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2 Councilors Want Vote on Arena

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
       At least two city councilors intend to push for a public election on whether Albuquerque should move forward with a tax increase to fund a $400 million hotel and event-center complex.
    Councilors Isaac Benton and Debbie O'Malley said they hope to have an election sooner rather than later, perhaps this spring. The regular municipal election is in October, but they believe the Downtown site might not be available if the city waits that long.
    "This is a huge step for any city," O'Malley said. "I see this as an opportunity."
    Mayor Martin Chávez supports putting the possible tax increase to a vote, spokeswoman Deborah James said.
    The announcement came shortly before the project ran into significant skepticism Thursday at a City Council study session. Several consultants studying the project presented their findings.
    Councilor Michael Cadigan cut them off after about 45 minutes, launching a round of questions from councilors.
    "I need to hear the risk," he said. "You can't just come in here with a sales job and expect us to accept it."
    The talk turned to whether the nation is entering a seven- to 10-year recession that will squeeze government revenue and reduce the amount people are willing to spend on concerts, sporting events and other activities.
    The presentations Thursday were part of a $700,000 assessment the city is paying a development team to oversee. An independent team reviewing the consultants' work is expected to speak at Monday's regular council meeting.
    Benton pointed out that an economic analysis by one consultant indicated that the construction of an event center and hotel would stimulate the local economy. That might help provide jobs in a time of recession, he said.
    Dale Lockett, president of the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city risks losing convention business without the project. The city already provides a roughly $1 million subsidy to the Albuquerque Convention Center, a consequence of not having enough hotel rooms for big conventions, he said.
    "Cities after cities are lining up to do these projects," Lockett said. "It's our competition. ... We are in serious jeopardy of being completely out of the convention industry."
    The city has been weighing whether to go forward with the $344 million event center and hotel complex, which would sit next to the Convention Center and the railroad tracks. Another $53 million in related parking garages, plazas and other improvements are also under consideration. Supporters are hopeful that state government will help pay for those.
    Benton broached the idea of scaling back on the parking garages. One of the studies indicated there are already enough public parking spaces nearby to handle event-center traffic.
    Benton also said a mail-in ballot might be the way to quickly get the issue before voters. Waiting until October might not work because the group that owns the First Baptist Church — part of the planned site — could sell it before then to someone else.
    "The sooner we deal with this, the better," O'Malley said.
    They haven't introduced a formal proposal for an election yet but said they would. They also haven't worked out the details. An election would cost money. The 2001 special election for Isotopes Park cost about $300,000.
    Councilor Don Harris said the city shouldn't raise taxes without an election.
    The current financing arrangement calls for a one-eighth-cent increase in the gross-receipts tax. That would add 12.5 cents to a $100 purchase and push the tax rate to 7 percent after a separate Rail Runner tax kicks in.
    Councilor Sally Mayer said she likes the project but isn't sure the city should go forward with all of it. She broached the idea of just doing the hotel.
    "I just don't know that we can do it now," she said.
    Some said the presentation sounded too positive before councilors asked questions.
    "We didn't spend $700,000 for a sales promotion," Council President Brad Winter said. "We spent it for an assessment."