When glittering job creation deals tarnish

-A A +A
By Sherry Robinson

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
That’s a phrase that we can apply to all of life’s situations that didn’t quite pan out — impulse purchases, former marriages, job decisions, bad investments. It takes on a different flavor when it comes to our sometimes desperate efforts to create jobs.
We’ve seen two economic development disappointments lately, and these things have two stages — the cost of the mistake itself and the fallout and recrimination that follow.
First, there is Clovis, where a new cosmetics company was supposed to begin operations after the city provided $2 million to bankroll the deal in hopes of adding 350 jobs. Now the city is hunting the entrepreneur — and its cash — in Guatemala.
How did the guy slip under everybody’s radar? I have in the past interviewed Chase Gentry, Clovis’s economic developer, and he’s shrewd and experienced. I’ve also interviewed banker Kent Carruthers, a board member of the Clovis Industrial Development Corp., and he’s nobody’s fool either.
Boards of economic development organizations are usually a Who’s Who of a town’s major players. If these people could be snookered, it could happen anywhere.
A revealing interview with Carruthers in the Clovis News Journal indicates that the CIDC did some checking, although in hindsight, not enough. And there were red flags. But people in small communities may be more trusting (or more gullible), and everyone was wearing rosy glasses in their eagerness for all those new jobs.
It’s a near textbook example of economic development deals run amok.
Second, we have the Single Action Shooting Society. In Torrance County, which is land rich and cash poor and where jobs are scarce as rain, residents in 2004 welcomed SASS, its shooting range, and the millions it planned to invest.
The 90,000-member society was “created to preserve and promote the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting,” says its Web site. Members assume the identity of a vintage character and, properly costumed and equipped with traditional firearms, participate in events. Local motels fill up for the society’s competitions. It sounds like fun. In 2005, I wrote that state officials expected an economic impact of $5 million to $8 million a year.
Recently, reality set in. What people do at a shooting range is shoot. Neighbors are now fed up with the constant racket, and Torrance County is caught in the middle. In January, the county denied the society’s zoning request to expand operations, but said recently that the noise isn’t unreasonable. Neighbors plan to sue.
So all that glitters isn’t gold. Clovis will no doubt examine everything that happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It may be able to recoup some money. The worrisome fallout is that New Mexicans don’t handle risk well. One bad experience brings out all the Chicken Littles to peep alarms about any economic deal in the future, no matter how solid.
The doubters don’t know the difference between a scam and an economic downturn. There’s an assumption that business manufactures money with no understanding of the moving parts — the entrpreneur’s skill and intelligence, financing, competition, regulation and markets. It will always be possible for a legitimate business to come into your community and fail for reasons that have nothing to do with bad intentions.
The shooting society is a reminder to communities to do some self-examination: Who are we? What do we want to be? What kind of economic activity do we want here? Without it, towns will jump at everything that promises a few jobs and later ask themselves how a deal could seem like such a good idea at the time.