Building a strong regional economy takes time, multiple entities coming together in a way that combats siloing and duplication, and a focus on solving systemic issues.
Danielle Casey, who is nearing two years leading the organization, urged leaders of industry, educational institutions and government agencies to work together to build the region’s economy. in a presentation at the Economic Forum of Albuquerque on Wednesday at the Embassy Suites.
“It’s got to be all of us,” Casey said. “We’ve got to work with the state; we’ve got to work with local governments in a very meaningful way. … We’ve been working with UNM and CNM very, very directly doing some extremely creative things. I do believe that they have an uncanny ability to really transform and impact our economy.”
NM by comparison
Despite AREA’s success in attracting expanding companies into the region, there is still quite a bit of room for improvement, Casey said. New Mexico tends to trend behind other similarly-sized markets.
Job recovery in the region over the past two years stood at about negative 1.8% compared to positive trends from regions such as Dallas, Texas, and Boise, Idaho, — both of which had job recovery levels that stood above 6%, according to Casey.
Some of that may be due to the Albuquerque region’s comparatively slight population growth. The region saw an increase of roughly 17,000 people from 2016 to 2022. Meanwhile, places like Boise grew by nearly 100,000 residents over that same time period and Phoenix grew by nearly half a million.
Add to that the state’s unemployment rate and labor force participation rate — which measures the number of working-aged people who are actively working or looking for work — and New Mexico is trending in all the wrong directions, Casey said.
Casey said for the region to get a better sense of how to grow those numbers, comparisons should be made to other markets.
“We have to stop measuring ourselves against ourselves,” she said. “We have to continue and be very intentional about measuring ourselves against our competitors.”
Casey presented some numbers that explain the organization’s success in making the Albuquerque region — which covers Sandoval, Valencia, Torrance and Bernalillo counties — a place for prospective businesses a good fit.
Those numbers include a handful of project announcements this year that are contributing to 1,845 jobs and $2.6 billion in capital investment in the region, Casey said, as well as about $1.6 billion of new and annually recurring economic activity.
One of those projects is from an investment group that includes Louisville-based Manna Capital Partners and Colorado-based Ball Corp. for an aluminum manufacturing facility that is expected to bring hundreds of jobs to Los Lunas and have an economic impact of $3.4 billion over the next decade. Other projects AREA has been involved in over the past year include the expansion of Alstate Steel, Universal Hydrogen, BlueHalo and bioscience manufacturer Curia.
Forty-two companies have visited the region in the last year, and most of those companies — 86% of them to be exact — have expressed a need for expansion in both employees and square footage.
About 65% of AREA’s prospective companies are looking to expand on the manufacturing end.
But Casey called that a challenge for the region, with the lack of space available for manufacturers. She said the organization is working on that issue with partners. However, she called these types of jobs for New Mexicans a positive.
“That is going to result in a better life and better quality of labor for folks in the community,” she said.
How does this get fixed?
Casey said that private and public sectors need to work in tandem to create an environment that is inviting and sustainable for businesses expanding into the region.
In the case of AREA, formerly known as Albuquerque Economic Development, the organization has taken steps to create a more encompassing view as to what the region’s needs are.
The organization has created advisory councils that span across public and private sectors, with specific focuses on areas that include leaders from the tech and innovation and public-facing economic development industries.
The region needs to build a capable workforce and adequately fund economic development to keep the region trending up, Casey said. And, to be more well-rounded, entities need to come together to create a more robust site-ready program for businesses looking to expand into the area.
“If we’re not all working together and thinking about how we’re going to advance the region, then we’re missing the boat in a really, really big way,” Casey said. “… We’re going to be unapologetically honest about our current economic rankings, and we’re not going to accept it.”