The Grant County Community Health Council held its regular quarterly meeting on June 17. Much of the meeting centered on a discussion on the upcoming gross receipts tax ballot issue to be put before the voters in a mail-out ballot from July 29, to be returned to Grant County by Aug. 19.
In action items, GCCHC member Mike Trujillo was chosen to serve on the Steering Committee to replace Dr. Don Johnson, who recently resigned from the council.
Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard, who is also a health council member, gave a report on the upcoming ballot issue on an increase in the gross receipts tax rate, which has been proposed for the community to raise funding to pay off bonds to support quality of life issues in the area.
"I know it's about the bonds," Shepard said. "I recently gave a presentation to the Legislative Finance Committee and gave an overview of Western as it relates to the town and community. Things die here on the weight of division."
He said the university has a plan to continue to build housing, where Eckles Hall and Regents' Row are now. Where Eckles the proposal is for a learning center for freshmen. "Students approved a $10 fee per credit hour to pay for a student activity center. In both of these cases—the housing and the student activity center—they will be paid for through student fees. We are not asking taxpayers to pay for these. We are planning to turn Graham Gym into a fitness center for students, without tax dollars."
Shepard reported the Legislature allocated $2.5 million to upgrade Light Hall, using severance tax money. "It will be part of a non-student conference center, which will offer our housing beds, food, parking and a conference area in the ballroom, which will be in the activity center. Light Hall is an acoustically sound theater and lecture hall. We can use it as a single-screen theater. Long-term our plans are not for it to be a theater, but the reason we are putting one in is to give students something to do. More students moving here will also mean more faculty."
People ask about the proposed swimming pool, as part of the gross receipts tax package, he said. "It's about quality of life. We will turn it into an aquatic center. The majority of the people, who have used the university pool over the years, are community members. Silver City needs a year-round pool. The university cannot be an institution by itself. The main pool would be increased in length so it can be used for competition on the college level, the high school level and for swim meets. An additional 25-meter pool would be warmer and could be used prior to meets, as well as by community members."
"Western and the community want baseball to return," Shepard said. "We propose to use Bataan Park fields for our home games. We're a baseball community. One out of two students at the university is a first-generation student. We are Hispanic-serving and baseball is a passion."
On the subject of the County Business and Conference Center, Shepard said the university wants to get in the conference business and needs another venue—the county conference center. "It is now finished on the outside. Let's fix it on the inside. People attending conferences sleep and eat in town, creating revenue for local small businesses."
He also spoke about the golf course. "I see kids with their parents at the golf course. We need to upgrade it."
Shepard said he would also argue for a multi-screen movie theater. "I watch very little TV, and I probably go to only two movies a year, but movies span generations. Kids and parents are now driving to Deming to watch a movie. Bring them back here. We will seat the movie and outsource it to an operator. The university may also lease the space for classrooms or for conferences. That makes up the five pieces we are proposing to use the gross receipts tax increment for—a swimming center, baseball, golf, conference center and a movie-plex."
Silver City Mayor James Marshall said the process began more than a year ago, with the town, the county and the university looking at the issue, "because town people were screaming about the lack of a pool and then when the movie theater closed, they screamed about the lack of a theater. The golf course, baseball and the conference center all tie into economic development. We have a nice golf course that needs work. We are about to get a clubhouse. The baseball fields across the street from the clubhouse have just been completed. We're building the economy from the ground up."
"An increase in tourism will increase business and the circular flow of money," Marshall said. "The recent work on the conference center is lipstick on a pig. We need to fix the inside. A common misperception is there is nothing for kids to do. We have a recreation center that is probably not meeting the needs of the community. We are in talks to revamp the programming in the center. We have the resource, but haven't programmed correctly. We are talking to a local contractor who has youth experience."
Health Council Chairwoman Priscilla Lucero said she hears questions about the conference center frequently. "I explain that the funder said because it is at the main entrance to the community, it requested the exterior be upgraded, and said it would then fund fixing up the interior. Then sequestration happened, and grant funds continue to deplete."
Tony Trujillo, Health Council member said the underlying factor he sees in the gross receipts tax increase is that three entities are working together, "which we have not seen before. We can argue the merits. We had baseball and it went away. We had a swimming pool and it went away. We had theaters and they went away. I applaud the three entities for putting this together to move forward in quality of life issues. Economic development brings jobs and gross receipts taxes."
Health Council Vice Chairwoman Sam Redford asked whether the GRT increase was specifically for quality of life.
"It is not being funded through quality of life, because there is not a specific gross receipts tax increment for quality of life," Marshall said.
Health Council member Mary Stoecker pointed out the town approved a downtown theater district for films. "What is the flexibility? Can the public say they want to refurbish the three theaters, as opposed to a five-flex outside of town? I am rarely in a theater these days with lots of people."
Marshall said he is not a theater expert, but the group went to the theater industry. "They told us to get first-release movies, we have to have a certain number of screens. We would build a big screen, and then after a few weeks, the movie might be shown in a 100-person theater. I have minimal confidence in the theater numbers downtown. If we do it downtown, it's a different picture. "For different owners, cost is a huge variable."
"Easy isn't always right," Stoecker said. "People are drawn to downtown for concerts and events."
Health Council member Alex Brown, who is also Silver City manager, said the project would be listed as part of the ballot issue, but "where they are is generally flexible. A movie complex could be downtown."
Shepard said the swimming pool doesn't have to be at the university. "I think this is all part of the dialogue."
Marshall said, as the group toured with a movie theater industry person, "he said: 'If I were building a theater, the old Hillcrest site would be the worst location. Put it on a location where you want to develop the area." The town has been described as being built, but not being developed. It would help develop downtown. This GRT package can help drive everything."
Lucero said, when talking about movies: "Am I right that there would be two downtown and three somewhere else? The common goal is to look at how to benefit the community."
Shepard said the entities need to identify things that are larger than having a movie theater. "If we had five different theaters, an operator would need five different ticket sellers, five different concession stands and five separate operators."
Health Council member Francesca Estevez said her No. 1 hope is that "we can promise most of the jobs go to the local unemployed work force. We need to bring the work home. Silver City is not only downtown, it's Santa Clara downtown. Bayard used to be hopping. It should be a Grant County project with the communities throughout. Corre Caminos could take people to the theaters."
Health Council member Maurine Laney said she loves baseball, but "we have a huge history of basketball in our family. Our son and daughter want to play basketball year round. The biggest problem is there is no place to play. We have girls' teams, but we want to start a boy's program. The problem is not enough gyms for practice. Also volleyball is taking money outside the area. It will bring in revenue. We really do not have the ability to have basketball and volleyball tournaments here. If there were an option to improve such a facility, I would support the issue. The tennis courts in Bayard cannot be used."
"Once upon a time, we had Boys and Girls State coming here," Shepard said. "We have three basketball courts and could bring in tournaments and camps. I caution you. Each of us can come up with ideas, but it might doom the major issue. I will work with you to use the basketball facilities."
Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Coordinator A.J. Sandoval asked if walking trails like those in Deming are included. "Will infrastructure be built?"
"As a community, we need to have the conversation," Shepard said, "but don't let some weigh down the five somethings from happening. When we get more gross receipts taxes, there will be opportunities for more work."
Brown pointed out that when the hold harmless is totally phased out in a few years, the town would lose 18 percent of its revenue. "With this gross receipts tax increase, 60 percent of it will be paid at the beginning by Grant County residents; the remaining 40 percent will come from those who shop here from elsewhere. These projects will bring in people. As the gross receipts grow, less of the payments will be borne by Grant County residents."
Lucero said based on a new highway bill, more funds would be available for trails. "The funds will be allocated to the councils of government. We need to look at opportunities, so we are prepared."
The rest of the meeting will be covered in a subsequent article.