Las Cruces: What is the Real State of the City?

Mar 15, 2017

Credit Richard Kadzis

‘In his annual state of the city address, Mayor Ken Miyagishima reported last month that Las Cruces is in good shape. “The state of the city is strong,” he proclaimed.

His remarks focused mainly on downtown redevelopment, including the brand-new civic plaza on Main Street.

The mayor also cited the conversion of old city hall into space for the federal courts and some downtown redevelopment projects to add more entertainment and restaurants as positive steps.

And, he reminded us of the important economic base provided by institutions like NMSU and White Sands Missile Range.

No doubt, these are big pluses, but we need more.

The fact is, compared to many other communities, Las Cruces has a lot of work left to do, especially from an economic development standpoint.

Tip of the Iceberg

The mayor overlooked some deep-seated issues that, until addressed and improved, will continue to hold us back.

One is per capita income, which the US Census reports was $20,000 annually in 2015, the latest figures available.

That is more than $4,000 lower the New Mexico state average for per capita income.

Even more troubling, the city’s average per capita earnings trail the national average by nearly $10,000. The U.S. average was just under $30,000 in 2015.

The mayor pointed to the city’s strong health care and service sector, yet there is a distinct shortage of physicians struggling to keep up with the growing demand of a fast-growing retirement population.

Another pressing challenge he ignored: the Las Cruces brain drain of young talent to other states and cities with more career jobs and opportunities to offer, despite the presence of our university, the military and the aero-space companies.

There simply aren’t enough meaningful jobs being created here to keep the young talent here.

SITEL Corporation’s decision to leave Las Cruces is the tip of that iceberg.

What does it say when a city cannot retain its higher-quality existing industry base?

For one, it says to younger career-seekers, there aren’t a lot of higher-paying jobs in Las Cruces, so I’d better look somewhere else for a career.

For another, it says Las Cruces and Dona Ana County urgently need a new plan, not only to retain existing industry but to attract new companies.

For that matter, can anyone tell me what Fortune 500 companies are operating here? Is there a list of major employers we can share with younger people looking to go elsewhere? Don’t basic information resources like these imply planning and vision?

Is there a formal vision for the pursuit of the future, some idea of our future economic state that serves as a cornerstone for long-term strategic plan to generate more corporate and government investment, alongside the creation of meaningful jobs and the inevitable expansion of the local tax base?

Symptoms of Distress

When I drive through the so-called Mesquite Overlay and see the city’s historic district pocked with vacant lots, shuttered houses and financially distressed, abandoned properties, I come away with the feeling that the city has no formal plan for community development.

When I pass by the long-abandoned Las Cruces Country Club, I wonder, where is the vision for a new signature development of some kind? It’s in the hands of a private developer not a public-private sector partnership.

Instead of treating it as a strategic asset, it lies fallow, an eyesore of a gateway property, all 110 acres.

The developer, Bob Pofhal, insists that construction will start soon on a new hospital facility with $100-million in financing now in hand. After years of neglect and negative impact for the residents of the old country club neighborhood, let’s hope they break ground soon.

If it doesn’t happen, what comes next? More waiting?

Everyone appears to be stuck on that idea to the detriment of other options. Inaction implies a lack of key relationships, whether with the Chamber of Commerce, the state department of Economic Development, and corporate clients like Amazon, Target, WalMart, FedEx, UPS, Google and other Fortune 500 players.

Considering the empty tract’s proximity to I-10, I-25 and US-70, the old Country Club would make a great logistics center – a clean and non-intrusive series of office-warehouses for large or small companies.

In his state of the city remarks, the mayor also praised the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership. Perhaps it’s the right channel to help us design for public consensus, giving the homeowners who live next to the dust bowl a voice in the outcome of whatever solution is best for the old golf course.

If we only had a plan to make all this happen by convening all key stakeholders and constituencies in pursuit of the future, we could take a giant step forward.

Richard Kadzis has more than 35 years of experience in economic development marketing and corporate location strategies with industry-leading chambers of commerce and the corporate real estate sector.