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As the negotiations for the Trinity Site between the County and the North American Development Group (NADG) approached the agreement stage, I began to get an uneasy feeling about this arrangement. In 2005, when the initial concept for this development conjured up images of a unique gathering placed with multiple opportunities for retail and eclectic mix of restaurants, café’s, entertainment venues and a Canyon Rim Trail, I was all for it. Since then, we have witnessed one of the worst economic periods since the depression and, quite frankly conditions have changed. We are not living in the same economy as we were in 2005.
The recession saw the collapse of numerous big box chains like Circuit City. According to experts, this collapse has helped send vacancy rates soaring. After three years on the brink, consumer confidence has improved but it is reasonable to expect a new normal when it comes to retail spending. Unemployment remains high in the state and in the nation. The days of unlimited credit are over as many analysts predict that a new “consumer frugality” will be the norm to come. If the current plan comes to fruition, the future of our schools becomes soldered to the success of a big box in an economy many experts believe will not sustain strip malls and big boxes.
We are now on our second developer and the message remains, the only retailer willing to risk building a new “big box” is Smith’s Market Place. I suspect they have no rivals because they essentially own the market here in Los Alamos. Also at issue is operational funding for the schools. According to New Mexico State Law, the money acquired for selling of property owned by the schools can only be used for capital infrastructure and not in the operational budget where the revenue is most needed. Those who support the project claim a “big box retailer” will halt some of the leakage of retail dollars that currently find their home in the pockets of business located off the hill. Many want the big box shopping experience here in Los Alamos. Rationale for support of the project also includes the notion that is agreement is not the best deal in the world but it is the only deal to be made so, the argument goes, let’s settle for what we can get and go turn dirt.
I would like to offer a different approach for consideration. First, let’s not just “settle” for what we can get for what most would consider a prime piece of real estate. I suggest we dismiss the current arrangement with NADG and look at the Trinity Site through a totally different lens.
Second, I suggest the County lease the land owned by the schools on the site and pay that lease directly to the schools. I realize this is radical, out of the “big box” thinking but, I suggest we consider what that might bring to the table. It would mean steady and reliable revenue from the County to the Schools for use in their operational budget. It would also force the County to start working on another option for that land rather quickly. It would also allow the County to build out a large portion of the immensely popular Canyon Rim Trail while the County pursues other options.
Third, I believe the County and Community Leaders to include the hard working Trinity Site Revitalization Project Advisory Committee should join forces to approach the new leadership at the University of New Mexico with an offer of the aggregate of the premier land at the Trinity Site in exchange for consideration of the development of a world class research center or graduate center, perhaps named after Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer. If UNM is not interested, then look at other Universities and Colleges.
Fourth, the County should offer substantial tax incentives to Smiths and any other business in Los Alamos willing to renovate, rejuvenate, overhaul or bulldoze and start a new their business. If Smith’s market analysis indicates they could bring a big box to Los Alamos in these current economic times and make a profit then why not incentivize them to redesign or redevelop their current property at Mari-Mac, which many claim to be an eyesore. Tax incentives might also stimulate others to rebuild their properties, especially in the downtown. Tax incentives have worked in other communities. One only has to look as far as Rio Rancho and the incentive package they used to lure Intel.
In summary, I have been reading and listening to the opinions of many regarding the Trinity Site. As I try to assimilate all the various viewpoints, I find myself trying to answer the following question: what is best for the community? The schools need the money for their operational budget. Many have a strong desire for additional retail and Smith’s Market place may fill that need. The ground lease is for 73 years however; there is no guarantee a big box will sustain that long given available economic indicators. I don’t see how the revenue from this lease agreement can be honestly viewed as steady over the long haul.
I won’t vote for the current ground lease for the reasons outlined above. I believe we can assist the schools financially by leasing the property right away from then and pursuing an aggressive course of action to pursue the highest and best use for that land, perhaps as an academic institution of some sort. Meanwhile, why not build out the Canyon Rim Trail now. For those who really want the opportunity to shop at a big box here in Los Alamos, let’s incentivize Smiths to build one on their property and incentivize other businesses in Los Alamos to do the same. In my view, the best thing for the entire community is to step back from the precipice of this deal and forge a new strategy.
Mike Wismer is a County Councilor.