BY LAUREN MCDANIEL
Los Alamos MainStreet
Over the years there has been continued frustration about some of our visible and unsightly vacant buildings in Los Alamos and White Rock and declining retail options in the downtown. The community, as well as business and property owners, seem to all want the same thing: A vibrant downtown and business-friendly community. How we achieve this may be up for interpretation in our unique town, but the reality exists that we must bring stakeholders together, including business owners and property owners, in a constructive way to initiate important discussions around barriers and underlying issues preventing possible development and retail growth. We must do this in consultation with experts in the fields of economic development and planning, to highlight best practices and identify unintended consequences. There isn’t one simple solution, but likely several.
Los Alamos MainStreet, a private nonprofit that operates under Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation (LACDC), is pursuing strategies alongside other LACDC leadership to help market our available properties in a cohesive way and spur development interest in our community. We are primarily looking at programs to incentivize the kind of development we wish to see, as opposed to implementing penalties. However, it may come down to a variety of tactics. One of the first steps we’ve embarked on is initiating a White Rock Metropolitan Development Area (MRA) Designation Report in conjunction with revitalization specialists at New Mexico MainStreet.
We are ultimately recommending that Los Alamos County Council adopt an MRA in White Rock to dovetail with the County’s concurrent White Rock Downtown Master Plan. Many of the ideas presented by County contractor Dekker/Perich/Sabatini (DPS), as well as community members during Downtown Master Plan open forums, will actually be difficult to achieve without the designation of an MRA. While it may be an unfamiliar concept in Los Alamos County, countless other communities within New Mexico have benefited from the additional flexibility allowed with the MR code.
What is an MRA?
An MRA is a state designation that, through New Mexico State Statute, empowers local governments to rehabilitate and redevelop areas that are deteriorated, blighted, or underutilized in order to stimulate economic and community development. The designation doesn’t necessarily mean very much out of the gate to existing businesses and properties within the defined boundaries, but it would open up potential public-private partnership opportunities.
This may include, but is not limited to:
· Contributing public resources to private redevelopment projects, which could not be otherwise possible due to the state’s anti-donation clause that prohibits municipalities from financially supporting (directly or indirectly) private businesses. Examples of public resources include land/public properties; infrastructure investments (such as sewer, water lines, sidewalks); County time/staff expertise; County equipment and materials (trucks, moving equipment); development partnerships; and in some cases, direct financial contributions.
· Extending the potential of the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) financing tool to redevelopment projects in an MRA. Again, a municipality can enter into an agreement with a private business or developer without defying the anti-donation clause; use cases are extended beyond the qualifying entities outside of an MR zone, which are more restrictive.
· Offering tax abatement/deferral programs or rent subsidy. For instance, a new business could be incentivized to relocate to White Rock and be given a tax deferral for a specified timeframe to help reduce their relocation and/or start-up costs.
· Establishing a Tax Increment Financing District within the MRA, which is essentially an MRA fund for improvements to the district that leverages existing property tax increment as the revenue stream (no new or increased taxes!). This means that property tax increment funds that are generated in the district are re-invested in the district; increment funds may be used to bond for projects. This MRA fund may be used for projects within the district that are vetted and recommended by an MRA Committee and approved by elected officials.
· Incentivizing housing development; Demolition
· Reconfiguring/realigning roadways and other infrastructure improvements
All of these examples are possible tactics the County can choose to implement if it’s in the public interest to do so, has public support, and are recommended as part of the MRA Plan. You can think of an MRA as essentially a tool in the toolbox Council can then choose to use (or not use) on a project-by-project basis for the purpose of development.
Background of MRA Plans
There are many instances across New Mexico of successful MRA zones that have led to private development and investment in a community, including multiple projects in Downtown Farmington, Lovington, Santa Rosa, and countless others that wouldn’t have been possible without an MRA. The Plan creation would be led by a third-party specialist after the MRA boundary is defined via County ordinance. MRA Plans can typically take anywhere from 8-12 months to complete, but we are also looking at what might be possible to leverage from the existing process already completed through the Downtown Master Plan discussions as well. All must include deep community participation, as transparency and communication is a key element (and requirement) in the development of the MRA Plan.
The MRA Plan would specify projects that our community may wish to pursue; again, implementation of the Plan, however, would then be at the discretion of Council. All potential projects the County chooses to pursue within an MRA will be held accountable for reaching certain milestones, or County funds and partnership agreement can be withdrawn. The goal of an MRA is to use it as a tool for development, not to offer public funds simply as a subsidy to private businesses or developers.
The MRA Plan development should not come at a cost Los Alamos taxpayers, either; while municipalities are responsible for providing the upfront cost of the MRA Plan to a third-party contractor, Plan funds can be reimbursable through the New Mexico Finance Authority.
White Rock has seen many County investments over the years, from the White Rock Branch Library, Visitor Center, Fire Department, and most recently the Splash Pad for youth and families. Now, White Rock is within the purview of Los Alamos MainStreet and we would like to show redevelopment support for this special part of our community as well. We view the establishment of an MRA as the next logical extension of these efforts and financial investments, as it would simply encourage additional private investment in the area, incentivize maintenance and sale of available properties, and assist our community in achieving some of the overarching goals as identified in the White Rock Downtown Master Plan.
We invite the public to learn more about the possible White Rock MRA during a discussion with Council during an upcoming Council Work Session on Tuesday, May 18. You may access the virtual meeting HERE and also see an initial White Rock MRA Designation Report completed by New Mexico MainStreet and Los Alamos MainStreet HERE.
To recap, this proposed MRA should not exist in a silo, and is far from the only solution we will need to pursue to see the kind of Los Alamos/White Rock downtown activity and small business support we desire.