The Gila Economic Development Alliance was held Friday, Nov. 22, with Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planning director, and Alex Ocheltree, owner of Billy's Wild Wild West BBQ and Steakhouse, as featured government and business speakers. This article covers Gutierrez's comments and the questions and answers after the talk.
"I've become more involved in economic development," Gutierrez said. "I am seeking my certification in economic development. It's difficult, but interesting."
He said it's really important to differentiate what the community should be doing rather than "what we seem to be doing. I've learned some really good recommendations for things we haven't gone after."
He said he was learning some strategies for an industrial park that the community needs to go after. "Rail access was the No. 1 priority for us, especially since we aren't on an interstate highway. People come to Silver City because they want to come here. I don't see any funding coming for a four-lane highway between Hurley and Deming from what I gather from the Department of Transportation. Too much debt has been incurred with the Rail Runner."
"Engineers Inc. is working on a preliminary plan for an industrial park," Gutierrez said. "It includes 15 different parcels of 2 ½ to 5 acres, with lots of parking, large buildings and utilities. We will be seeking funding for the property we need. Two sites were selected, with one by Hurley, but Freeport McMoRan (Copper & Gold Inc.) was solely interested in bringing in a single business. The other site is near the airport. Through the regional water plan and Silver City's plan, it would have water. It also would have access to the railroad, the highway and the airport."
He had passed out copies of pages from the Grant County Strategic Economic Development Plan, which positioned the Gila EDA as the central coordinating body.
"We are lacking in business retention and expansion," Gutierrez said. "In the last training I had, the speaker talked about strategic planning. He said the community should have a single vision, if not it is difficult to go forward. People have to take a step back. People don't realize if one area of development flourishes, it will help all of them.
"People go to work to sustain themselves and their families, and they want to recreate," he continued. "A lot of people focus our selling point as the quality of life, but it doesn't sell to businesses. Instead of quality of life, we need quality of place—schools, health system, jobs. If we bring in jobs that are minimum wage, it doesn't bring up the community. "
He said the county is looking at planning money for the renovation of the interior of the Business and Conference Center. "Ace Hardware wants to expand. They've been successful."
"We are losing an anchor business downtown," Gutierrez said, referring to the imminent closure of Conner's Jewelry. " I think if it had been really successful, Mike would have found a way to get someone to manage the business."
Referring to the strategic plan, Gutierrez said: "We're falling behind on these goals and strategies. There are systems in larger cities, where a person doesn't have to own a car. He or she can call up a car, walk a block or two, drive it to where they want to go, and then leave it there. We need to work on different types of strategies. Technology is getting ahead of us. We need an overall vision of what we want the region to look like. We're all falling behind and it's difficult to catch up. I'm trying to meet these strategies in the plan as quickly as possible."
He pointed out that almost everything the mines purchase comes from outside the area. "We don't get anything from it. We need to use it to our benefit. These are things I'm learning in economic development. We need a technology-based work force. Even in jobs such as welding, they use computers."
"The focus needs to be what the whole community wants," Gutierrez said, putting emphasis on "whole." "If we don't increase overall revenues, we can't move forward. People don't want more taxes, but if ideas come from the community, they will be willing to pay for them.
"Quality of place is key," he concluded.
Gila EDA Chairman Jeremiah Garcia asked what the business community could do to help Gutierez and how to get it done.
"Overall services we offer are pretty bad, really lacking," Gutierrez said. "I don't know whether competitiveness would help. A huge problem is the addictions to meth or whatever. Business owners wonder if the new employee will stay past the first paycheck.
"It would be a big boost for every business to have a website," he said. "Everyone has to be on a website or 'you're not there.'"
Gila EDA member Skip Thacker asked if the plan could be put on the EDA's website. "Sure, it's public," Gutierrez said.
Kim Clark, representing the Realtors' Association, said: "We need to improve the work force. To me, it comes back to that."
Gutierrez said several groups and programs are working on the issue. "Alex, is your staff giving the best service," to which Ocheltree vigorously shook his head: "No."
Earl Montoya, self-proclaimed community watchdog, said two things show up in Grant County: "to survive and health issues. If you look at the median income, it is near poverty level. We lack a lot of health services. From my training, if you have more than three priorities, it becomes a wish list."
"I disagree," Gutierrez said. "In my opinion, the reason we feel oppressed or living from paycheck to paycheck is because the jobs we bring in are low wage jobs. We have to raise the level of work."
Montoya agreed that technology is an answer, but "not without training."
Trent Petty, Silver School Board president, pointed out that the area is losing students in the schools. "We lose 20 students, the schools lose a quarter of a million dollars. We have Joe Shepard, who is on fire to improve things. In Idaho, Lon Streib, our superintendent, made a losing school No. 1 in the state. He did the same thing in Wyoming. The new superintendent at Cobre is impressive.
"In the Silver Schools, our superintendent separated out the information technology and put a person in charge," Petty continued. "We are increasing bandwidth. We have to remember that a huge percentage of today's jobs are ones that didn't exist five years ago. We need an educated work force, but we have to see a quality of jobs. Silver, Cobre and Western New Mexico University want to do a vo-tech, but whichever district has it, gets the quarter of a million dollars per 20 students."
Gutierrez said one example of success is the WNMU nursing program. "Ten years ago, they had 35 to 50 students. It has expanded because people know the quality of the program at a fraction of the cost of other schools."
"I also disagree with you, Mr. Montoya, because your comments are negative," Gutierrez continued. "Yes, we have negatives here that need to be fixed, but we need positives, too. I was focused on infrastructure, but with economic development, we have nothing."
"If we put our efforts to positive thinking rather than negative, we need a win-win," Garcia said. "We want the vo-tech to benefit both Silver and Cobre."
"What can businesses do?" Gutierrez asked. "We don't have, but need, public-private partnerships."
The next article will cover the comments by the business owner, Alex Ocheltree and the rest of the meeting.