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Plenty of potential

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LANL-County disconnect heard loud and clear

By Carol A. Clark

With just the right tweaking Los Alamos is poised to become a vibrant, thriving mecca for science and innovation. This is the conclusion of a team of state experts who spent three days in town last week dissecting it from top to bottom.

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The Arts and Cultural District Resource Team told business and community leaders that during conversations with people all over town it heard the “disconnect” and understands the recent history behind the real or perceived lack of stronger collaboration between Los Alamos National Laboratory, UNM-LA and the downtown community.

It will require both partners at the table with county leaders to create Los Alamos as a science and innovation district. The team recommends a high-level conversation convened by senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall to discuss and engage all parties in the creative district’s development.

To be successful, it also will take high-level representatives from LANL and UNM-LA to be engaged in the steering committee from the start to be part of planning and development of the creative district.

“This is us taking a look at your community from the outside,” said New Mexico Arts and Cultural District Coordinator Rich Williams who also is director of the New Mexico MainStreet Program. “We’re looking for the creative, cultural and entrepreneurial opportunities here.”

Branding, marketing, cultural and physical planning and design along with capacity building and finance opportunities were highlighted during the team’s wrap up session at the Community Building Thursday.

The town that still isn’t – really could be, urban planner Charlie Deans told the large crowd gathered for the final presentation. County Administrator Tony Mortillaro, county   councilors, Chamber Executive Director Kevin Holsapple, LANL’s Carolyn Mangeng and representatives from the college, the historical society, tourism and the business community participated in the state’s visit.

“Major investment partners such as LANL and UNM-LA are

interested in supporting projects that may include cultural compounds, student live/work housing, science and tech based tourism and other innovative collaborations,” Deans said.

He suggested the USDA has a Rural Tourism Initiative that may provide funding to support a local science and technology tourism initiative.

Team members reviewed a long list of “assets and kudos” the community already possesses that lends itself toward becoming a Creative District in Science and Innovation:

•Los Alamos is blessed with exceptional leadership and strong organizational infrastructure;

•Los Alamos County enjoys strong revenues and has the financial capacity to invest in “cultural facilities” and programs within the Arts and Cultural District;

•Los Alamos is home to several high quality arts and cultural organizations, performing arts companies and many other dynamic non-profit organizations; and

•Los Alamos enjoys a strong workforce. New initiatives such as the regional human capital initiative and the “train the new nuclear worker” strategy may be further enhancements.

What the team heard during its visit that may hinder moving forward includes a local entitlement attitude based on the fact that “everything was free before, so why should we pay for it now?”

Also while arts organizations and arts presenters are sandwiched between venue options, with religious institutions serving as 300-500 seat forums for theatre, music and literary events.

Tthe volunteer base is strong, but people might rather give time than money to projects and programs.

It also heard about the local lack of amenities and the “paralysis by analysis” of which the community is well known for being hypercritical and skeptical of new projects.

Other weaknesses are that land assembly and high land costs hamper development, non-profit organizations are surviving, but struggling in the recession and funding for arts and cultural organizations is stagnant. Los Alamos has weak foundation funding support for arts and culture. And finally, Los Alamos has high quality and high cost of living, but affordability of housing is an issue.

Los Alamos must overcome the misperceptions that it’s a closed city, a radioactive city and not even a city.

Los Alamos should expand the boundaries of its cultural district and figure out its niche and its niche should be something authentic and unique. The team suggested becoming a city of science and innovation, expanding the “Next Big Idea Festival.” Los Alamos could provide science-related lectures, competitions, showcases such as a visionarium, a natural history and sciences museum of the region and a cultural center.

Downtown should bring in appropriate laboratory innovations onto Central Avenue for public access in a science “innovation center” that spotlights nano and laser technology, solar and wind power technology transfer to private industry as well as other advances in security and safety.

Downtown Los Alamos also could serve as a base camp for outdoor recreation and Native American and Hispanic traditions.

The team explained that the New Mexico Arts and Cultural Districts Act (LEDA), provides for flexible public investment in “cultural facilities” and “metropolitan redevelopment projects.”

They recommended that because the county staff is well versed in LEDA procedures, they should work creatively with private and non-profit “cultural entrepreneurs” to develop new cultural facilities and economic enterprises in the new Arts and Cultural District.

“Cultural facilities” are eligible for public support for theaters, museums, libraries, galleries, cultural compounds, educational organizations, performing arts venues and organizations, fine arts organizations, studios and media labs and live/work housing facilities.

Eight states across the nation have established Arts and Cultural Districts.

Legislation for New Mexico’s Arts and Cultural Districts program was adopted in 2007. Los Alamos is one of just six communities accepted as state-authorized Arts and Cultural Districts to date. The benefits to that designation include:

• Enhanced state historic tax credits;

• state branding;

• access to technical assistance and resources;

• fostering economic development;

• attracting artists and entrepreneurs;

• business and job development;

• establishing tourism destinations; and

• preserving and reusing historic buildings.

The Arts and Cultural District Resource Team concluded their remarks Thursday saying this is an exciting time for downtown Los Alamos. The follow-up to their three-day assessment visit will be a funded cultural plan detailing the creation of the local creative district with a focus on science and innovation.