[Editor's Note: This is part one of a series of articles that will cover the Grant County Commission work session of Jan. 10, 2023, but also the regular session of Jan. 12, 2023.)

By Mary Alice Murphy

With no public input at the Grant County Commission work session on Jan. 10, 2023, the first presentation came from Louise Marquez, LEDA (Local Economic Development Act) specialist of the New Mexico Economic Development Department Community, Business and Rural Development Team Region 5: Southwest New Mexico.

"I am one of two representatives of the EDD in the southwest counties," Marquez introduced herself. "I worked with Sierra County when your County Manager Charlene Webb was there. She asked me to come explain to you how I can help with economic development in Grant County. One of my other roles is as LEDA specialist. I work for the best team in the state."

She gave the mission of the organization, which is to improve New Mexicans' access to economic development help. LEDA, she explained is statutory.

"Early in the 1990s, LEDA was a constitutional amendment to the anti-donation clause, allowing government to help in some areas," Marquez said. "Qualifying entities can help with economic base jobs, which we call e-base jobs. They include manufacturing, processing, assembling and non-retail operations. Our goal is to get people close to a living wage."

She said the LEDA program lets governments use taxpayer dollars for the purchase of land, new construction of a building or lease abatement if they are moving into an existing building, or to develop infrastructure. "We evaluate project proposals very carefully, which takes at least two to three weeks just for the information intake. We ensure the financial strength of the project, and require a business plan, in addition to making sure the business is a good community fit. LEDA awards are based on capital expenditures, the number of jobs created and the payroll of those jobs. We run the numbers through an economic impact analysis model, one portion of which requires a return on investment within three years. We evaluate the community need for the jobs and the community's current economic condition. We can issue an offer letter, which is simply an invitation to apply for LEDA. After a project is determined to be eligible, we send the offer to apply. We open an application into our secure portal, to gather more comprehensive information about the company and the project. The local government board serves as the fiscal agent for the project."

Marquez went on to explain that every LEDA project must start with an ordinance. Two contracts are part of that approval. The project participation agreement (PPA), which has all the numbers and dates, and is between the fiscal agent and the applicant. It defines expected performance milestones related to job creation and total investment as well as clawback provisions in case of default. It also requires security on the part of the applicant. The awards work as a reimbursable loan and the company must provide security for the period of the loan.

She also set out what happens after the project is approved. EDD transfers the project funds to the fiscal agent. The company must achieve agreed-upon milestones; the company provides a security instrument for the LEDA award; then the company submits a request for reimbursement. The company uploads quarterly job reports to the EDD secure portal and upon completion of all requirements in the PPA, the project is closed. That requires the adoption of a separate ordinance repealing the original project ordinance and security is released back to the company.

Marquez also presented several other programs offered by EDD. They include the JTIP (Job Training Incentive Program), which can reimburse eligible employees up to 85 percent of an employee's wages for a pre-determined training period. Another program is several types of tax credits, which are available, such as rural jobs tax credit, high wage jobs tax credit, a manufacturer's investment tax credit and technology jobs tax credit. Also available is the LOGRT (Local Options Gross Receipts Tax), available to communities with an approved local LEDA ordinance. The community can have the option to dedicate a portion of local GRT to create a local fund for use on economic development projects. The LOGRT requires approval by community vote.

"Economic development is a team sport," Marquez said. "All regional representatives are permanently remote, and I'm always available. I don't have an office, but I do have a car. And in conclusion, the philosophy of the Economic Development Department is that when the community succeeds, when businesses succeed, when those jobs are created and they go on and on and on, EDD succeeds, so we really are there with you."

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce thanked her for her presentation and had a general question. "Grant County, Freeport McMoRan and Western New Mexico University, we have been in meetings for the past two years trying to create a vocational center to build our workforce and bring jobs. Is this something we can discuss with you? We will have costs."

Marquez replied that she would love to have the conversation but was not sure the EDD could provide funding for an educational facility, but "we can certainly help you with other funding."

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said she completely understands why LEDA does things the way they do. "But in rural communities, we need flexibility. There is job creation happening that doesn't fit in the guidelines. I think Whiskey Creek Zocalo is a perfect example. It doesn't qualify for this, yet clearly they are going to meet an economic need. We're focusing a lot of our effort on outdoor recreation. But if people can't come here and sit down at a restaurant to eat a meal, they aren't going to come. A restaurant is not an economic based job. What kinds of conversations is EDD having around this topic and how they can be more flexible in counties like Grant County to support the economic development that is trying to happen but doesn't fit the requirements?"

Marquez said: "We acknowledge that each community's need is different and what constitutes its economic development is different. LEDA is just one of our programs. LEDA, amended last year in the Legislature, allows help to retail businesses in communities of under 15,000 people. The retail need statewide is enormous. The program does allow for the local option gross receipts tax. Our hospitality program came out of Covid. There is always a job creation component, and it allowed restaurants to bring on former employees. Stay in touch with me to learn about new programs. LEDA is not a perfect fit for hospitality and retail."

Edwards noted that the town of Silver City is less than 15,000, but "can a business in the county qualify?"

Marquez said community may involve a mileage limit, such as how far it is from the city limits.

Edwards also noted in conclusion that although the LOGRT sounds like a good idea, "We could raise taxes to the sky and not have enough for road maintenance and all our needs. With due respect, I don't think it's the answer to put that back on rural entities that are already struggling to provide services through GRT and such. We need job creation to bring in more revenue. It's a challenge for us to raise GRT. It can't always come back to us to pay for things."

The next presentation was an update from the Grant County Community Health Council, represented by Chair Evangeline Zamora.

Zamora noted that HB 49 is a bill under consideration at the upcoming legislative session to fully fund community health councils throughout the state. "I also included in your packet, the current structure of the Grant County Community Health Council. Our request for funding will be included in the Prospectors' brochure to be handed out to legislators."

She introduced Phoebe Schroeder, NM Department of Health Silver City community health specialist.

Schroeder gave an update on the Community Health Improvement Plan. "We received 50 surveys, and we determined the priority of the community to be mental health, followed closely by housing security and substance misuse We would love to address all three, but we recognize a capacity issue on the Health Council. We've come up with a clever way of tackling all three by focusing on mental health, with a priority population of the housing insecure. Housing insecurity goes hand-in-hand with substance misuse, as well as housing insecurity becomes a mental health issue. Targeting this way, we have a better chance at reaching an achievable outcome. We will be moving forward with this, probably within the next month. I'm working with Jeff Fell on the housing insecurity task force. I'm also working with Priscilla Lucero who is going to help us come up with this plan to help me through the goals and priorities."

Zamora thanked the commissioners for their support, and with no questions, the meeting went on to county reports, which will begin in the next article.

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