Rio Grande Sun
By Stephen Babcock
SUN Staff Writer
Millions of dollars, numerous initiatives and a dozen years after Los Alamos National Laboratory's last big round of layoffs, the Española Valley remains without a definitive plan to soften the effects of what could be a major round of layoffs at the nuclear weapons facility.
The announcement that the Lab plans to cut between 500 and 750 jobs in the near future not only left area employees worried about their jobs, it served as a reminder to area planners that the Valley will need to increase jobs to keep the area from slipping into further economic woes.
Lab Director Michael Anastasio delivered more bad news Monday night at a public meeting in Pojoaque. He said the three-phase plan to cut up to 750 jobs has been accepted by the federal government.
In the plan's first phase, employees have until Thursday (12/6) to take a severance package being offered by the Lab, Anastasio said.
He said there were already about 300 employees who volunteered to take the package by the end of the day Monday.
After this phase, the Lab will reevaluate if anymore layoffs are necessary. Anastasio said the Lab isn't making cuts based on hard numbers, but rather on uncertainty about how Congress will fund Northern New Mexico's largest employer in the future.
The Lab has already downsized by 800 employees in the last year, and has struggled to absorb inflation, costs from the Lab's management contract with Bechtel and low employee turnover.
"The 750 (job cuts) doesn't have anything to do with the budget this year," Anastasio said.
In response to the last round of layoffs in 1995, the Lab created the Regional Development Corporation that released about $10 million throughout Northern New Mexico, Corporation Director Ed Burckle said.
Two years ago, the Valley was the recipient of another $2 million grant from the W.H. Kellogg Foundation that was used for an initiative to promote entrepreneurship in the region. This initiative is known as the Empowering Business Spirit Initiative, and aims to network small businesses and entrepreneurs around the region.
These are just two of several programs in the Valley that target economic development.
The city of Española alone boasts five different economic development organizations whose mission is to find solutions to the lack of jobs in the Valley. The people behind all of these entities seem to know the one thing that is not necessary at this point.
"Over the years I've seen my share of economic development studies, and I'd venture to say the majority of them are sitting on somebody's shelf," County Commissioner Alfredo Montoya said, who as a member of the Commission is developing the County's comprehensive plan.
Smaller efforts to stimulate economic growth have also been developed.
These include a Lab-sponsored networking partnership with Tsay Corporation in Ohkay Owingeh to help it compete for federal Energy Department contracts, and another Lab-sponsored networking initiative called Northern New Mexico Connect designed to link entrepreneurs with businesses around the region.
But how to organize an economy that isn't as reliant on the Lab is still under discussion, in the planning stages or under consideration, officials interviewed for this story said.
Despite all the initiativies and collaborations, Española businessman Richard Cook said he hasn't seen much help for the Valley.
"I think most of it is just talk," he said of the Lab's contribution to development. "I haven't seen any indication of them doing very much down here."
Cook said the layoffs would devastate the economy, especially because of the area’s inability to attract new businesses.
"I don't see any hope of those businesses coming at least for the next couple years," he said.
In recent years, the city has had five major chances to attract businesses that could provide jobs but those ventures have failed due to varying degrees of political mishandling and businesses' decisions. Nevertheless, Española has continued to do a few things that would help attract businesses.
Mayor Joseph Maestas asked the state legislature earlier this year to direct gross receipts tax money generated by the Lab to the city for economic development projects. But Maestas said last week that he has been told that money is out of the question for Española.
The city also has on its books an act that allows it to create incentives to attract businesses, City Councillor and Economic Development Chairwoman Danielle Duran said. Some examples of these measures include providing land or bonds to businesses, but providing those incentives has never been explored, Duran said.
"We need to decide what we're willing to do with that act," she said. "Nobody's ever really discussed it before."
But city government isn't the only voice within the city.
There's also Miro Kovacevich, a business specialist for Wells Fargo Bank.
Kovacevich is heading up this year's Española Electric Light Parade, and is planning to bring a children's theater to the vacant El Rio Theater.
He also has a grand vision.
Kovacevich said the only way to produce change is to focus on developing a single project.
For Española, his vision is for a solar energy research institute centered around Northern New Mexico College that would produce energy storage devices.
With an abundance of sun and the regional focus on clean energy, he said the Valley is in prime position to jump ahead of the curve.
"It's a relatively tall order, but we don't have another alternative," he said. "Big solar is the alternative to big nuclear."
Meanwhile, Rio Arriba County has been looking to locate some type of business on its newly-acquired 176 acres of former federal land in Alcalde. Commissioner Elias Coriz has said some type of light industry will be key for that area, but no firm plans are in place.
The County has also devoted a portion of its Comprehensive Plan for the next 30 years to economic development. Some of the goals laid out in a draft of the plan include promoting and supporting agricultural-based businesses and establishing a multi-agency investment partnership to bring broadband and other telecommunications to all parts of Rio Arriba County.
But while the County and city are coming out with ideas, these entities haven't necessarily run them by each other.
Burckle said the splintered nature of the different groups has hampered an actual outcome.
"I think that's one of the challenges is that we need to be more integrated in our approach," he said.
Local groups will get another chance to make something happen. When the layoffs were announced in late November, the Corporation and other regional players announced that they got a $200,000 grant from Los Alamos County to develop a regional economic plan.
The focus will be on immediate results, Burckle said. Whether there is enough time for another plan is the question.
"If I don't have a job and someone at Los Alamos doesn't have a job, then they're not going to spend as much money at Wal-Mart, either," Duran said.