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When Economic Vitality Administrator Greg Fisher asked for council’s approval of his Economic Development Fund program priorities and budget two weeks ago, he painted a grim picture of the current situation.
Although some needs — such as replacing an aging county infrastructure — are being addressed, critical pieces of a sound foundation are missing.
A shortage of desirable commercial sites and blight are two issues that have been identified.
“We had a national retailer that we met at the International Conference of Shopping Centers who came into town last week looking for 4,000 square feet for a national sporting goods store. He couldn’t find anything that suited him,” Fisher said. “We’re pushing real hard to get him into something now, but the point is, having a good quality commercial product available is half the battle of getting economic development in the community.”
“We have a lot of aging commercial properties. It comes with the territory when you have a community that was built about the same time. Many of the buildings are 50 and 60 and 70 years old now, and that’s just the time when they either get renovated or fall apart,” Fisher said.
Fisher acknowledged the county’s limitations in cleaning up blight.
“It’s not the county’s responsibility to clean up a private property, but they’re there for a reason, and it’s not a good reason,” Fisher said. “We can deal with that problem by making some strategic investments in businesses that will cause other businesses to clean up, get sold or improved. We have to do that if we’re going to project the image that we deserve as a quality community.”
The need to properly package commercial sites is another critical issue. Fisher suggested focusing on properties south of Trinity.
“Both the schools and our engineering department worked on some ideas on how we could create a series of loop roads back there with fully developed infrastructure, and that would definitely allow us to do more economic development in that area,” Fisher said.
One recent effort has shown some results. “We have four to five leads from the International Conference of Shopping Centers. Right now Trinity is staring at upwards of 20,000 square feet of retail interest,” Fisher said. “It didn’t happen the day after the trade show. It took about three months for things to click into gear. So we’ve launched ourselves, we’ve seen some results as far as interest and we need a product now.”
A significant part of Fisher’s plan is geared toward keeping retail dollars on the Hill.
“As a result of not being ready, we have over 60 percent leakage of our spending. Only gas stations are anywhere near equilibrium in terms of spending in this community,” Fisher said. “The lab has said recently that about half their employees now are not living on the Hill or in White Rock. It used to be 40 percent, so that’s going up. Any reduction of that is going to help our economy.”
Fisher’s budget includes a targeted marketing survey geared toward potential residents.
“What do the 7,000 people who could be here every day think? What’s holding them back?” Fisher said. “Is it really the differential between the cost of a house here and where they live? Or is it really that there’s nothing to do after eight o’clock at night in their perception?”
Attracting housing development — particularly affordable housing — is a key element of Fisher’s plan, which includes county-built spine infrastructure for the A-19 site in White Rock and incentives to attracted mixed-use developments downtown.
“We should set a goal of 250 to 400 new housing units within a period of five years, and maybe about a quarter of those affordable. If we can do that, we will continue to grow.”
“If we want restaurants, if we want clubs and things that are open late at night, we need to have service level workers, and those workers aren’t going to come here unless they’re getting paid enough to live here,” Fisher said.
“If we’re going to attract commercial and industrial, there are some great sites out there. But if we got 50 or 80 people here today with high paying jobs, how many would actually live here? We need housing for those people so they spend they’re money here.”
“A-19 is probably the best opportunity we have to take a very attractive piece of property that was given to the county by the federal government and start to make development happen,” Fisher said.
Fisher said that two major developers are interested in the property if the county develops the infrastructure.
“It’s different than it was five years ago. A developer is not going to go in and spend $5 million up front on infrastructure, even if you give them the land, because frankly, their banks won’t let them,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s plan calls for building the $5 million infrastructure in $1 million increments, then reinvesting proceeds from land sales into infrastructure for new sections.
“The private sector will pick up the slack as long as we continue to invest in the public infrastructure, and as a county, that’s what we do best,” Fisher said. “We are looking at excellent leverage. If we put infrastructure on property, we are getting typically a six to one return on our investment.”
In terms of downtown redevelopment, Fisher said that it is critical to start moving on a mixed-use development along the lines of the PLACE (Projects Linking Art, Community & Entertainment) proposal. His budget includes over $2 million in incentives for developers.
A Request for Quotation is ready to solicit hotel/conference center proposals and $1,800,000 is budgeted in for incentives. The county has already received an unsolicited proposal from PLACE and Fisher announced another possibility as well.
“LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) has proposed a smaller, more upscale event center, more like an executive conference center with 30 or 50 extended stay rooms, something that specifically meets the needs of their executives that are doing very high level research up at LANL now,” Fisher said. “There’s also some discussion with the university about creating a pipeline of students to work in that research.”
Fisher believes his aggressive three-year budget for the remaining $8 million in the Self-Sufficiency Fund should jumpstart economic development. He urged council to start thinking about creating a sustainable economic development fund for the future.
“Once the word gets out that we actually have some very fair incentives and opportunities, people will come. They’re already interested now,” Fisher said. “If we’re not ready, or we don’t offer a fair deal, or we don’t have a site–such as today for a national retailer–they’re going to go back and tell others, ‘They’re not ready.’ So we need to put our money where our mouth is and be ready to go.”