Tingley Coliseum, which, despite recent renovations, can seat about 3,900 fewer people than the Pit.

They shouldn’t have to. Hopefully UNM has time and opportunity to reconsider this ill-conceived decision.

But keeping the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque should be a top priority, particularly in light of other events that the city has lost to other cities

Last summer, the Arabian & Half-Arabian Youth National Championship horse show, which had been at Expo for the past 14 years, pulled up stakes to relocate to Oklahoma City, taking with it an estimated $4.5 million in spending.

That was the second time Oklahoma has bested Expo New Mexico: For 30 years prior to 2005, the U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship Horse Show – the larger version of the national youth show – alternated annually between Louisville, Ky., and Albuquerque. In 2006, Tulsa lured that show to its Expo Square, along with the show’s estimated $20 million annual economic impact.

Albuquerque can’t let that trend continue and, short of giving up the farm, should do all it can to keep such a high-profile and lucrative annual event right here.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.