The last public forum last week, addressing the ballot to increase the county gross receipts tax to fund capital improvement proposed projects, took place Friday, July 26, at the Gila Economic Development Alliance, in place of its regular monthly Roundtable.
Tony Trujillo of the Gila EDA said the monthly Roundtable is held to bring community organizations, agencies and businesses together to "get everyone on the same page. We have a monthly discussion. This forum today replaces our usual format." He said, during public input, each person would have two minutes to comment and ask questions.
Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten was the first panelist to speak.
"I truly do believe in Grant County, and I think better days are ahead," Kasten began. "I have seen worse times."
His family has been in the county for four generations. "I love being here."
As for the process that culminated in the decision to put a gross receipts tax increase on a ballot, Kasten said, a couple of years ago, "the new Western New Mexico University president, Dr. Joe Shepard, made an appointment with me. He asked me what the one thing I wanted was. I told him I wanted the university to grow and I wanted baseball back at the university. This is a big baseball town. I was shocked when the university took baseball out. We, Silver City Mayor James Marshall, Town Manger Alex Brown, County Manager Jon Saari, Shepard and I were all in Santa Fe at the same time testifying. There's a lot of hurry up and wait and wait. We had a lot of time to think about projects the community needed. We went back and forth for six months. This past legislative session we talked to Senator Howie Morales and Representatives Rudy Martinez and Dianne Hamilton. We talked about funding and they all looked at me. We thought we could do a bond against property taxes, but were quickly informed by bond counsel that it was not possible to do capital outlay improvements against property taxes. Counsel said we could do a gross receipts tax increment. He suggested a generic ballot, and we have been attacked for not listing the projects. I knew it was a problem at the beginning. But the county can do up to a 3/8 of a percent increment increase without a vote. We want you to vote. And it would be disingenuous of us not to stick with these projects."
"We have had public meetings," Kasten said. "Six or seven people showed up when we proposed the resolution for the ballot. At the hearing for the ordinance, no one showed up to give public input. It is a fallacy that the meetings were not published and put out for the public. It is not true."
He said he believes Grant County has issues. "Within the past 10 years, we have lost 26 percent of our school-aged population. In the past 30 years, 50 percent is gone. We're losing families, the fabric that holds the community together. I love retirees and tourists, but I want to live in a community with families."
The projects have aspects of quality of life and "a little bit of economic development," Kasten said. "If not now, when? If not us, who? This building (the County Business and Conference Center, where the forum was held) is my main focus. The others are collaborative or brought up by the university and the city. Every year a 7 percent gross receipts tax is sent to Santa Fe. We spend 30 or 60 days begging for it to come back to us. If we pass this increment, all of it will come back to us."
Shepard, the second panelist, said: "If you think you're too small to make a difference, try being in a dark space with a mosquito. When I was interviewed, everyone said the university needed to get involved in the community. One hundred-twenty years ago, the university was founded by community members to keep young people here. I came here and was told we have a lot of needs."
He pointed to page 11 of the Angelou Economics plan, created for Grant County. "It says the university contributes $2 for every $1 spent. We do more— we create a sense of belonging. Silver City and Grant County are attractive because of the university and the hospital. Silver City is not a university town, but I would like it to be a university town."
Shepard said the growth of the university brings in students, who have more disposable income than "you or I do. We just built 126 beds on the top of the hill. I want the population on campus to grow to 800. We have about 300 now. When I came here we had about 3,000 students. Last year, we had 3,800. This year I hope to break 4,000. Within four years, I want 5,000."
Talking about the projects, Shepard said when the university had baseball, people would come and spend money. "Where do you take someone on a first date? Not to the movies."
He said he wants to bring baseball back to the university. "It benefits the community. Anywhere there is a baseball game in the county, you see all the people watching. There's a gender equity piece. Our population is 63 percent female, so if we add baseball, we have to add two or three women's teams. That's where swimming comes in. I would like to see swimming and either soccer or track."
Shepard said, as soon as he came to town, people were asking him when he was going to get the pool fixed, but of those people only one was a student. "It's a community pool." He said the Holiday Inn Express is adding 12 rooms and a pool, because when the summer's over, "we have no pool."
Competition pools have the temperature from 76 to 80 degrees. But for the 25-meter pool, which would be 5 to 5 ½ feet deep, it would be warmer, in the 80s. "Both pools would be going at the same time. I'm thinking the bigger pool for competitions for high schools and swim clubs and to bring back swimming to the community."
"As for the movie theater, yes, Deming is falling on hard times," Shepard said. "The county would build the shell and go out for a request for proposal. The community would decide on where it would be. Let's finish this building with a new roof and interior. The golf course needs better paths."
He said it was a tale of two cities. "Compare Ruidoso to Lordsburg or Truth or Consequences. In Ruidoso, there are lots of things to do. In the other two, there's nothing. Quality of life is about things to do."
Architectural estimates of costs are $4.3 for the pools; $600,000 for the baseball field, including seating and lighting; $1.7 million to $2 million for the Business and Conference Center; $3 million for the movie theater; and the remaining to the golf course.
"It's about keeping people here for jobs," Shepard continued. "For families, it's for something to do. For faculty, it's what is beyond teaching. Economic development studies show that for every $20,000 spent, it creates a job. The new residence halls have done that locally. This election is about keeping money here, like they did 120 years ago when the community built the university."
The third and final panelist was Silver City Mayor James Marshall.
"I have not been participating in the other forums due to other obligations," Marshall said. "It was not by choice. We understand that there are a ton of projects that need to be done in Grant County. This is not the solution for every need. This is one piece. Silver City last night approved $28.2 million dollars of your money for this year. It is for public safety, parks and recreation and the other services we provide. There were zero people in the audience for the budget last night. It's a little offensive that we don't participate in local government.
"The projects have been discussed for many months," Marshall continued. "We had meetings almost weekly. We want to encourage participation in our recreation center. How can we make it where we want it to go? It's about programming.
"The criticism we've heard is that there has been no public input," he said. "That is absolutely not true. We have had communication with many people on many of these projects, such as the swimming pool. Baseball is economic development. When the university grows, it grows our economic development. The entire package creates economic development, where we can turn around the money for fixing roads. The Road Fund for fixing roads is funded by the gas tax, which is dropping. We need to diversify. These projects create a stronger, broader economy.
"Eight years ago, when I was elected, the state Legislature was spending missions of dollars in Grant County," he continued. "They funded the Cancer Center, the ambulance and EMS center, and sidewalks. That is not going to happen anymore. We have to take care of ourselves. We have to find avenues to continue capital improvement, such as the tennis courts, we just redid and the clubhouse, which is being built. The Conference Center will attract conferences and bring in people. We need to present ourselves well. We have to be on our best behavior when we are out of the area and the same when we ask people here. The projects are a start on accomplishing the goals we all hope for."
During public comment, Lynda Aiman-Smith, North Carolina State University online business professor, who lives in Silver City, said she was representing the Green Chamber.
"In the Angelou plan, it said we have as an asset the beautiful area," Aiman-Smith said. "It suggested cultural and eco-tourism. North Carolina involved its business students in businesses. We can do that if we work with the university. Entrepreneurship is another opportunity. In North Carolina, the historical districts have student-led tours. I have really appreciated the responsiveness of the town when I speak at town council. I don't feel that responsiveness at county meetings. If you want partnership, you should listen and encourage."
Ben Fisher of the Silver City Sun-News said he has been hearing accusations of the county being issued a blank check. "Is the money going into the General Fund?"
"It will go into a totally separate fund," Kasten said.
Alex Ocheltree, Silver City businessman, said his grandfather was an opera singer, who retired in Gila, "when I was a wee land. I want to talk about the theater. That seems to be the murkiest project." He said every other summer the family would go back to Manhattan to the Beacon Theater. "I went to college in Laramie, Wyoming, and fell in love with the Fox Theater, where old vaudeville had played. They demolished it two years ago."
In the 1980s, Ocheltree was in a punk rock band at the Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles. It began as a vaudeville theater, then was a movie theater, and then went back to live performances. "I was horrified at the mini-plexes they were building, with small rooms and small screens. I love old movie palaces. I worked as a carpenter in the Wilshire, then at an IMAX theater. What we see in theaters today is stadium seating like the IMAX theaters. Don't confuse them with the mini-plexes. That's what makes downtown impossible for a theater. I have one question. You have had conversations with some operators and they say the real money is in the surrounding areas."
"The RFP will include location, grading and utilities," Kasten said. "The peripheral land is what operators see that other people build around them."
Trent Petty, historical Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce board president, said the chamber supports the issue and supports businesses and the opportunities that are being offered here. "I am also president of the Silver School board, with our $28 million budget. For every 20 students we've lost, we have a quarter of a million dollars less, but we still have to have the infrastructure and the teachers. What will it cost if we don't do these projects? It will be loss of kids and loss of jobs. The chamber believes it will bring in business opportunities."
Kim Clark, Realtors Association executive director, thanked the entities for working together. "I am fifth generation in Grant County, and I have never seen this much collaboration. My mother would come into town to shop, with us four kids. She would dump us at the swimming pool at the university. When my son would drive to Deming to the movie, I prayed he would make it home. It makes more sense to make sure we have movies here. I think we have to do something now."
Mary Deerhammer, who described herself as one of the retirees, said she loves it here and thinks the area needs some economic development. She told a story about God and St. Peter and their weekly conference. Three priests too many had come to heaven. God said they had to be sent back and they could go back as anything they wanted. One wanted to go back to Chicago and work with the poor; the second wanted to be an eagle over the Rocky Mountains; and the third said he wanted to be a stud. When it came time to bring them back, they could find the one in Chicago and the eagle, but the stud was in some snow tire in Minneapolis. "Be specific in the ordinance. It doesn't mention a one of these projects. It is open-ended with no end in site. When the bond is paid off and then if revenue is still coming in, it can be used for anything. There needs to be work on the language."
"We were driven in this direction by not having any choice," Kasten said.
Edward Encinas, Hurley mayor, said Hurley does have a pool and a baby pool. "The Hurley Sea Lions want to bring their team back. I would like to see these improvements and heating for our pool. At the All-Stars games, there is no place to park. The girls are competing in nationals this week. I hope to see a bigger baseball field. We do need a theater for our kids. I support the tax issue."
Shepard said the university has been going town to town. "There are so many dedicated folks in Hurley."
Mary Stoecker, resident, said she is less concerned about the general language on the ballot. "My concern is flexibility. I want to see flexibility. I want to see theaters rebuilt. Is there wiggle room from a multiplex, as opposed to redeveloping downtown?"
Shepard said the first issue is voting on the tax, which is not a vote on the bond. "We have to have the revenue before we can go out for bonds. Then it goes back before the county and it goes out for bonds. Yes, there is flexibility, but each of you would have a different answer.
"A year and a half ago, the same language was used in a gross receipts tax increase in Silver City," he said. "As it progressed through the process, there was more specificity. We don't want to be specific at this point. We need flexibility. What if things come in under budget? If it's specific, we can't heat the Hurley pool."
"On the issue of the blank check," Shepard said. "We have representative government. It's not any more a blank check than how the town spends $28.2 million. We have to have flexibility to take community input. Find people you want to be the system representatives."
Stocker said when she and her husband and family settled in Grant County, they looked for four things, a small southwestern town in the mountains with a university. The university was the important factor she said.
L.J. Lundy, real estate member, said she meets daily with people, locals as well as visitors. "What I hear is the trend in the past four to five years is people are moving away. Some of the things on this issue are important for people to stay or move here. Think with your heart."
Aiman-Smith encouraged people to think not only with their heart, but also with their head. "We want more critical thinking. Is this the only chance?" she asked.
"No, it is not the only chance," Kasten said.
The next Roundtable will take place, Friday Aug. 16, with the Southwest Green Energy and Jobs Task Force doing the presentation.