The quest for economic vitality

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Councilors wade into draft strategic plan

By Roger Snodgrass

County councilors had widely differing perspectives Tuesday night, as they took aim at the next leg of the county’s economic journey.

The original Economic Development Strategic Plan was approved in 1993 and has guided economic activities since then, but times have changed and some of the 142 or more strategic tasks that were to be accomplished have been crossed off the list.

New county administrator Tony Mortillaro noted that the county had similar topics of concerns back then, including the economic base, technology transfer, affordable housing, demographic changes, as well as issues about workforce and quality of life.

The revised document has been in the mill since 2004. Recently, the draft has been picked up and dusted off by a council subcommittee, composed of Mortillaro, Councilors Sharon Stover and Robert Gibson, key county officials, business leaders and officials of Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation, including Director Kevin Holsapple.

Holsapple presented the current draft, noting that the group had started with existing planning documents, especially the vision statement contained in the county’s comprehensive plan.

A key conclusion in the vision statement was about the unified fate of the community and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“We will support each other and work together to build one cohesive community,” the county has pledged.

Of the four goals developed in the new document, the first one is “Support and retain Los Alamos National Laboratory as the area’s best wealth producing employer.

Councilor Nona Bowman and Councilor Vincent Chiravalle approached the goal from opposite sides.

“Nuclear weapons is a dying business,” she said. “Northern New Mexico’s best wealth producing employer is going to have to reinvent itself or decline.”

“Bowman’s comment could be construed as undermining the core mission of the laboratory,” Councilor Vincent Chiravalle said. “We have to be careful or we may not get anything. The result may just be reductions in the number of people working at the lab.”

Along with a commitment to the lab, other goals in the draft plan include diversifying the economy, increasing quality of life and the availability and affordability of housing.

Los Alamos County has fared relatively well over the years economically and appears by a key measure to to be one of the most advantaged communities in the region. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of Oct. 24, the county had the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 3.5 percent.

Nevertheless, as the subcommittee performed some routine planning exercises, not all the indicators were positive.

On one hand, as illustrated in a chart of strengths/weaknesses, opportunities and threats, known as a SWOT, the report finds that Los Alamos has an enviable quality of life in an attractive setting. On the other hand, to paraphrase the document, the setting is remote and somewhat isolated. The money is great, but there’s not enough to spend it on.

There seems to be a wealth of innovative opportunities available at the laboratory to fuel several hundred startups and a few dozen billion dollar disruptive new businesses, but then again it’s hard for any set of aspirations to rely on the Department of Energy’s policies and budgets, which are politically and bureaucratically determined and uncertain even in the best of times.

These were issues cited by the draft document and further knocked around in a candid discussion by the councilors that suggested a variety of viewpoints.

Councilor Ralph Phelps led off the discussion, saying he had struggled with the document trying to understand what he sensed was missing.

“I read the plan through a couple of times and it took me awhile to put my finger on it,” he said. “LANL dominates the economy, no secret, but only 50 percent of the employees in the county actually live in the county.”

He wanted to know more about them. “How do we fold those people into our plan?” he asked.

Councilor Stover raised a similar question.

“The lab director and a lot of people don’t choose to live in our town.

“What could be done to attract more of these people to live here?”

She also wanted to know what was actually being spent on economic diversification.

Councilor Gibson, who worked with Stover on the drafting committee, asked the council if the foundation of the plan was sound.

“Does this plan have the right amount and the right kind of meat on the bones,” he asked.

Council Chair Michael Wheeler found the document similar to the previous document.

“But has anything worked?” he asked.

He raised the question of how much growth would be desirable. Wheeler was interested in seeing an effective marketing plan put into action that could help existing businesses sooner rather than later.

“I’m afraid we’ve missed the boat,” said Council Vice-Chair Michael Wismer. “We’ve tried various ways to bring economic diversity here and a trip down Central Avenue will tell you we haven’t gotten it.”

He wanted to know what would be sacrificed from county services in attempting to shift to economic vitality.

In kicking off the discussion Mortillaro said he expected the next version of the draft to return to council in January, after some additional adjustments are made and the public has had an opportunity for input.