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From Site Selection magazine, March 2015

A Catalyst for Change

The power of ideas moves New Mexico forward.

Albuquerque’s annual Balloon Fest draws hundreds of balloons and thousands of visitors.
Photo by Ron Behrmann courtesy of Albuquerque CVB


hough it’s still too early to call, New Mexico might be one of the next states to enact right-to-work legislation, which bars non-union employees from having to pay union fees as a condition of employment. The bill has been making its way through the legislature this session and, with a Republican-controlled House and a staunchly pro-business Republican governor in Susana Martinez, it has a real shot at becoming law. But even if it doesn’t, the issue isn’t going away.

New Mexico is competing for projects against states which have right-to-work laws in place and, whether it’s necessary for attraction or not, the perception exists that manufacturers are looking for sites in states that have the fewest barriers for growth.

‘Rainforest in the Desert’

Other barriers are being lowered in the meantime, as a $30-million pot of incentive funds originally slated to attract the Tesla plant that went to Reno, Nev., was divvied into three $10-million projects — Local Economic Development Activity (LEDA funds) for infrastructure, Albuquerque Rapid Transit and an initiative to promote sports tourism. It was a bold move, surprisingly non-partisan, and designed to move the needle forward on community development. It’s the type of decision becoming commonplace in Albuquerque, a city that’s just over a year into a plan to remake the city’s downtown into an ecosystem of entrepreneurship, innovation and entertainment — a plan they’ve dubbed a “rainforest in the desert.”

Creating a place that becomes more than the sum of its parts takes visionary leadership, and that’s the definitely the case in Albuquerque. Mayor Richard Berry named serial entrepreneur Gary Oppedahl to serve as the director of the city’s Department of Economic Development in fall 2013. “In the world of politics there’s a weird balance of humility and making sure you get enough credit so you can do your next ‘ask’ — the next ask of the legislature, the next ask of your taxpayers,” says Oppedahl. “I’ve been one to come in to say, ‘It’s not “us versus them,” it’s us versus Texas and Utah and Colorado.’ You really can get past the partisanship if you take the same approach I always demand of my staff, which is present the data, present the analysis and the recommendation. Be as objective as possible and show people where you’re going and what you’re doing.”

“The biggest surprise for me was how ready the city was for this type of catalyst.”
— Gary Oppedahl, Director, Albuquerque Department of Economic Development

It seems to be working in Albuquerque. Named one of Albuquerque’s Movers and Shakers of 2014 by the city’s local business journal, Oppedahl certainly has been shaking things up. “2014 was an inflection year for us, a change of direction, and you’ll see even more changes over the next 10 years,” Oppedahl says. “The biggest surprise for me was how ready the city was for this type of catalyst.”

Albuquerque is pouring money into places and programs designed to retain and inspire local talent. Projects include:

  • Innovate ABQ, leveraging the combined strength of the University of New Mexico (UNM), STC (formerly the Science & Technology Corp., city and county government, and the business community to create a live, work and play district in downtown Albuquerque;
  • ABQid, the city’s first business accelerator, giving entrepreneurs a place to grow and commercialize their ideas. One such company, Plug.Solar, created the SunPort™ solar access point, giving anyone access to renewable energy credits generated by solar power. The success of ABQid is spawning other sector-specific accelerators;
  • 1 Million Cups (1MC), providing weekly opportunities for two entrepreneurs to present their startups before an audience made up of business advisors and other interested individuals. Albuquerque is just one of 50 cities in the US holding 1MC events;
  • CNM STEMulus Center, a Central New Mexico Community College campus and lab offering programs like the Deep Dive Coding Bootcamp, Fast Track Business Administration Degree, FUSE Makerspace and Ignite Community Accelerator.

Albuquerque also participated in Global Entrepreneurship Week for the first time in 2014. The event produced rave reviews, especially from the millennial demographic who thought they’d have to leave Albuquerque to find an environment supportive of entrepreneurs. Millennials are the key, says Oppedahl. “They aren’t afraid to talk about the elephant in the room. They’ll talk about any topic,” he says. “It’s like putting Miracle Gro on our issues. They believe they can stay here and effect change. That’s been the biggest result I’ve seen. We’re keeping our folks here and they’re starting companies here.”

Expand or Stagnate

Stretching to create something more. That’s what family-owned company Benchmark Equipment & Tank did in 2014, investing $1 million to expand its facility near Farmington. Benchmark manufactures surface equipment such as separators and other production equipment for oil companies. The decision to invest in growth was made prior to the current lull in the oil and gas industry. “It was a ‘seize the moment’ kind of deal,” says Robert Gathings, chief financial officer of Benchmark. “There were other companies in the area expanding, and in order to be competitive you have to follow suit. It’s expand or stagnate.”

In order to streamline production, Benchmark built a new 16,000-sq.-ft. (1,496-sq.-m.) shop, added overhead cranes and new C&C equipment. The company has 60 employees and plans to double its workforce thanks to the expansion. “We’re trying to draw some of those skilled laborers — welders, pipefitters — that left during the recession,” Gathings says.

Presbyterian Medical Services (PMS) had to stretch, too, and the community joined in. PMS invested $8.5 million to construct new facilities that double the capacity to provide medical, dental and mental health services for traditionally underserved members of the Farmington community. The facility celebrated its re-opening in November 2014.

“When I first started back in 2008, I learned that one of the biggest issues was space — their facilities were crunched,” Steve Hansen, president and CEO of Presbyterian. PMS already owned the land next door, and in 2012 applied for a capital improvement grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to fund construction. After securing the $5 million in grant money, the community and company chipped in the rest.

“We have a lot of support from the local economic development organization,” Hansen says. “We’re the only health facility that will see anyone regardless of their ability to pay. Everyone was very accommodating helping us reach our goal.”

“We looked elsewhere, including Texas and Colorado, but, to be honest, the government in New Mexico was more responsive and friendlier.”
— Tomas Rey, General Manager of the Americas, Certoplast

Las Cruces, in southeast New Mexico, attracted two California companies, Franco Whole Foods and Southwest Steel Coil, and German-owned Certoplast, which makes adhesive tape used in the automotive industry.

“Not only was the infrastructure present, but we were able to secure a site in a foreign trade zone,” says Tomas Rey, general manager of the Americas for Certoplast. “We looked elsewhere, including Texas and Colorado, but, to be honest, the government in New Mexico was more responsive and friendlier. Within a week after contacting the governor’s office I had a call from Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance (MVEDA). That was a vital factor in the decision to go into Las Cruces.”

Running through downtown Albuquerque, Central Avenue is part of historic Route 66, one of the first highways within the US Highway System.
Photo courtesy of Albuquerque CVB, photo by

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