Big opportunity for our city: Once in a 25 year chance to do something special with our state fairgrounds/Expo NM

It has been 25 years since we’ve had the chance to redesign the State Fairgrounds (now officially known as Expo New Mexico). As the state senator representing most of the area, I know that the communities surrounding Expo New Mexico have repeatedly called for an opportunity to participate in a formal strategic plan for the development of the 250 acres in the middle of our city.

And for a while it looked as if we were headed in the right direction.

Over the last 10 years, three separate governor’s task forces recommended the consideration of Central Park or Millennium Park-esque redesigns, all of which would be self-funded.

In 2010, legislation passed that called for an Asian American Center on the grounds and a long-term planning session involving community members.

The mayor called for Expo New Mexico to be part of “ABQ The Plan.”

Most recently we were encouraged by the governor’s office issue of a competitive Request for Proposals for the land currently occupied by the Downs at Albuquerque.

But now it appears we will miss an important opportunity to craft a serious strategic plan or consider community input before the next 25-year land deal is made.

With just 30 days to respond, only two entities met the deadline. No formal community input was solicited, plans were kept secret, accountability measures have not been put in place yet, and broader plans for Expo New Mexico were excluded from the discussion.

We know that bold change is needed. The 2011 Legislative Audit further revealed a disturbing history including millions of dollars in mismanagement, questionable short-term decisions and annual taxpayer bailouts.

Then on Nov. 8, the Albuquerque Journal reported $70,000 of campaign contributions went to the governor from the Downs’ ownership.

If these trends continue, many of us State Fair supporters worry that taxpayers statewide may not continue to foot the bill.

The rushed new 25-year land deal the governor appears ready to sign with the Downs at Albuquerque is better than the current one. However, it will likely preclude bigger opportunities and perpetuate status quo operations at Expo N.M.

New Mexicans deserve a well-run transparent and accountable operation that is a pride point for the city, state and surrounding community.

Thankfully, the State Fair Commission wisely agreed to table the recent vote on the lease. But there is mounting pressure to force the decision in December based on the idea that a new casino lease is the only option to fund the fair.

That is simply not true: The amendment signed this year by the Expo director extends the lease to 2013; also, the Legislature can extend the lease or funding in the short term to allow for proper long-term planning.

Rather than locking the grounds into any long-term deal that ties our hands for decades to come, I hope the governor and other legislators will join the call to restructure governance at the fairgrounds and get serious about the planning and funding that will be required to make our fairgrounds world class.

Reopen the RFP, let Albuquerque have a voice, and let’s look at numerous options from enterprise zones to tax increment financing that can fund a broader redesign that will have little impact to taxpayers.

Let’s do better for New Mexico and develop long-term vision; one that transforms the fairgrounds into true asset that helps the revitalization of the International District and becomes a vibrant destination for everyone in our state and beyond.

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I think we need campaign finance reform - in addition to Susana getting $70K, Diane Denish received some $50K from these gambling concerns. And, of course, the Expo is owed several hundred thousand by these same operators, while Expo is operating in a $2M debt.  Pay a little upfront, receive a huge contract in return.... 

 

The amount of money is pretty obscene - 300 machines produce $16.7M in revenue yearly, and the proposal is to double the machines (and the take....)  Plus, there's no accountability for the revenue of the horse track. 

Yeah, we need to re-design Expo to make it a community asset, not a gambler's paradise...  (A community and sports center comes to mind...)

  Tim, I agree completely with your vision and the need for community input, but it sounds like the real sticking point is the need for leadership at the state level...I see no evidence that this is possible.  Mayor Berry had some ideas for the site as part of ABQ The Plan, as you mentioned, but again they are meaningless platitudes without state support. 

Can I ask what you meant when you said, "With just 30 days to respond, only two entities met the deadline."

- Were the entities developers responding to a state RFP for the site?  I guess I'm confused.

 

It looks like you are hoping for a public/private partnership for the site (TIF, Enterprise, etc), and it may be best if somehow the state can give control of the land/future development over to the city of Albuquerque - the state doesn't understand community-level planning.

As for an RFP - it may be wiser to do an RFQ - Request for Qualifications.  RFP's cost developers alot of money to come up with renderings that the community hasn't yet vetted, thereby limiting the number of possible developers as well.  Although I guess with the scale of development likely to be considered, possible developers will probably have the cash...

I can point you in the direction of a new, very successful development that has occurred in Omaha, NE under a similar situation - similar acreage, smack in the middle of a similar-sized city, formerly used for gambling/horse track racing - Aksarben.  They've developed a successful community farmer's market, student housing, townhouses, mixed-use commercial, corporate offices, etc.  They really transformed that space. 

Someone needs to go to the state with a bunch of case studies, to at least show what is possible.  This state seems to be lacking for dreamers lately...

 

Tim,

I think this whole issue of a new lease for the Downs needs to come off the table until such time as the economics of the State Fair is resolved.  The recent "revelations" which have been known by many for a long time seemed suspiciously timed to simply provoke a better payout from the Downs bid.  If the Fair is not viable at this location then it would seem the operation of gaming and racing would only detract from any plan to develop the overall site for alternative uses.

I believe the state fair lost its charm in the last 20 years or so, moving away from the things that made it great. State fairs across the country started out as showplaces of agriculture -- veggies, livestock, grains, horse shows, a queen contest, a rodeo  and a carnival with a few rides.Now it's wall to wall circus acts: trapeze, platform divers.The fair should return to its roots. It has lost several counties which have formed regional fairs. Renaming it Expo was the last straw.  Not much creativity out there  -- one new ag-related event that seems to has caught on is the very popular McDonald's Farm for kids. The newspapers quit running results of the competitions and started doing crime stories, I'd like to see the fair return to its original mandate,cut back on visitor entrance and parking fees, spend less. If it doesn't make money, the state should subsidize it --a drop in the bucket.The media should help out. The newspaper doesn't do the queen story until the beginning of the next fair so they can sell a high priced insert. The winner of the queen contest, with photo,  should be on the front page of the next days edition, along with the winners in the livestock sales. Just as sports, kind of like they now cover the balloon festival. I'm rambling.That's all. .  

Unfortunately, very few of us out there own livestock or a farm anymore! That is probably the main reason it has changed form farm oriented to the "crap" of today. Maybe if it focused on small scale production, and even urban production, we could get somewhere.

The park in Denver where they have the zoo and museum is a great example as well.

 

My family lives in Fair Heights- it's a great neighborhood located in the core of Albuquerque, just northwest of the fairgrounds near San Pedro and Lomas.  We are very much in favor of the state reopening the RFP process and looking at alternative land uses.  This is supposed to be "state" land, owned by the people, for the people.  Ironically, there is a huge wall surrounding the property making it inaccessible and unattractive to the surrounding communities.  I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Keller- we can do better.

Thanks for all the great comments.  The commission short circuited all efforts yesterday and voted 4 to 3 to give the downs the 25 year land deal. Very very disappointed, folks were even protesting out front they were so upset.  See more comments and details at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvxkOrvJqls&feature=player_embedded

It's so disappointing how this got pushed through so quickly. There are so many awesome things that could be done with that space! What about a park? What about condos or houses? What about joining the international district and Nob Hill with more restaurants and shops or a mixed-use zone similar to ABQ Uptown?

Because the RFP was open for such a short time and the vote rushed, no other proposals were ever heard. They never asked for any public comment. Now those of us who live nearby are stuck with some cheesy, crime-attracting casino - and we had no say in the matter!

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