A Time To Look For Bold Investments By The County

Los Alamos County

“I want a fun, walkable downtown with more restaurants and places to shop.” “I would like to downsize and live downtown.” “Commercial rents are too high. I would like to own my own business property.”

We have heard these comments over and over again as each of us have met with local and potential residents, and with our small businesses. As County Councilors, it is our responsibility to come up with practical ways to address these needs. This is why we are considering purchasing the CB Fox and Reel Deal properties. For CB Fox, we envision working with a private developer willing to work toward our strategic goals. Rather than another old building being retrofitted as office space, this anchor property can offer commercial and restaurant use while also adding compact, attractive housing that will give a boost to our downtown activity and broaden housing options.

For the Reel Deal property, we share the disappointment of losing our last cinema, a particularly heavy loss to our youth. Holding this property can allow us to retain one or two screens, maybe a Middle School activity center, a “black box” performance location, or other municipal uses. Unlike the CB Fox property, we see this building as a community space, not private ownership.

A little background is in order. A Colorado developer purchased the CB Fox and the Reel Deal properties last year as these businesses were closing. Our understanding is that they were to be redeveloped into office space (with some storage units).  After LANL reconsidered its office needs, he became open to discussions with us about their re-purchase, so last December Council agreed to a 90-day due diligence period to consider reuse of these properties more aligned with our strategic needs for downtown amenities, retail, and housing. These are needs we heard time and again in conversations and are documented in our new Comprehensive Plan and Downtown Master Plan, and even in the recently completed Community Survey.

Already, the County has invested tens of millions of dollars in our downtown, from Ashley Pond Park, to beautifying Central Avenue, to our new Teen and Nature Centers. Working a public-private partnership for the CB Fox building is definitely aligned with these prior efforts. Instead of more office space, let’s work toward a first-floor business condominium to accommodate property ownership by small retail, and then apartments in the upper floors and back areas. As done here and elsewhere, a public-private partnership can bring partners who, in return for some incentives, will accept development restrictions that commit them to making this project a reality.

But, why should the County get involved in real estate development? That is a good question that cities and towns across the country have answered positively under the right conditions. Many municipalities decide to purchase property and provide incentives to drive the development of properties to meet community needs.  In fact, more and better housing, invigorating retail, reduction of vacancies are common goals that have been achieved through this mechanism many times elsewhere.

Los Alamos has also done this before. We redeveloped Trinity Site to retain and expand our local supermarket, and Mirador to get more housing in White Rock. Most recently, we are partnering with Pet Pangaea, a successful local business, to assist their relocation and expansion, including the development of pet owner-friendly housing.

Can’t we use zoning or ordinances to force change, instead of using our tax dollars? We have and will continue to use zoning, code and ordinances to improve the downtown area. We are updating our development code to further incentivize positive change, but it will take years for these changes to have their desired effect. In addition, our experience here, and in other communities, is that zoning and code are necessary tools but not sufficient to drive investment focused on real change that benefits the business environment and community. There is no single solution to these problems. We have to hit them on all cylinders! 

Tuesday, March 16, is a go/no go decision point for us. At that meeting, we will review information gathered on each property: needed repairs, potential reuses, associated costs. We appreciate all the input and ideas so far and look forward to continuing to hear from all who are interested in this endeavor: local businesses, residents – including our youth, homeowners, renters. Please read the articles published on this topic, send us an email or give us a call, talk to your neighbors. We are excited about the potential but also clear that there are risks involved. If we move ahead, your tax dollars will be expended. On the other hand, we are also clear that there will be consequences if we let outside decision-makers choose our future, especially if we are left with even more empty properties, while they wait for a better economic opportunity. If we are educated and prudent in our investments, there is the strong possibility that our initiative will prime the pump to a better private business environment. More people and vitality downtown can result in more entrepreneurial investor interest in commerce, retail, and housing in Los Alamos in the future. But, to get there, maybe this is the time for the County itself to lead the way, and for our community to invest in itself first.