The Gila Economic Development Alliance this morning convened a forum to introduce to the public projects to enhance quality of life and economic development in Grant County.

Gila EDA Board President Jeremiah Garcia introduced the effort with the mission of the alliance—to create and retain jobs. "Our goal is to build relationships, build the business community and bring people together. We are all here for a reason—we love Grant County."

The panel members were County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten, Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard and Silver City Town Manager Alex Brown.

Kasten thanked the Gila EDA for hosting the forum.

"How did this idea start?" Kasten asked. "It was a little over a year ago on April Fools' Day, when Mayor James Marshall, Dr. Shepard and I were on the Morning Show. After the show we talked about how we could collaborate. I said to Dr. Shepard that the No. 1 thing I would like to see is for Western to bring back baseball. Before we were done, we had 20 to 30 possible projects. Since there is no way to fund them all, we talked about how to vet them into something sellable to the public and that would enhance quality of life and economic development. All three had to be part of the project. We started going through them and 10 to 12 would meet all three goals. We winnowed it down to four to six."

Individually, the three started working on projects and met with bond counsel to discuss funding. "We found out that the county cannot bond ad valorem except in specific instances, so we decided on gross receipts tax as a way to fund the projects."

Shepard said nearly two years ago, he stood in front of a group of people and among them were Earl Montoya, whom he pointed out in the audience at this forum. "Earl said there was a great disconnect between the university and the community. He asked me what I would do to lower the drawbridge. I answered him, and I also challenged him asking: 'What will you do?' We have to work together."

Before he became WNMU president, Shepard participated in the founding of Florida Gulf Coast University. "We started in a place with no university, no infrastructure, no roads, no malls, in a swamp, with nothing but mosquitoes. Now FGCU is yielding over a billion dollars to the community."

"Since 1893, you have had a university," Shepard said. "What are you going to do with it? Some of you will want the projects; some of you won't; and some want no more taxes. There is one thing required for economic development—do something. If we can work together on what we want to do, we'll succeed. What I want to see is a university that reaches into the community."

He said thanks to Sen. Howie Morales who helped procure $2.5 million for the renovation of Light Hall, which was built in the early 1900s, work could begin on upgrading the classrooms and the auditorium. He suggested it could be used for classes during the day and entertainment and/or lecture series at night.

"The No. 1 complaint I get from the community is: 'When are you going to fix the swimming pool?' I have had only one complaint from a student," Shepard said. "The pool is a community issue. If we increase the length by eight inches, we can hold competitions. But most of you don't want 76-degree water; you want at least 88 degrees. So we're doing schematics to enlarge the main pool for competition and create a 25-meter pool for laps or aerobics, which can be used by the community or as a warm up for competitions. Bleachers in between the two would allow the community to continue to swim even during competitions.

"I wouldn't mind if Alex would pick up the operating expenses, but I'm willing to do the operating expenses, if the community puts skin in the game to build the pools," Shepard continued. "It's a common practice between municipalities and universities. That's one piece on the quality of life bond."

As for baseball, it's important not only in Silver City, but in the Mining District. "What can we do collectively to take care of the Mining District? Take one of the Bataan Park ball fields and for about $325,000 to $600,000, we could put in turf and lights. Students just passed a $10 fee toward a student activity building, which would house food courts on the first floor, organizations and activities on the second floor and a third floor ballroom. We can use housing for rooms for conferees. Those people will pay the gross receipts taxes we need to pay back the bonds."

That was the second piece. The third piece was to make the County Business and Conference Center a hub for large conferences. The fourth-piece was a multi-screen theater. He said the Silco Theater and Light Hall would be more appropriate for classic movies, rather than first-run movies. The fifth and final project would be to improve the golf course with new pathways and improved fairways.

"We want to raise the quality of life for people to come, to stay and for youths to have something to do," Shepard said. "I've had parents tell me they are thinking of moving, because there is not enough for kids to do. You here today have the energy to care."

"Rumors are already flying that it is a done deal," Kasten said. "It isn't. The County Commission has not voted. The process would be that we would pass a notice of intent to pass a resolution to hold an election. Then an ordinance would set the election in September, because we need 90 days to certify the gross receipts bonds before the tax begins to be collected on January 1."

He pointed out that the area schools have lost approximately half their population in the past 20 years. "That's not sustainable. We need to have families staying here and not moving outside the area for jobs. In my 25 years of community service, I've never seen the university, the county and the city come together like this."

Kasten said after the bond issue passed would be the time to put out requests for proposals for someone to operate a theater, which would be constructed by the county. "Everyone will have the opportunity to put in for the RFP. The county would receive the bond funds and disperse it government to government. The county will not build a project on the university."

He explained a problem with the Business and Conference Center where the forum was being held. "It's beautiful on the outside now, but the inside is the same old call center. The exterior was done with a U.S. Economic Development Department grant. We were told if we made it look not like an old Wal-Mart, we were promised another grant for the inside. Now there are no grants."

Brown said these projects are part of a package the group has worked on. The city-owned Scott Park is finished and is now multi-use, with four baseball fields, full-sized soccer fields and five junior-sized soccer fields. "We have tons of tournaments scheduled. Recently 21 teams filled hotels for three to four days. A couple of teams had to stay in Deming. Eleven teams pulled out because they would have had to stay in Deming. Now we have a Youth Soccer League. As soon as we get lights on the fields, they can be used for Western football teams to practice."

"With collaboration, we are working together to bring these projects to Grant County," Garcia said. "I will open it to questions."

Skip Thacker, a Gila EDA board member, asked what the total cost of the projects would be.

Kasten said a one-quarter percent gross receipts tax could pay back a $10 million bond issue.

Kim Clark of the REATORS® Association thanked the three entities for working together.

Bruce McKinney asked how many jobs the projects would be created. "It seems like it's quality of life before economic development."

Kasten said the group has listed Western as the No. 1 economic developer. "We'll fill beds which will have to hire more people. We'll fill this building, which will require more help and perhaps separate management. A movie theater would bring several jobs. Some have asked us why government is going into business against businesses already here. I talked to movie theater operators. They have no desire to come here and build. If we build the building, they will put skin in the game to make it work."

Shepard said with the swimming pool, because of Title 9, requiring equity in male and female sports, "to bring back baseball, we would have to have two more women's sports, which would be swimming and soccer. We're building new housing, and have passed more housing revenue bonds. In addition, Light Hall will bring a lot of money into the economy on the construction side. With the housing, we'll need activities for the additional students on campus. There's another $1200 of their parents' money."

Gordon West, a small business owner, asked if the group had created a business plan to determine return on investment.

"Yes, we did on the theater," Kasten said. "On this building, I'm not sure how to quantify it as a convention center."

West suggested they get students in the WNMU Business School engaged to crunch the numbers.

"We figure every $1 invested brings back to us $4 to $5," Shepard said.

The rest of the meeting will be covered in a future article.

Live from Silver City

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