Residents await the opportunity to speak during public comment at Tuesday evening’s Los Alamos County Council meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Councilors heard public comment Tuesday evening on an ordinance being introduced that if passed would allow the Council to donate six lots of County land in the 20th Street Extension off Trinity Drive. Support for the hotel-conference center was expressed but not for the land donation.
TNJLA applied for the support under the County’s Economic Development Plan in compliance with the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA). The project involves an 86-room extended stay hotel with a conference center that would accommodate 250 to 300 people banquet style. The real property which would be turned over to TNJLA has an appraised value of $1,825,000. The company owns several hotel properties in New Mexico and out of state.
At the beginning of the meeting, Council Chair Sara Scott asked if there was anyone present to provide comment on the proposed hotel. She said the agenda item was the introduction of the ordinance and that Council doesn’t usually include public comment as part of the introduction but that since folks had come to speak on the topic she would like to offer them an opportunity. As is normal practice, Councilors did not respond to public comment.
Shannon C’de Baca introduced herself as a business owner and land developer, adding that she came by that by inheritance and not by profession.
“So, I’m somewhat of a novice at it but I do understand the processes quite a bit. I think one of the problems that the County has with this donation is transparency. Very few of us got the memo on this meeting. I got it by way of a fourth party so that concerns me when the County is considering a $3 million donation to a competing developer when you have developers present that might have had an opportunity to bid on a process such as that, because I’ve been dealing with boutique hotels trying unload some of my properties for the last four years. So I know the people and I know the players but to not have a voice in the process is a little disconcerting to me,” she said.
C’de Baca said she doesn’t think it’s a conscious process but she thinks the County moves so fast and there are so many players and so many silos that transparency is lost in the system.
“It’s a systemic problem within the County that communication can solve. I think there’s a problem within the County as well where with the 12,000 plus residents we have and a small smattering of crackpots you have the tendency to judge us sometimes with the lens you might judge the folks that might take potshots at the County,” she said. “We’re advocates for the County. Every business owner I deal with is an advocate for Los Alamos County to grow. None of us will argue that we don’t need a hotel, that we don’t need a conference center. But what we do argue with is the transparency with which the land and lease deals within Los Alamos County proceed.”
C’de Baca said it’s not that the Council has to involve every voice, but that there at lease needs to be an effort to involve those voices so that the Council’s motives that are pure, are seen as pure by the County.
“Because anything that occurs in the dark is presumed to be a shady deal. I just don’t want this deal to go forward without Los Alamos County support, the citizens that pay taxes. But I also don’t want the Council to get tainted by one low-transparency decision that might be made in the right ethical frame of mind but with the wrong process to go forward and taint the rest of the good things that might come from this,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the best use of our tax dollars to donate land. I’ve been down that road too and it was not a viable decision for my father who was a for-profit and it’s not necessarily a viable decision for the County because I think you have not tapped the well of other developers that might come forward and give you a much, much better deal and possibly a much more supported deal for Los Alamos County. I would encourage transparency and communication to be your focus as you move forward. You’ll have all the support in the world for a hotel and also a conference center that you want. It’s just that the deal has to be transparent.”
Patrick Sullivan, executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation, a private not-for-profit economic development organization, said a conference center is something that’s been identified in every strategic planning document the County has used over the past 20 years as a vital need for the community.
“A hotel has also been identified in the Economic Vitality Strategic Plan, the Comprehensive Plan, the Tourism Strategic Plan, the Lodgers Tax Advisory Board Working Plan. So across the board the need for these facilities is here,” he said.
Sullivan said he wanted to clear up a little confusion from some comments he had heard earlier. He said almost every conference facility he’s aware of from a small rural area to a large urban city has some form of participation in it by the municipality in which it lives.
“That’s the way those things are sustainable. They do not work well on their own. The developer in this project is bringing in more than $9 million in his own money that he is risking on this. He will be running and operating the conference center, not Los Alamos County. And so we’re very supportive of this,” he said.
He said one of the main reasons LACDC has been behind this project from the beginning is because of the economic spin-off benefit for the small businesses in the community.
“The ability to retain conferences in our community that would typically go off the hill to Buffalo Thunder or down to Santa Fe, and then the spin-off benefit to our restaurants, our retail shops, the catering opportunities that will go along with the conferencing center – that’s the reason this is a good project for our community and why LACDC is proud to report it,” Sullivan said.
Linda Deck, executive director of the Bradbury Science Museum, speaking as a private citizen noted that she has been part of the committees referred to by Sullivan. She said those committees recognize the dire need for a hotel and conference center that can accommodate “the kinds of events that we’d like to have in our county because of everything our county has to offer.”
“I personally was the chairman of the New Mexico Museums annual meeting that we held here three years ago and we barely fit into the venues that were available there. In order to bring anything of any more size we have to have that kind of a center to be able to serve those worthy groups that want to highlight being here in Los Alamos and what this county is and celebrate it, so we’re missing out by not having that kind of a center,” Deck said.
She said she has personally observed that the hotels here are routinely taken up almost entirely by the Los Alamos National Laboratory renters, workers who come in and need to have rooms in order to be here.
“It doesn’t leave very much room for those other people that are just visitors to our beautiful area and want to see it as a vacation type place or the type of conference and event that I referenced before. I am thoroughly behind the effort to make this happen and there are difficult decisions along the way with every project but I am encouraged that we’re on the doorstep of something that can be so beneficial to our community,” Deck said.
Local resident Eduardo Santiago said “maximize shareholder value” is a mantra that causes some people to shudder and some people to salivate.
“It is the law of the land with respect to corporations. We are not a corporation. The County is not a corporation. I understand that 17 jobs is a benefit, that there are many attractive benefits to having this facility, but giving the land as a gift is repugnant especially when there are local business owners in this town with a proven track record who are trying to maintain and upgrade their businesses and are being stymied at every step,” he said.
He said Council would do much better to serve people with a proven commitment to the town rather than outsiders, especially giving them $1.8 million.
Cyndi Wells, owner of Pet Pangaea, said she doesn’t dispute that a facility is needed and is in the best interest of the community.
“If there is such a strong need I don’t understand why we have to make it less risky for the developer to put in this convention center. If there is such a strong need why are they risk-adverse? Why do we have to give it to them?” she said. “I am not against the County helping move things forward with money when it is necessary and would be beneficial. For example, I see areas of blight within the County where there are properties where private enterprise is just not going to touch. It is going to cost too much money for it ever to make financial sense so we have empty, decaying buildings which I think would be an appropriate use of County funds to purchase and demolish and perhaps make available for economic development rather than taking land that is very saleable and appealing and giving that to an outside entity which has pockets deep enough to pay for it. As has had been said here, there’s a huge need so they don’t have much risk.”
Wells said looking beyond the hotel and conference center issue, she thinks it a symptom of a larger problem with economic development in this county.
“There are often breaches of trust in this community with the small business owner community. Initially, when those 20th Street Extension lots went up there were six lots. It was said they were made smaller so that local businesses and local developers would have opportunity but it’s clearly not what has happened here,” she said.
She said there are reverses and changes in policy and that by not looking at the big picture, the Council is “throwing economic development off the cliff edge because you can’t have a thriving local business sector when things are constantly changing”.
“You have an unpredictable partner in the County and to me there isn’t going to be growth in this kind of environment. It just can’t happen,” Wells said.
Resident Stuart Bowling told Councilors they are bound by law to a fiduciary trust to their taxpayers.
“Deviation from your fiduciary responsibility is a breach of your trust. Enacting this ordinance with or without public hearing is abrogating your fiduciary responsibility to us taxpayers. It is a breach of trust. Los Alamos County employees, County Manager and Councilors do not have the authority to give away taxpayers’ land without the express permission from the taxpayers,” he said. “In normal course, this is obtained by referendum. All of you officials here have been confused perhaps by the vagueness of the New Mexico Economic Department’s online documents which… are very vague as it applies to this particular issue as you move forward vis a vis your own responsibilities.”
Bowling said Council has bypassed the “needed referendum vote” and that a successful referendum vote is legally required before the donation of the land specified in this ordinance. Without this, he said he believes the “conveyance is illegal”.
Another resident, Paul Lombard, said he is spearheading a small working group right now consisting or performing arts groups performers working towards resurrecting a mid-sized performing arts center in Los Alamos.
“One of the things I hope the Councilors will not do in this proposed donation of the land is concede to any non-compete agreements with regard to the conference center. It’s our vision that this performing arts center will also possibly be used by our non-profit groups for small conferences, workshops, master classes, things like that which wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford the going rates in a conference center,” Lombard said. “So we are hoping with the performing arts center there will be a sliding scale for the non-profit groups and that we will still have a place to convene these activities.”
He said he understands the Council’s reasons for donating the land.
“I personally disagree with that concept. I understand that you have to make the conference center a little less risky for the participants but it would seem that there would be other ways rather than donating this prime property,” Lombard said.
Resident Ian Decker said he is opposed to the land grant. He said companies such as TNJLA are in business so that they can make money.
“I think we should explore other options. One is a lease of the land where the County maintains ownership. Another would be a 30-year mortgage. And the lease would stay in effect as long as they maintain a business. If they give up the business the lease would revert to the County,” he said.
Ryan McIntyre, owner of Beanies Bike Shop said he’s pretty neutral on the subject of having a hotel here but he really doesn’t see any reason why the County should be giving away land.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea. If Marriott wants to build a hotel here, fine. Make them pay for the land,” he said.
The proposed ordinance is expected to be published for two weeks as required and will most likely be on Council’s Aug. 27 agenda for a decision.