On Thursday, July 19, the Democratic Party of Grant County hosted the seventh in their series of monthly forums on topics of interest to voters in the 2012 National Election. The topic of this forum was: “Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me,” a forum focused on the local economy.
The forum was moderated by Grant County Democratic Party Vice-Chairperson, Magdaleno Manzanares, and the panel consisted of: Terry Fortenberry, Candidate for District 38 State Representative; Lucy Whitmarsh, President of Silver City MainStreet; Mike Trujillo, President of AmBank; and Cissy McAndrew, Executive Director of the Southwest New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce.
By way of introduction, Manzanares stated that recent CNN polls indicate that availability of jobs is the #1 economic issue currently facing the nation. A question for the forum panelists was: how do we deal with joblessness at the local level?
However, Manzanares also pointed out that New Mexico is actually in better shape than the rest of the nation with an unemployment rate of 6.7%, compared to the national rate of 8.2%.
The panelists expressed their general perspectives on the U.S. and local economies, as follows:
• Terry Fortenberry – The local economy has been hugely affected by the vicissitudes of its major employers: the mines, who lay off their workforce with the changes in copper prices; and Stream Global Services, who decided to outsource its work to foreign countries. Unfortunately, there is no single solution that will bring economic stability to either the United States or southwest New Mexico.
• Lucy Whitmarsh – Whitmarsh focused her remarks on the development of business and economic partnerships in the local community. Stating that MainStreet is a "partnership organization representing the heart of our community" (i.e. historic downtown Silver City) and dedicated to its preservation and sustainable growth, Whitmarsh stressed the importance of revitalizing the downtown, which will in turn attract visitors that feed the local economy. As an example of MainStreet's efforts in this regard, Whitmarsh cited its inventory of business vacancies in the historic downtown that is used to match with potential occupants seeking business opportunities in Silver City. The MainStreet organization fosters networking with Realtors, WNMU's Small Business Development Center, and others through new business development activities such as the Local Investment Opportunity network and entrepreneur development workshops.
• Mike Trujillo – Trujillo observed that local history reflects the fact that "as the mine went, so did Silver City." He believes that the current economic situation is very fragile and that Americans must take precautions against European and other global economic failures. He also believes that we will recover from the economic recession, but slowly. AmBank has seen indications of new construction loans starting, which will make a positive difference. In addition, banks are currently flush with funds and interest rates are extremely low. On the negative side, however, it costs approximately three times as much to build a new home as it does to purchase a comparable old home, and there are more than 20 million people whose homes are valued at less than their mortgage value.
• Cissy McAndrew – McAndrew stated, "We live in a wonderful community and that is the key to our success." She explained that the Southwest New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce believes in a "triple bottom line" that includes the three factors of economics, people, and the planet. It is dedicated to the concepts of Local Foods (Buy Local/Serve Local) and Local Green Jobs, as offered by local independent businesses. These ideas are incorporated in the "Think Local First" program. McAndrew believes that the success of the new economy depends upon the success of small business, which in turn is determined by finding out what is valuable in our lives and what our passion is.
In response to the moderator's questions, "What is the one thing you would like to do to improve the economy in Silver City and Grant County?" and "What is the biggest challenge in accomplishing it?" the panel responded as follows:
• Cissy McAndrew – McAndrew said that the biggest challenge to be faced in New Mexico is the disproportionately large tax on small businesses and very small tax on big business.
• Mike Trujillo – Trujillo pointed out that banks are very over-regulated now as a result of the disastrous consequences of sub-prime lending. In the case of AmBank as a local community bank, they want to make loans locally to potential home buyers, but overly rigid regulations make it very difficult.
• Lucy Whitmarsh – Whitmarsh believes that the three-theater revitalization of Silver City's downtown can be a major factor in attracting people to downtown, as well as in encouraging them to spend money locally, and will thereby improve Silver City's economy.
• Terry Fortenberry– Fortenberry believes that the government must stop penalizing small business. In addition, the Silver City/Grant County area must diversify its economy and not be dependent upon one large employer, as it has been in the past.
During the audience/panel Question and Answer Session, the discussion included the following points:
1) An audience member emphasized that New Mexico should be a leader in solar energy, given its abundance of that resource. McAndrew pointed out that PNM controls all distribution of energy in New Mexico and has systematically blocked small solar energy companies from being able to distribute solar energy on the power grid in New Mexico. McAndrew also underlined the necessity for educating the New Mexico legislature and PRC, who currently do not allow solar energy substations on the grid.
2) A topic engendering a significant amount of discussion was that of empty storefronts in downtown Silver City and the bad impression they make on visitors, as well as residents. This has a direct effect on the economy, since it turns people away from staying in (and therefore spending money in) the downtown area. Whitmarsh noted that there is an ordinance before the Silver City Town Council to penalize property owners for leaving buildings vacant as tax write-offs. She urged the audience to support this measure before the Council, as the property owners are staunchly against it. Absentee property owners in particular do not care what happens to downtown Silver City. She also informed the audience that MainStreet has tax incentives to help owners refurbish properties. Bullard Street in particular has a disproportionate number of vacancies compared to the overall town average of 12% vacancy.
McAndrew pointed out that the Visitor Center has been trending the number of visitors to the area and has learned that people often stay in the area past the weekend into Monday. She is trying to educate downtown businesses, so that they will stay open on Mondays to accommodate visitors and to generate income. She also noted that it is important to encourage property owners to rent out empty properties while they are for sale, both for the purpose of generating income and for keeping the downtown vibrant.
As a banker, Trujillo commented that he failed to understand why these owners kept properties vacant and emphasized that they are individually owned, not bank repossessions. Fortenberry urged a two-pronged approach to solving the vacancy problem: 1) support the ordinance before the Town Council to penalize owners of vacant properties; and 2) organize a "strike force," similar to that implemented in Albuquerque, to take over and refurbish decaying properties if the landlord refuses to do so.
3) One audience member raised the issue of Internet sales' undermining local businesses, as evidenced by the recent closures of the downtown bookstore and music store. In response, McAndrew again stressed the importance of educating the New Mexico legislature on these issues. She said that the Green Chamber's and other organizations' efforts are starting to gain momentum and "rural New Mexico is being heard." However, there is a long way to go to push through tax incentives that benefit small local businesses.
4) The issue of keeping jobs and young people in Grant County was raised as a critical one for the long-term economic health of the community. The panelists noted that, while the area has lost its many big employers of yesteryear, such as Sears and Montgomery Ward, there are new "green" jobs that need workers. These include the conversion of the Silver City waste treatment plant to solar energy and other specialized vocational jobs. Again there is a need to inform policy makers and gain their support for these efforts.
5) The last major issue for discussion was that of the challenge of buying a house and the difficulty posed by property appraisals not reflecting the true value of properties. This is again due to over-regulation of the mortgage business, according to Trujillo, and is paralyzing potential property owners who want to purchase homes, thereby stimulating the economy. McAndrew added that another aspect of the issue is the lack of valuing new energy efficiencies in homes, including the "green" home built locally by Habitat for Humanity. This is yet another area where the legislators are not educated enough or open to listening to reform of the regulations that are impeding growth in home sales.
6) The meeting closed on the note raised by another audience member that WNMU is not doing enough in the community to promote innovate studies in the arts and languages that it does in other parts of New Mexico.
The next Democratic Party Election Forum topic is “Demography: Destiny” and will be held at 6:30 pm on Thursday, August 23, 2012 in the WNMU Miller Library.