Government-driven downtown revitalization has been a failure. Forty years ago, leaders envisioned a future that included a hotel and entertainment complex built around conventions, local events and gleaming high-rise office buildings.
It hasn’t happened on a scale that makes any sense. It has cost more than the meager results have produced and there is nothing to suggest that more of the same is going to make a difference.
When federal urban renewal money came here in the late 1960’s, there was an opportunity to build a hotel-convention-entertainment complex just north of Old Town at Rio Grande and I-40. But, instead of drawing a comprehensive picture of what a vibrant and functioning Albuquerque should look like, one where the puzzle pieces fit together nicely and could be added when timing and funding and other resources would allow it, the visionaries have been trying to fit pieces of puzzles from different boxes together over all these years since.
Putting a jail in the middle of downtown revitalization (and blocks from the convention center) made no sense, but that is what government planning brought us.
No one knows or will reveal (I’ve asked) what all this has cost over 40-plus years. But considering all the subsidies, parking garages and other dysfunctional buildings (jail, city hall, county courthouse, civic plaza, convention center, police headquarters), the cost cannot have matched up to the reward. And can anyone remember when the debt on any of these projects has ever heard off?
The only thing we ever hear from the Revitalistas is that the reason this stuff never works is because they have just never spent enough (taxpayer) money to do it right (a familiar tune in New Mexico… pay teachers more and we’ll get better results, you know the drill).
What they are really saying is they want more money to buy more puzzle boxes in hopes they can somehow find a match with the unfinished puzzle mess they’ve had on the table all these years.
Revitalistas have been so busy building on a model of the past that they haven’t noticed that the world has changed around them (just like in the school system). I’m sure for some, it is comforting to assume that the way we’ve done things for the past 100 years or so will carry forward to the future. I also suppose there is nostalgia in a vision that says we need places to congregate like event centers and the ability to ride a train to get there. Nostalgia is expensive and it dies hard.
But this is 2010 not 1910! Younger generations are linked in to the Internet for just about everything. They communicate and touch each other that way and whether older folks like it or not, that is the way of the future. And that way has little if any need for event center kinds of structures or trains or a whole lot of other stuff (like traditional classrooms) that has been the focus of the old industrial production model that grew this country into a prosperous place but no longer exists.
Our future prosperity is tied to the Internet which includes an expanded broadband network and faster data transfer speeds. Conventions will become a thing of the past because of video conferencing, distance learning, Facebook, and a whole host of options for information exchange and networking. Events are being beamed to devices as small as cell phones today from everywhere. Print media is being replaced by electronic media. The world has changed.
Downtown shouldn’t be left to rot, but neither should these grand schemes continue at taxpayer expense. We’ve come a long way from the days where our largest banks were locally owned and located downtown. Remember the Big 8 accounting firms and all the big law firms? Downtown office building vacancy is always the highest in the city of any submarket.
There is a reason for it.
It’s likely the same reason why there is not a Sears, JC Penney’s or McDonalds located downtown. Spending more public money will not change it. It hasn’t in 40 years. It won’t in 40 more.
To the extent that government policies (as opposed to the market) guide things, they should conform to the structural changes in our workforce and resulting economic conditions and a cultural change that is well under way in how we congregate. An arena with no anchor and a massive new convention space in a declining market are no way to spend taxpayer money.
Vic Bruno has been a commercial real estate broker and consultant in Albuquerque for 38 years. He also sits on the board of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.