[Editor's Note: This is part 4 of a multi-article series on the Grant County Commission work session of June 8, 2021, and the regular meeting on June 10, 2021. This article reports the presentation on Community Wealth Building.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards came to the podium at the June 8, 2021 work session to discuss an issue that came from the last meeting when the topic of food security was raised.

Edwards said she has done work addressing food security, which is a problem because of the high rate of poverty in the county. "What is community wealth building? I believe it is needed to meet the needs of the full county, not just some. I would like us to invest some of the American Rescue Plan Act funding in the effort."

She suggested an "active vision" of growing new businesses and supporting existing businesses that provides an open living opportunity that has oversight from friends and family. Small businesses are not like big corporations where they maximize profits to go to shareholders, she said. "I feel small businesses are the most effective path out of poverty."

Edwards told a personal story about a woman back in the 1960s, who got a divorce. She said she chose the story because of the way divorce causes a serious decline in women's well-being. She noted that about 2,500 women in Grant County are divorced and are struggling to be part of the community.

Back to the story, the divorced woman was raising two kids, struggling constantly and couldn't really depend on her ex for support. She, because she had a particular education, was offered an opportunity. The person that offered her the opportunity had a pharmacy to sell in a small town in Colorado. When the woman moved to southeast Colorado to take over the biz, she was given a 25 percent stake in the business, so that over time, she had full ownership. She started a migrant community health clinic, was the Chamber of Commerce president, started a Boys and Girls Club and eventually served as mayor. The kids struggled along with her before that time. Their economic life wasn't conducive to success, but the opportunity changed the trajectory of the family.

"I believe small businesses can do that for the community," Edwards said. "They offer wider opportunities for women."

She said studies done on the best economic standards for a single woman with two children is the need to earn just over $40,000 a year in order to meet basic needs, such as a roof over their heads, food and the ability to save a bit for retirement and for the kids to go to college. "That translates to $20.70 cents an hour. There are not many jobs in Grant County that pay $25 an hour, which is the 2021 equivalent."

"This woman was my mother," Edwards said. While Edwards was in school, she did her homework at the pharmacy, where her mother always knew where she was. "I went to work there at age 12 stocking shelves. I believe a small business is an opportunity in multiple ways." She noted that child-care costs can be a major issue for working mothers. "I am a strong believer that a small business can fill that void, so that workers don't have to subsidize the child-care costs.

"The whole concept of community wealth building is that it is economic development that focuses on building collaborative, inclusive and locally controlled economies; provides resilience where there is risk and local economic security where there is precarity; and puts the basic needs of people before the accumulation of profit and private wealth. I'm not talking about socialism or anything like that. I'm talking about priorities."

Edwards noted that although the county is talking about more tourism, outdoor recreation is a fancy name for tourism, which along with hospitality, has the lowest rates of pay.

"If we continue to rely on tourism and hospitality, we cannot grow the economy," she said.

She listed and explained the community wealth building strategies. The first was anchor institutions, where there are a number of partnership opportunities, such as employee stock ownership plans. "We are doing local investment plans for small businesses. There's the IDA concept of Individual Development Accounts."

She cited some of the anchor institutions as Western New Mexico University, Gila Regional Medical Center, non-profit organizations, churches, and the Grant County Community Foundation. "Anchor institutions are typically non-profits or government-owned. I consider Freeport McMoRan as an anchor institution. There are creative ways we can think of companies as an anchor. We have a lot of anchor institutions in Grant County."

The local investment opportunity is the concept of about 20 people investing in the local community to provide the capacity building for a local business. "It has, for example, invested in BikeWorks, where a significant number of folks put their own money toward it."

With an individual development account, it lets people put their own money into an account. The IDAs have served about 30 people, 20 of whom have opened small businesses. The program teaches the person how to save, how to do their books for a small business, or allows them to move into more education by saving for tuition. The small businesses that have been created include dog grooming, massage services, car customization and several have used their IDAs to go to school. With tuition, the person has to have a plan, and everyone with an IDA receives financial literacy training.

She noted there is a lot of food system work going on. The Commons and the Food Hub connect people with opportunities. A recent application for a grant will provide a garden in the old Chinese Gardens area.

Albuquerque is designated as a community health system. "We are doing similar work. We have public transportation; we are reclaiming Boston Hill; we have a Co-op; we have our own community foundation. It's all similar to what Albuquerque is doing."

Other opportunities to collaborate include doing small loans for families wanting to build a business. The concept of a municipal government enterprise is exemplified by the Pike Place Market in Seattle, which is owned by the city.

"I contacted the state Land Office to ask if state trust land could be used for something like that, and I was told: 'Yes,'" Edwards said. "I think ARP money can be used for things like the IDAs. The state passed legislation to allow matching funds for IDAs, and we can partner with the Small Business Development Center. To start 25 businesses, it would take about $100,000."

She also noted that local economic preservation funds are monies that local communities set aside to preserve existing businesses. "I would say in closing that it's a long-term vision to create economic development. We need comprehensive work to put it together. I think community health building is a framework we could use. I think it could really change the community. With a grant writer, I think we could do this as a long-term transformational view of the community."

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings asked about the $100,000 for the IDAs.

Edwards explained it would give each potential business $4,000 to match the client's $1,000 for a total of $5,000.

Billings asked how many of the IDAs that went into business are still in business.

Edwards didn't have an answer, but she said: "I think the IDA is one of the most important strategies. No other organization would take it on. What we didn't have was follow up. So, we don't know how many. We tried to get retirees to help small businesses. I'm not suggesting we run the program, but just that we provide the funding from the ARP. We would contract with someone to do it."

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne clarified that the IDA could fund a business and tuition. Edwards added it could also be used to buy a first home. "We can go to any program, not just the accredited ones. It all will create wealth; it's all asset building, some tangible, some not. How can we build assets that will help us in the future? I'm totally open to outdoor recreation, but it's basically tourism, so it's low-wage jobs. I would prefer the community wealth building be based on how many businesses we can create."

Billings said there are probably some tourism higher-wage jobs, but most are not sustaining for a family.

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce asked if the program could partner with Workforce Solutions.

Edwards said she believed it would be a good fit. "I had no idea how many opportunities workforce counseling can offer. Training is one. They can send someone to plumbing school, for instance. If you want to be a plumber, use Workforce Solutions funding to get the training and an IDA to start your own business. I think the return on investment would be phenomenal. We have so many exciting things going on in our community. We just need to put them all together."

The next presentation by WNM Communications with a fiber for broadband proposal will be covered in the following article.


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