BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The six candidates for Los Alamos County Council faced off this week on issues pertaining to business in the County during a virtual candidates forum moderated by Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation executive director Patrick Sullivan and Chamber of Commerce executive director Ryn Herrmann.
Although only three questions were fielded candidates Denise Derkacs, David Reagor, James Rickman, Rodney Roberson, Aaron Walker and Sean Williams addressed downtown master planning, ideas for making the County a more attractive place for businesses, and the ongoing problem of vacant commercial properties.
As you know, Los Alamos County is pursuing Downtown Master Plans for Los Alamos and White Rock, led by Dekker Perich Sabatini, and with input from community organizations like Los Alamos MainStreet, the Chamber of Commerce, and the public. What, from your perspective, should be the top priorities that Council could (and should) focus on to make our downtowns more vibrant, and serve as a place in which small businesses want to locate?
Denise Derkacs said community input is absolutely essential for the downtown master plans and that she was glad to see involvement from local residents.
“I think it’s important to make the downtown areas inviting so that people will want to spend time down there, to enable our small businesses to thrive and have a comfortable and attractive environment to locate to. I think that the County should do whatever it can do to help the small businesses in the community and to make those areas attractive and vibrant,” Derkacs said.
She said she is looking forward to future planning sessions and that she hopes the planners and the contractor will come up with substantial workable plans, not just high-level visions for where the County wants to go so that Council has some substantial ideas to work to implement.
David Reagor said the area that used to be considered the downtown or the White Rock village is the area on Longview and that has finally reached its collapse with no restaurants left there.
“A lot of those buildings have been demolished – much of it under a County order. That area used to be a vibrant and fun place 30 years ago but now the economy has changed and I don’t think there’s really a way to revive it,” he said. “I think that area is best served as senior housing. One of the bottlenecks in White Rock that’s really difficult is that older people are in a home and they don’t want to maintain it anymore but then they have nowhere to go. They have to leave the town to move to an apartment or anything with a limited footprint, so when they want to downsize they have to abandon their friends, their family, their church – whatever other relationships they have there and move to some other city.”
He suggested that the road could be straightened in the Longview area and that good senior housing could be created within a block of the senior center and Smiths and two blocks of the library.
“Then the business area really has to be up by the highway because White Rock is just too small and all those businesses tell you that they get break-even by capturing the tourist trap so they have to be visible from the highway,” Reagor said.
James Rickman said he thinks the most important part of downtown master planning is public input. He noted that during the 2000 comprehensive planning process, the community actually had really robust public input.
“People showed up at a bunch of meetings. There were lots of workshops and it was hands-on. In my time living here, I had actually never seen so many members of the community come out and actually participate in a process. The end result of that was pretty good and people felt good about it. The downside was that after that occurred, the County didn’t necessarily follow what the people had wanted,” he said.
Rickman said when talking about downtown, redevelopment is a real key to the community. If the County allows landowners to re-develop their property to mixed housing and business, allowing height restrictions to be much higher so that there could be maybe two floors of housing above business areas, that would be advantageous, he said.
“I find it strange that this downtown planning process occurred when three new members of the Council are in progress to join the Council and we are in the middle of a pandemic. Zoom is nice. Virtual meetings are nice but it’s still not the same as being able to go out amongst your friends and neighbors and actually do like they did in the 2000 process,” he said. “With COVID, we’ve seen it in this business community and we’ve seen it in business communities everywhere, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift right now – a major paradigm shift. This community and no other community will ever be the same after we come out on the other end of this pandemic.”
Rickman said the best to do is to actually postpone the master planning process until after the pandemic is over, after the three new members are on the Council and have a conversation about what the future should look like in the context of present conditions.
Rodney Roberson said he would want to take a closer look and get a better idea from the business community about what’s impacting their daily bottom line, what’s the root cause of some of the issues that impact how they do business and what’s needed to help their planning, budgets and financing.
“Of course those obvious things like the zoning issues and the rent issues would have to be looked at as well. From my perspective, I want to sit down with some of the current business owners in White Rock and Los Alamos to get a better understanding of what their wishes and issues are – some of the things they deal with on a day to day basis – to better impact and help them. Not knowing what those issues are, obviously you can’t answer the problem if you don’t know what the problem is,” he said.
Aaron Walker said he thinks it’s pretty evident what the issues are for the downtown areas.
“We have to address the issues of why we have vacancies and why we have these buildings that are not occupied by businesses. We have to create an environment that’s right for growth and for small businesses to come into fruition,” he said. “To do that, we have to lower the commercial rent in this town. We can’t continue to raise commercial rent and expect the small businesses to be created and thrive in this community. We have rents that are in the neighborhood of downtown Santa Fe and we have not even a fraction of their population. It’s very, very off-putting to anyone that want to start a small business, just in the commercial rent aspect of things.”
Walker said the County isn’t necessarily receptive to new businesses as had been seen with “the Unquarked saga” and that it is very off-putting when the County has that kind of negative publicity.
“No matter who is in the right or wrong there, that kind of publicity doesn’t look good on the County and it doesn’t make people want to start businesses up here,” he said.
Walker noted that to lower commercial rent Sean Williams had come up with an idea of a first-floor non-customer-facing office ban.
“I think that will get the prospect of the Lab being in our downtown area out of the minds of the landowners and we can start trying to lower the commercial rent to where we can have a much more vibrant downtown environment,” he said.
Walker said the County has to get commercial buildings up to code and redevelop where necessary.
“We do have to get into mixed use and fix these aging buildings that have been around since way before I was even alive. We have to address this multi-faceted problem where we know what the issues are already. We just have to be willing to take the steps to actually address the problems,” he said. I don’t support the Metropolitan Revitalization Area in White Rock. It’s an incentive for landowners to neglect their buildings. We’re basically saying, ‘Oh, you’ve neglected your buildings for basically 20 or 30 plus years, here’s money to redevelop them’. I don’t see that as being a very good incentive.”
Sean Williams said of the downtown master planning meetings, the only one he thought was pretty interesting was the stakeholder meeting which was one of the first ones held.
“The conclusion of that was that the problem of downtown is primarily about cost. But talking about place-making, way-finding, these kinds of things – they don’t get to the real issues so it’s not really a great use of anybody’s time to be talking about them until we actually manage to address cost,” he said. “So, in terms of using zoning to ban ground floor offices or non-customer facing offices, people will then tend to get into free market territory. We need to let the market decide, but the fact of the matter is this place is nothing but a gigantic distortion of market place”.
Williams said the County exists because of billions of federal dollars.
“We don’t have a free market in commercial rentals, we have a federal government market. To my view, in terms of discussions about should the County government be intervening in this market, the fact is the County will only be reducing distortion by intervening, mainly the distortion of the federal government. That’s expanding on the rationale for banning offices,” he said.
There are some in the community who believe the County does not do enough to support and advocate for our local small businesses. If you were elected to Council, what strategies or tactics would you implement to make Los Alamos a more “business friendly” community — not only for retention of our current businesses, but for recruitment of new small businesses?
Aaron Walker said the County needs to have a much more streamlined and open process for permitting.
“The County seems to have made some progress with this but as we’ve seen from the Unquarked saga, it tends to not give the kind of publicity the County needs when it comes to that sort of thing. It’s not conducive to small businesses wanting to renovate,” he said. “We need to be much more open and willing to change the permitting process. We need to be much more honest, transparent and open about how the inspections are carried out as well. We need to reduce the amount of negative publicity that comes out of the County because of issues like this that crop up.”
In the Unquarked saga, he said, it’s not a matter of who’s right or wrong it’s a matter of publicity.
Walker said commercial business rents need to be lowered or “otherwise we’re going to continue to strangle the life out of what small businesses we do have and we’re not going to get any new businesses to replace them”.
Rodney Roberson said he concurred with Walker on the permitting process – that it needs to be streamline and made a little less intense.
“Streamline it and make it an easier process. The same thing holds true for transparency, making the process a little more transparent so that not only do the business owners know what’s going on but the community in general knows what’s going on, as far as the high costs of renting or leasing a commercial space in Los Alamos as well as White Rock,” he said.
Sean Williams said fundamentally, running a business in Los Alamos is like being stranded at sea and dying of thirst and being told, “What are you talking about? There’s water all around you’.
“That’s the other half of talking about an office ban is. You (Patrick Sullivan) will tend to talk about the low vacancy rates in the County and that’s true, but they’re not the kinds of occupancy that people want,” he said. “So instead we get this terrible collision of on the one hand high rents and no space to actually do business in. One of the big complaints that I tend to hear from business owners (and not us) is that the County has been doing significantly less business with the businesses. They’re doing significantly less local contracting. They’re doing significantly less local procurement. We can’t directly subsidize businesses but one thing the County can do is buy goods and services from them.”
Williams said he would like to see an overhaul of the procurement code that actually places more obligations on the County to use public money to buy locally.
“That’s probably one of the more significant changes that we could make in terms of the day-to-day operations of the County without stepping on state law,” he said.
Williams said he was not going to comment on permitting because he frankly doesn’t have enough personal experience with it.
James Rickman said he thinks on of the easiest things the County can do in terms of procurement is have a local preference for local business services. He said there used to be a local preference and people felt that more was paid for goods and services in Los Alamos.
“But you have to understand that there are local conditions that add to that. Local preference is good,”
“The one thing that does stun me is that the County seemed unwilling to work for win-win. In a community that’s hurting for businesses I didn’t see anything on the County side to try and reach some kind of compromise or acceptable solution. I think that’s the wrong kind of thinking,” he said. “We have personally had experience with the planning and zoning department on doing a remodel of our house. I used to hear these horror stories and I thought they couldn’t possibly be true. Having gone through this now, I know that they’re true and they’re actually worse than what people say. This is unacceptable and whether there needs to be a full personnel change in that office or a change in leadership at the County, because the attitude comes from the top and we need to change that attitude here in this community.”
Rickman said he wishes the County would stop trying to muck around in the local market.
“We have a co-op that’s actually a fine business. Nobody will fess up actually and say who did it, but somebody recruited a Natural Grocers now, so we know that the outcome of that is going to be. There was one successful business, we’ve recruited a new business and pretty soon we will have one successful business again because there’s just not enough room for three grocery stores in a community of this size,” he said.
David Reagor said Unquarked and some other local businesses battle and battle with the County for months to get open and it’s not just the money it’s the time lost.
“The ones that are successfully open maybe do not want to speak in public but they all have similar experiences to Unquarked and it is difficult,” he said. “…There’s nobody here talking that doesn’t recognize the County has a negative attitude towards business that is universally understood and has to be changed.”
Reagor said he thinks there is a business structure that’s more suited to small towns especially parts of Los Alamos but certainly White Rock.
“That’s a business condominium where the people that own it are not dependent on a landlord but they pay a mortgage. I think that’s perfect for some of the things that are restaurants and services – that they take a slice of the building – they own part of the building like in big cities that’s how sky rises work. Then they have that as a mortgage payment and the County can finance it so that you can keep businesses stable for a long time,” he said.
Reagor said there is at least one such business in Los Alamos and that it’s very stable with the same small businesses there maybe 10-20 years at a time.
“I agree with what everybody else is saying. This County permitting thing has been a ridiculous bureaucracy and they are just crushing businesses. Beyond the obvious ones, everybody else – they just lose months of time trying to get open. Six months just battling with the permitting just trying to get a restaurant open!” he said.
Denise Derkacs said economic vitality depends on housing infrastructure and commerce.
“A new housing development will support population growth which in turn will stimulate infrastructure improvements and increase spending in our local retail community. As to what the Council can do to help local businesses, one thing is to make more properties available for individual ownership. That does away with the high rent issue. As others have said, streamline the permitting process and make it more customer friendly,” she said. “Promoting the growth of tourism will help will bring in people to the County again to support the small businesses.”
Derkacs also suggested supporting spin-off technologies based on LANL research.
“I think we all know that retail is hurting all over the country, so focusing on services, restaurants, salons and other service-type industries is probably the direction we want to go in in the future,” she said.
Some of our local small businesses, several of which have been staples in our community for decades, have sadly recently succumbed due to COVID-19, among other reasons. Others are in ownership transition. While we have historically had a low building vacancy rate in Los Alamos, some of those vacancies have been prominent eyesores and what many consider to be wasted space with our already limited available land. Recent market conditions, with business closures and transitions, have placed a greater need on addressing vacant properties. If elected, what would be your approach to addressing commercial property vacancies?
James Rickman said this is a difficult problem.
“I know there are many people out there who are going to talk about eminent domain or taxing people with vacancy taxes. I think those are the wrong approach for a number of reasons. It makes Los Alamos less business friendly when you have something like that. The thing that is interesting about vacant properties is most people, tend to act in their own self-interest so there must be a reason why a landlord or property owner finds it more advantageous to keep his or her property vacant than to actually rent it,” he said.
Rickman said some owners are probably getting tax breaks or depreciation credits or that kind of thing and that some people carry the property they have no interest in dealing with.
“One of the things I would advocate is actually having somebody who is not a planning and zoning official or a County bureaucratic leader meeting with property owners to understand from them why they are keeping the properties vacant, then if possible come up with solutions for helping either change the ownership of helping those people move into the market in an effective way so things like local tax credits for making sure a business is operating at 100 percent occupancy. We need to talk to talk to people instead of coming up with draconian measures for that,” he said.
Sean Williams said that at the risk of being the draconian candidate Rickman is talking about, he thinks the reason that the property is in such sad state by and large is that there’s no force for maintenance.
“You can kind of see this on the other side of the bridge too. The Lab operates these ancient, complete trash buildings, like the Lab doesn’t care. The Lab doesn’t care on this side of the bridge either and this community doesn’t have the political or economic power to force maintenance,” he said. “Ultimately the County government is the only entity that can fill this gap – that can be the force for proper maintenance of commercial property.”
Williams said one of the unfortunate ironies of this County is that it actually enforces pretty stringent maintenance on residential property owners and virtually nothing on commercial property owners which he said is also certainly a factor of the political and economic power that the two groups hold.
“One group is easy for the County to pick on and one group is hard for the County to pick on. Meanwhile, I think morally it’s far more reasonable to enforce standards of quality on commercial property precisely because commercial property is semi-public space. It is the very nature of commercial property to invite the public in. As a result, commercial property and business owners need to be held to a higher standard because we have the public in our place and because downtown in a certain way belongs to all of us,” Williams said.
Denise Derkacs said the vacancies in commercial properties have long been a problem in the County.
“Some of the contributing factors others have mentioned are high commercial rents and property prices – prices influenced by Laboratory rentals. These are all the things that contribute to our long-term vacancies,” she said. “As I understand it our state property tax code does not allow our municipalities to penalize vacant properties but some of the things the County could look into are a vacant commercial building ordinance with associated fines. That does have implementation issues but it’s something that could be on the table.”
Derkacs noted that zoning restrictions on first floor offices had been mentioned and that mixed used zoning designation will make things more flexible for rentals. She suggested focused efforts to connect redevelopment investors with property owners and focus on maintenance of commercial properties.
“All of these things together are basically things Council should look into and put forth a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the problem,” she said.
Rodney Roberson said that as a stakeholder relationship builder, he feels that one of the things that needs to happen is forming a committee or a group of property owners in this case and try to find out again what the problems are.
“Obviously one size doesn’t fit all so the issue of one property owner may not be the issue with another, so we need to find out what those no-kidding real problems are as they impact property owners as to why they prefer to leave their property vacant, find out root cause and put a mechanism in place whether it’s coding or fines or whatever the case would be to address those issues.” He said. “But not knowing what the issues are and how they affect the individual property owner, until we do that we won’t have a clear direction on how to solve the problem.”
David Reagor said the main issue there in Los Alamos is the old Smith’s and that whole parking lot.
Now Bealls has closed and there is an auto parts shop and a pub still there and the Hilltop House is closed. Some of that is about 10 years old and it just makes the town look bad, like it’s falling apart. It makes the town council look like they’re not doing their job, which is kind of probably true, and it makes the community look like it’s turning into a ghost town,” he said. “I think it is past the time limit of dancing around the edges of that. If that does not move forward then we start to use powers like eminent domain to move them ahead. It has to be converted to public use.”
Reagor said you can’t have a big chunk of land in the middle of town just sitting there looking like you’ve had a collapse.
“And whatever the battle is about, we don’t worry about it. In order to use eminent domain it has to be a public process which means you have to have meetings. You might even have to have a referendum, but you have to have something that will stand up in court. Taking land for public use – it’s just like building a highway or building an airport and sometimes people have to do that. Maybe that will shake up the system if you start moving down that path,” he said.
Aaron Walker said he thinks eminent domain is probably the worst idea the County could have when it comes to downtown.
“I don’t think that is good at all because we don’t want to get into the business of just taking land from landowners and converting it to public use because they didn’t take care of their property. That is way too extreme for my liking. I think Sean Williams hit the nail on the head with this entire topic. We have to get buildings up to code. We have to find a way to make it a bigger incentive for landowners to have their properties filled with tenants rather than keeping them vacant,” he said. “Right now there seems to be more of a financial incentive to them to keep them empty than renting them out. That is not the kind of thing that we need.”
Walker said the County needs to “disincentivise that” and that one thing he would be willing to do would be to add commercial property vacancy to the nuisance code.
“I know I’m not a big proponent of anything that’s not health and safety related but this is related to the health and safety of our economy. If we can do that and get code enforcement shifted from a criminal penalty to a civil penalty, we can then start levying a fee schedule that is there to provide a financial disincentive to keeping property vacant. You don’t have to go in and do this eminent domain where you’re taking property away from people just because you don’t think they’re doing the right thing with it,” he said.
The six Council candidates will again appear on the League of Women Voters virtual candidates forum Monday, Oct. 5 at 6:30 p.m. Please register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.