TAKING IT DOWNTOWN: Leadership Albuquerque Considers Downtown Transformation in Last Program Day

In the final program day in Leadership Albuquerque’s 2019-2020 program year, the class heard presentations from a variety of experts on homelessness, law enforcement and crime, and downtown area revitalization.

Scott Ackerson, Executive Vice President of Prospera Housing Community Services, started the day off by discussing the challenging issue of homelessness – which is even difficult to measure. A “point in time” measure puts Albuquerque’s figure at 1500, but the healthcare system estimates as many as 15,000; the number the City uses the 3,000-5,000 range. Ackerson described reasons people experience homelessness, like unemployment and lack of living-wage employment, insufficient affordable housing options, and social issues like institutionalized racism. These challenges are often exacerbated by mental illness, addiction, and trauma. And while he emphasized that homelessness is a state and not a trait, he also cautioned that homeless intervention in itself does not end homelessness – “upstream” interventions are important to improve the broader health of the community.

San Antonio’s implementation of such programming, including the creation of a homeless campus that provides coordinated services, an overnight shelter, transitional housing, and detox/behavioral health services, led to a decrease in its downtown homeless count by 77% since 2010. The approach also saved $96 million over several years in foregone emergency room and jail costs. He also stressed the importance of moving those experiencing homelessness into stable housing with ongoing services to support them, but pointed to a lack of affordable housing and the high cost of adding housing (relative to the large size of the unsheltered homeless population) as challenges confronting cities across the country. You can see a graph of this striking progress below.

decrease in its downtown homeless count by 77% since 2010

Next, Commander Joshua Brown and Sergeant Matthew Tinney from the Downtown Problem Response Team of the Albuquerque Police Department Valley Area Command introduced their mission of person-centered and solution-focused community policing. They emphasized the importance of connecting with the community – and the difficulty of reaching young people to both understand their concerns and show them they’re not the “bad guys.”

Brown and Tinney were later joined by Sarah Masek, who gave a demonstration of one of the GIS tools the team uses to inform proactive policing. You can see a still below: clusters show frequency of incidents and reports, which are categorized in layers. The team then uses this data to strategize, from ensuring there are enough officers on duty to manage the area to deploying bait cars, to launching patrols or doing outreach.

clusters show frequency of incidents and reports

A presentation by Lawrence Rael, the City of Albuquerque’s Chief Operating Officer, addressed progress in the Railyards. Rael said the City started by removing 11,000 acre-feet of contaminated soil from the parking lot area and draining the water responsible. A new courtyard area will between buildings will offer public space for community events and activities once larger gatherings are safe again.

Rael acknowledged that APD needs to show a stronger presence in the downtown area, but said that there are the beginnings of new development opportunities in the area, starting with conversations about investments in landscaping, beautification, and road widening projects, and incentives for the building of office space. He said an RFP had recently been issued for a feasibility study and assessments of building and operating costs of a stadium in the downtown area.

He also discussed the persistent challenge of homelessness in the city. “The issue is becoming more and more acute,” he said, citing growing numbers of families living in their cars. He praised partnerships with nonprofits and faith-based organizations in the area, but lamented that there was no central access point into the system. He advised, however, that any such entry point should be carefully crafted to avoid creating barriers to services that shut people out or cause them to fall between the cracks.

Charles Rath, the CEO of RS21

When the group reconvened after a break, Charles Rath, the CEO of RS21 introduced his tech company and the values he says are essential to its success. RS21 has a unique culture carefully cultivated around values like the ones shown in the slide below. This values-based approach, he said, is behind the company’s ability to attract outstanding talent and its success that’s earned it national industry awards.

Rath also emphasized his and his company’s commitment to the state and local communities. RS21 has contributed about $13 million to the local economy in the last two years alone, he said, and even offers housing incentives for living downtown. He urged the group not to sell New Mexico short: “The amount of talent here is mind-blowing!” He said business leaders should look locally first, before looking out-of-state for outsourcing and recruiting. To drive it home, he shared RS21’s success in “bringing home” top talent that had left New Mexico to study or work.

The final presentation of the day was a panel that featured David Silverman from Geltmore, LLC; Brook Bassan, Albuquerque City Councilor for District 4; and Rick Rennie, from the Historic District Improvement Company. All have long experience with the private sector in the downtown area. They had varying opinions on whether the downtown area was improving, all believed that the process of revitalizing the Rail Yards will take quite some time, and supported the notion of bringing a multi-purpose sports arena downtown (though siting the arena will be a challenge). The panelists expressed frustration about crime in the downtown area, supporting the individual officers who work in the area, but believing that the amount of focus and attention given to downtown public safety has been inconsistent over time.

One notable takeaway was Rennie’s observation that, more than any particular physical asset, the downtown area needs the right environment to grow. “What we need is good soil that will grow what we want: safety, infrastructure, and assets,” he said.

Finally, the class was very fortunate to hear from Raúl Torrez, Bernalillo County District Attorney, who provided a “commencement address” on leadership lessons for the now-graduated 2020 cohort. Some of his primary lessons, which he unpacked in detail, were: always do the right thing, listen first, and remember who you’re fighting for. He emphasized character and integrity, saying leaders should always seek to lead by example. “Exhibit in yourself what you want to see in others,” he said. 

Torrez also encouraged the class to be willing to fail, and to ask for and expect honest feedback. And remember, he urged, that leadership is first about service.

Raúl Torrez, Bernalillo County District Attorney

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