Letter To The Editor: Bottom Line Up Front – The County Needs A Moratorium On Repeating Past Mistakes

By JAMES RICKMAN
Los Alamos

The recent Op-Ed by County Councilors David Izraelevitz and Sara Scott on possible purchase of the Reel Deal and CB Fox properties did present one factual piece of information: The County Council’s role is, indeed, to provide for the needs of the community in a responsible manner.

But it doesn’t take a scientist—rocket or otherwise—to understand that ignoring the opinion of the County Attorney and entering into an agreement that potentially violates the New Mexico Constitution is, at the very least, irresponsible.

For those who have been unsuccessful in wading through the County’s convoluted maze of “openness”, County Attorney Alvin Leaphart’s Dec. 14, 2020, memo opines that purchase of the CB Fox building potentially places Los Alamos County in legal jeopardy. The memo further warns that moving forward with the sale could “expose county officers involved to misdemeanor criminal liability.”

Given the memo’s contents, is it any wonder that cheerleader Councilors Scott and Izraelevitz (and their dutiful minion, Councilor Denise Derkacs) argued vociferously to keep the memo out of view of the public?

After reading the Leaphart memo, it shouldn’t take anyone 90 days to determine that purchasing the building is the wrong thing to do. It’s disappointing that the Council hasn’t already had the intestinal fortitude to follow the wishes of its constituents, abandon this ill-conceived flight of fancy, and simply move on to other things.

But Los Alamos has a rich history of ignoring better judgments in pursuit of what Councilors Israelevitz and Scott call “Bold Investments,” so it’s no surprise that the Council will continue to play out this charade until at least March 16, if not longer. Unfortunately, many of these “Bold” initiatives have helped fuel the ills plaguing our Downtown.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

For newcomers who may be tempted to buy into the revisionist history sprinkled throughout Councilors Israelevitz and Scott’s recent letter, or those who are naïve enough to believe that wishful thinking, as opposed to market forces, creates the kind of fantasy downtown that every person in every American community craves, here’s a brief review of how local government trying to manipulate the local business sector can backfire so spectacularly.

Back in 2006, just before the first change in the management contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory, and after a wave of business closures, the County solicited bids for redevelopment of the site currently occupied by the Smith’s Marketplace development.

The proposed “Lifestyle Center” on 42 acres of County and Schools-owned land was slated to become the epicenter of an invigorated “bustling, vibrant downtown.” The County authorized expenditures of more than $100 million to fund this “investment,” with the promise of giving residents a new downtown nirvana.

The chosen developer dangled in front of residents’ noses the potential of “an anchor general merchandise store, anchor grocery store, pharmacy, office supplies, restaurants, jewelry, crafts, fast food, fashion clothing, books, electronics, computers, outdoor (hiking and camping), shoe and sporting goods” with possible entertainment options that included “a bowling alley, movie theaters, video arcade games, and food uses such as ice cream, pizza, and Mexican food.” Leaders floated whispers that a possible anchor store could be a Target or a Walmart.

The proposal also included talk of 377 new units of housing, 113 of which were to fall into the “affordable” range. An associated Public Relations blitz created a critical mass of True Believers who packed public meetings to speak in favor of the dream and drown out the concerns of skeptics and naysayers.

Despite all the promises and hype, all Los Alamos County received for its unprecedented, huge investment was relocation of the community’s existing grocery store across Trinity Drive. Along with the project came a whole lot of unintended consequences, including a few that we are trying now to correct, namely dealing with the chronic empty space in the Mari-Mac shopping center and disruption to the local business environment that arguably put the final nails into the coffins of numerous locally owned businesses.

In its zeal to capitalize on this “last, best hope” and hit the County’s retail and housing woes on all cylinders (sound familiar?), leaders also decided to relocate the County municipal building, and expand the jail (as an “economic development” initiative, no kidding) onto a larger footprint at Ashley Pond Park. The County’s shops and warehouses were moved to the one spectacular site that would have made for an ideal conference/performing arts center. These days, a giant fuel tank on a patch of cracking asphalt enjoys the million-dollar views and stunning Sangre de Cristo sunsets that might have become the stuff of legend for tourists and visitors had our Councilors not been so pathetically short sighted.

The County Should Try Market Forces Instead of Forcing the Market

Regardless of all the wishful thinking and good intentions to try to make something happen for the community (no criticism should be leveled at any of the councilors for having this instinct), at the end of the day, the Council needs to deal with reality. Even if the Council can navigate a tortuous path to avoid the pitfalls outlined by the County Attorney’s memo, taxpayers will still be on the hook for bringing the properties up to current standards or desirable configurations. These expenditures, coupled with the local real-estate market, likely will prohibit the County from “giving away” leases or parcels at discounted rates without running afoul of the State’s anti-donation clause.

In conclusion, I’ll echo a lot of local voices in saying that I, too, want a fun, walkable downtown with more restaurants and places to shop. I also want a Council that will focus on bringing community-wide broadband and other basic infrastructure improvements and stabilizations that could help attract entrepreneurs and diversify our economy. And I want a Council that will work diligently to revise and improve our County code in such a way that it encourages and allows owners of our community’s original housing stock to update their properties without incurring a lifetime of crushing debt.

All of those things would go a lot further toward creating a community with vibrant businesses and more housing choices than spending $4 million to bail out yet another developer by purchasing a couple of empty buildings ever will.

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