Grant County Manager Jon Paul Saari and Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard presented their ideas for using potential gross receipts tax bonds to improve the quality of life in Grant County. They are also working with Silver City Mayor James Marshall, who was unable to attend the Grant County Commission regular meeting, Thursday, March 21.
"Many people when they move to Silver City have a perception about the quality of life in the area," Shepard said. "Some leave because of things that are not available. We are asking you to help improve quality of life issues."
He said, unless Gov. Susana Martinez vetoes the capital outlay bill, WNMU would receive $2.5 million to renovate Light Hall. "It will be a community feature. We have been talking about how to create improvements at the Conference Center. I have a vested interest in this to fill vacant beds at the university during the summers. You've just about finished the exterior. Now you need completion of the interior."
Saari said the Economic Development Administration funded the exterior changes, and "told us if we did what they asked, they would have $2 million more for the interior. But the department has had $40 million sequestered, and our $2 million is part of it. The interior has no stage, no lighting, no sound system, and it's just not a good layout. We have several plans that include offices, a stage, conference rooms, and a bar that Western could use with its liquor license. We want to go out for bonds."
"We are planning a center at Western, which will have a ballroom," Shepard said. "Doing the exterior at the County Conference Center is like putting lipstick on a pig.
"We also have a beautiful golf course here," he said. "It is a positive attribute of the community, but it has needs. The cart paths need improving. The course is also important to retirees."
Saari said New Mexico Tech holds an annual golf tournament to raise money for the university. "If we could redo the Conference Center, we could hold larger events, including golf tournaments along with conferences."
"I want to bring back baseball to Western," Shepard said to a smattering of applause from the few audience members. "We could play at Bataan Memorial Park. If a graduate of Silver or Cobre high schools wants to play baseball, he has to leave the area, and they usually don't come back. At the park, we need lights, an upgrade to seating and to turn it into a NCAA-level field. When Western is not playing, let the high schools play there. We can utilize it for championship games.
"To bring back baseball, because of the need for gender equity in sports, we would have to create two new women's sports programs, because 62 percent of the student population is female," Shepard said. "Our pool, which has been closed because of a massive leak is eight inches too short for competition. We would rebuild the pool to 25 meters and bring back women's swimming. We would keep it at a higher temperature for children, students, retirees, and swim leagues. It would be a $4.3 million project, but the university would pay the operating and maintenance costs, which would be even more.
"We have lost our only theater in town," Shepard said. "If you are parents of 16 and 17 year olds, you don't find it palatable to have them driving to Deming to see a movie. We need a movie theater. We will do the Silco and have a movie screen at Light Hall and the revenues will stay in town."
"Luna County built a facility, with a bowling alley and other amenities," Saari said. "If people want to see a movie, it is a destination. People in the industry say it is doable to have four to five screens, with 3D for a couple of them, without the bowling alley or other distractions. We would build it and have someone else run it. We could also hold video conferences in it."
"All of this is not free," Shepard said. "For the four proposals, it would require $10 million in bond money. A gross receipts tax option would allow those using the facilities to pay for the bonds."
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten asked if the reason they were presenting to Grant County was because everything would be countywide.
"Absolutely," Shepard said. "The facilities would be open to residents and visitors. The county would be protected from bearing the brunt of the financing. And for the other women's sport, what do you think?"
Several replied soccer, and Shepard concurred, because soccer is the fastest growing sport. One problem may arise with the Rocky Mountain Association Conference, of which Western is a member, so the other women's sport might be track.
Kasten said the county is part of the plan.
"We are all working together for this," Shepard said. "The pool would be easier for us."
Saari said he has talked with Perry Bendicksen, who handles bond issuance for the county, and Bendicksen told him a general obligation bond was not an option, but a ¼ percent gross receipts tax bond could be floated for recreation.
"It would have to go before the voters," Saari said. "Probably a mail-out ballot in early September, so the bond issuance could be ready for January. The tax would not affect grocery sales, but only other goods and services. Bendicksen can come to our April 25 meeting, and we can do the resolution then, followed by ordinances and the special mail-out ballot election. Once the tax is passed, we can go out for bonds."
Kasten said in his adult years in Grant County he had never before seen such cooperation among the county, Silver City and Western. "It's wonderful."
Commissioner Ron Hall said: "My experience is that once we get the ball rolling, others will want to be part of it."
Shepard said the university he came from was built on swampland and within 15 years, it has malls, large stores and theaters around it. "You have to start somewhere. Take the movie theater at the Silco. I walked down Bullard the other day, and Isaac's is empty, the next storefronts are empty until you get to the end of the block where there is a small antique store."
Hall said his son tells him he would love to live in Silver City, but there are no jobs to support his family. "I support this 110 percent."
Commissioner Gabriel Ramos said it gives him a good chill to think about the possibilities.
"If we're not going to do it for ourselves, no one else will," Kasten said.
Shepard closed his remarks by saying he is seeing unprecedented collaboration in the community.
Other presentations, agenda approval items, indigent claims and county reports will be covered in subsequent articles.