Democratic candidates for Los Alamos County Council participating in Thursday’s virtual forum on local policy are, Sean Williams, top row far right, Denise Derkacs, second row second from left, and Rodney Roberson, second row third from right. Screen shot/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Democratic Party of Los Alamos hosted a virtual forum on local policy Thursday for its three candidates for Los Alamos County Council, Denise Derkacs, Rodney Roberson and Sean Williams. As was expected with a home party forum, the event proved cordial throughout and there were no attacks on the present all-Democratic Council.
The first question addressed the current downtown master plans for Los Alamos and White Rock and the candidates were asked what their vision is for the downtown and what Council should do to enable that.
Derkacs said for both downtowns, Council needs to have a lot of community input and that meetings have already been scheduled.
“That’s a good start. The County has to be open-minded and creative to think of different options to develop those areas. There are a lot of older structures particularly in Los Alamos that will have to be worked around. There is more empty space in White Rock because the area has already been demolished in part. I think there are a lot of options and I’m looking forward to the work on this 20-year plan,” she said.
Roberson said ultimately Council needs to communicate with the community, do some outreach and make sure to get input as to what the community’s wishes are as related to the downtown area.
“I know the master plan is a phased process and that there are a couple of community meetings scheduled for next week. Make the community part of it so that are part of the solution. The community is who is going to be enjoying what the master plan brings to Los Alamos and White Rock,” Roberson said. He added that he wanted transparency for all “so that there’s no secret agenda or hidden agenda as the plans move forward and no surprises as well”.
Williams said his biggest fear with the master plan is that’s it’s not going to be a master plan but a vision.
“A plan is the thing or the series of things that you’re going to do to bring about the result that you want. My worry with plans, particularly with comprehensive plans or master plans, is it often ends up being just a cookbook that consists of being nothing but pictures of some finished cakes and finished soufflés without any of the ingredients or the recipes, instructions – anything that would actually bring you to putting a cake in the oven,” he said.
Williams said in terms of White Rock, his view on White Rock is that there is talk about Los Alamos as a tourist attraction but that the truth is that White Rock has being somewhere the County could create an eye-catching tourist trap. He said one really great idea that his campaign manager pitched to him was to put a plaza in White Rock fronting on SR 4. Another idea Williams said, came from Councilor Randy Ryti. It would involve the conversion of Longview to pedestrians only, terminating at a plaza so that people could drive their car, park, get out and walk.
“That would definitely improve the frankly strange planning of White Rock quite a bit,” Williams said.
He said the key for Los Alamos is not to attract business but to create fertile ground for business and for Los Alamos that really is about rent.
Derkacs said she has to agree that Longview is an odd location for a shopping area because it’s not on the main street State Road 4.
“One possible solution for that location is mixed use or housing, keeping the commercial locations on State Road 4,” she said.
Williams noted that Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation executive director Patrick Sullivan had brought up the idea of high density residential in some of downtown White Rock.
“I do worry that if commercial space gets taken away that we’ll never get it back. I don’t think that White Rock can’t have a vibrant downtown and I do worry that if zoning starts going in that direction, the tendency of zoning to linger is going to be a problem. I’m not blanket opposed to mixed use or high density residential in White Rock but I would definitely be cautious about it,” Williams said.
The second question was what ideas the candidates have for ways the County can support Los Alamos Public Schools.
Roberson said collaboration with the schools is always a good idea.
“Of course there are several different approaches we could take on that collaboration based on priorities and what objectives trying to reach,” he said. He suggested that the County could be involved in some after school projects or scientific projects.
Williams addressed the North Mesa land belonging to the school district which has been the subject of the North Mesa Housing Project study.
“As far as North Mesa there’s a lot of technical or legal challenges with doing residential on leased land but at the same time I know the school district wants a steady cash flow from its land and that’s absolutely the way that it should be, so I think probably the biggest near-term school board/County Council collaboration is that the County has much more experience in development. I do really think that the school board should look at building houses on its land in North Mesa and leasing houses rather than leasing land. I think that the County government could be a tremendous aid in actually coordinating and executing a fairly large housing development project up there to generate long-term revenues for the school system,” he said.
Derkacs noted that the County and the schools have collaborated in the past.
“I absolutely support new collaboration between the two entities, for example the construction of the new field house at Sullivan Field where my understanding is the County assisted in some way with that. I know that the Council voted not long ago to provide utensils for the schools. This was an environmental initiative to minimize the disposal of plastic utensils into the landfill. So those kinds of things are always good – mutual support between the schools and the County,” she said.
As far as the North Mesa housing project, Derkacs said she thinks it is something the County and the schools should definitely continue to pursue “with public input of course to address the concerns of the residents out on North Mesa”.
“In other states I’ve lived in, there have been instances where an entity sells the property with the condition that when the time comes for the purchaser to sell the property, they have to sell it back to them and that ensures that the resale values of the home stays low and it continues to be affordable or middle income housing. So I think there’s a way to make that kind of a housing project happen,” she said.
The candidates were asked what Los Alamos County should do to be a better neighbor to surrounding communities.
Williams said it’s interesting that the dream of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities was always good and “it got caught up in all of the badness”.
“I think that one of the biggest things that we bring to the local table is money. We get a lot of gross receipts revenue from the (Los Alamos National) Lab and finding a stable way of using some of that money to make local investment is a really good project, it’s a good thing. It is unfortunate that so far it has gone so badly awry,” Williams said. “I do, as a general matter support the use of County funds outside of the County, including for example electrical infrastructure investment outside the County. After all, we’re in the awkward position of having money and no space. I think that’s probably where my focus lies with that.”
Derkacs said she agreed with Williams about the Lab investing or infrastructure projects that might benefit both Los Alamos and the surrounding counties.
“The RCLC, as I understand it was primarily focused on environmental matters, I know that has expanded into other areas. It’s a good idea. Yes, it has had issues and it remains to be seen how that advances. I also understand that it’s in a search for new leadership so it remains to be seen how that entity progresses in the future,” she said. “Another way that Los Alamos can help surrounding communities is through education and training opportunities. There are many people who work at the Lab who bring their children up to Los Alamos to school. That is one way that we help our surrounding communities and I think the County should probably put more effort into educational and training opportunities.”
Roberson said he would be interested in seeing what kind of housing or land use opportunities there would be with the surrounding counties.
“We need housing but don’t have the land to put it on. I would be interested in researching to find out any opportunities there are to develop housing outside Los Alamos County in other counties made available to citizens of Los Alamos County as well as providing education and training opportunities in those counties,” he said.
Another question asked, was what the County Council could do to quickly get fast, reliable, secure internet service for everyone in Los Alamos County, as the pandemic has shown both the weaknesses in the current internet options.
Derkacs said she is certainly not an expert on the mechanisms to make it happen, but that she believes the County should definitely find a way to provide high-speed internet to everyone in the County.
“In these times in particular, it’s absolutely essential. Our children will need it to attend classes. Our workforce needs it to participate in work from home activities and in 2020 not having high-speed internet just leaves the County behind the pack,” she said.
Roberson said he would work on getting a variety of internet service providers in the County.
“I think one of the problems is internet service providers not being available throughout Los Alamos County and providing that internet service to everyone. COVID-19 highlights those gaps in internet services available throughout Los Alamos County and for our students in schools, folks in businesses and what not, obviously internet is pretty important too. It was important before COVID and it’s more important now. We just have an opportunity to highlight it and show how important it really is,” said.
Williams said he always supports community broadband.
“I always support broadband as a public utility. I would be all for that. Community broadband is not a fast project, that’s a long-term project. I don’t actually know a lot about LANET. My understanding is that they run on high-speed wireless and of course you need good line of sight for those little radio receivers and transmitters. This is a topographically awkward county,” Williams said.
He said he would welcome input from LANET as to what their needs are.
“My suspicion is that what would help LANET the most would be help with getting easements for more placement of receivers and transmitter. That is something I could definitely get behind. I know a direct contribution to LANET wouldn’t be possible but I’m sure that legal support in expanding their reach is probable feasible and would probably be quite valuable,” Williams said.
Roberson said infrastructure is key to providing that high speed fast internet that is needed. He said that is certainly something he would support.
Derkacs said the County should look into treating broadband access as a utility.
“I don’t know if it’s done in other communities but it’s certainly something worth looking into,” she said.
Derkacs said she can’t get LANET at her house.
“There are definitely topographical issues in the county that affect our access. I think it’s worth exploring as another utility. The time has come. We spend so much of our time online, especially now,” she said.
Williams said there are communities that treat broadband as a utility and that there is certainly a precedent for that.
The final question asked was if tourism should play a bigger role in the County’s economy and if so, what would that look like and what can Council could do to support it?
Roberson said he’s of the opinion that tourism should play a role but not a key role.
“I think where it’s at now. There needs to be a little more emphasis placed on tourism but I don’t think it should be a key draw to the County. There are other avenues to generate revenue. Of course tourism isn’t something that the County needs to generate money for obvious reasons. It’s just one of those nice to have add-on revenues but it’s certainly something that’s part of the county. Here again, I wouldn’t make it a priority or high on the list of priorities,” he said.
Williams said the thinks Los Alamos County is a place that could be a tourist destination but he feels that talking about tourism now “is putting the cart before the horse”.
“You make a place worth visiting or worth being a tourist at to attract tourists. You don’t attract tourists to make a tourist destination. We have to clean up the commercial areas of the towns first and then I think at that point, the fact that we have all of this wonderful nature, the fact that we have Ashley Pond which has the concert stage,” he said.
Williams said the County could host events like a bluegrass festival but that he worried that the County would attract people who “would be turned off by the state of downtown”.
“While I think Los Alamos town could be a tourist destination for events, there’s more of the perpetual tourist thing, White Rock makes a lot more sense to the traffic to all the national monuments in the area. I guess to summarize, in the medium-term, I think tourism focus should be on White Rock. In the long-term I think event focus should be on Los Alamos. Then we would at least justify putting up a convention center,” he said.
Derkacs said the County does have a lot to offer to tourists but that she would agree with what Williams said about needing to do something about the downtown area particularly in Los Alamos to help attract more people there.
“Los Alamos itself certainly has lots to offer to tourists. We have a fantastic science museum, a historical museum, Ashley Pond, the concerts, so I think there are things to offer in Los Alamos. In White Rock, yes, it is the stopping ground to board the bus to Bandelier so there is an opportunity there for commercial small businesses to sell things for tourists,” she said. “There are a few shops here but not many. I think there is an opportunity for tourism but we do have work to do in the County first and I agree with Rodney (Roberson) that it is never going to be the number one priority of Los Alamos but it’s definitely something that can enhance life in the County.”