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Mapping the economic development plan

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The public is invited to share their input

By Roger Snodgrass

In a new economy precariously emerging from hard times, private and public partnerships are increasingly called upon to make up for dwindling credit and capital resources.

Los Alamos County’s new economic vitality strategic plan replaces a framework put forward 17 years ago. The previous plan recognized challenges like affordable housing and quality of life issues that still exist today, but it came out of a different era.

“Most people didn’t know the plan existed anymore,” said County Administrator Anthony Mortillaro, introducing the new version as “what we want for our local community and from our local economy.”

The path forward was not likely to be a straight line,” he warned, but rather “littered with pot holes and boulders and will require course correction” along the way.

Thursday’s public meeting attracted only a few residents, but enabled a conversation between the authors of the plan and a handful of interested members of the community that would not have been possible in a larger group.

Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce, who plays a pivotal role in the economic development of the county, said the plan grew out of an exercise that first assessed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Among those, the unmistakable strength of the Los Alamos National Laboratory could not be ignored.

“The laboratory has been a strong economic engine, very strong over a long period of time,” he said. “How can we retain and assist that engine?”

He noted that the new federal budget released earlier in the week proposed a big boost for the lab.  

“That was something not anticipated when we were working on the plan, but doesn’t change what we need to do,” he said.

Councilor Robert Gibson reiterated a concern he raised when the plan was aired at a council meeting in November, which had to do with getting the goals right.

Those goals as currently stated include supporting the laboratory, diversifying the economic base, increasing the quality of life opportunities and increasing the availability of housing in the community, both affordable and market rate.

Kenneth Lee, a retired laboratory employee looked for more specific ways for the county to tap into economic opportunities at the lab.

“I know you want comment about the top level, the goals, but without the meat under it you don’t know if it is achievable or not,” he said.

Lee saw opportunities in the educational and training area that could build from laboratory needs but could attract a larger population of participants.

Holsapple pointed out that there are now seven teaching universities at work in Los Alamos, mostly institutes associated with branches of the University of

California that were created for local purposes.

Speaking of “leakage,” one of the economic weaknesses associated with the local community, Lee said, “There are a lot of training dollars that go off the hill.”

Richard Browning of White Rock focused on some of the plan’s proposed “supporting actions,” particularly in the area of diversifying the economic base.

He wanted to see better Internet service, for example.

“It’s hardly pushing the state of the art,” he said. “I’d like to focus on what you can really do and do it.”

Gwen McKenzie said she was a relative newcomer in town with a background in shopping center development.

“Support the lab, but don’t take it for granted,” she suggested, pointing out that retailers need reliable and stable plans to make their commitments.

LACDC Small Business Director Patrick Sullivan, who works on recruiting targeted businesses to Los Alamos, said he was 18 months into a pro-active project to identify and attract smaller technically based companies. He touts access to the laboratory and to the people of Los Alamos.

For the economic development plan to work, questions remain about the amount of county resources that can be devoted to economic development, as the plan calls for county dollars and staffing to partner with other organizations and institutions.

“A plan is only a plan,” Mortillaro said, “and its only shelf art, until it’s implemented.”

“One thing that has changed (in the new plan) may be buried in a sentence or two,” Gibson said,” and that is assigned responsibilities for execution.

“This puts the responsibility for economic development on the county administrator to achieve results commensurate with the resources that have been assigned.”

A second public discussion is planned for White Rock in two weeks. The policy document is expected to come to a head in March for a final council discussion.