Back when people cared about the future, New Mexico was stoked to have Tesla Motors—the high-end electric car company—commit to building a $35-million plant in Albuquerque, for the manufacture of an (somewhat) affordable, mass-produced sedan.

But in 2008, Tesla said “no thanks” to the $7 million in infrastructure incentives the state had offered and reneged on the deal. That pesky California, it turned out, had offered $100 million in tax-free equipment financing as well as at least $1 million in workforce development funds. That’s how it came about that Tesla paid $42 million for a former Toyota manufacturing plant in California and opened it to minor fanfare on Oct. 27 of this year. That’s after receiving a $465-million loan from the US Department of Energy and $50 million in investments from both Toyota and Daimler.


I guess we, um, still have the Spaceport.

But Tesla’s withdrawal from New Mexico, its subsequent financing coups and its cozying up to California add up to a big punch in New Mexico’s innovative-economic-development gut. One wonders if the state did something wrong or if the break-up was more ineffable…maybe it was just too dusty here. The Tesla factory is expected to employ as many as 500 people, and we can only assume that New Mexicans would have been happy to have those jobs. But whatever, Tesla, we hope things go well for you in Fremont, you frickin’ 408ers (coulda been 505ers)!

Still, there are promising signs of life rumbling from the government bodies tasked with keeping New Mexico competitive. At the Oct. 27 Santa Fe City Council Meeting, councilors approved a deal in which some of the city’s land procured in the purchase of the College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art and Design) would be sold to the state of New Mexico. The state already owns five acres (widely expected to host the Santa Fe Community College’s Higher Education Center and a couple of state facilities), but the new eight acres would be designated as an “innovation park” to encourage the development of “complementary technologies and ideas.”

What, precisely, that means—high-tech business park or genuinely intriguing collection of institutions and entrepreneurial efforts that feed off each other in a cross-platform smorgasbord of inspiration and innovation—we don’t yet know. However, as President Obama keeps reminding us with health care, it may not be perfect, but it’s a framework to build from as we go forward. It’s the same with the state’s commitment to an epicenter for new ideas and the development of technologies that can elevate Santa Fe (and New Mexico) to a wholly new status in which it’s respected beyond the arts and beyond the sciences contained at the labs and the Santa Fe Institute.

Although there’s anecdotal evidence that city councilors have been voting more harmoniously than in years past, the vote to approve the land sale to the state was no slam dunk. It was five in favor and three against, with Councilors Patti Bushee, Matthew Ortiz and Ron Trujillo being the nays.

The issues that prevented those councilors from supporting the sale are: 1. The city would be on the hook for remediation of asbestos and the demolition of the existing, well-abused buildings on the site; 2. there is concern about how a new governor’s administration would respond to the opportunity (regardless of who that new governor is).

But the city would have had to deal with remediation either way—and it’s likely that federal monies would be available to help defer costs. The city is not currently in a position to invest time and money in earnestly developing the area, so the alternative to selling to the state was basically to confine the lot to static dereliction for the time being. It’s true that New Mexico’s new governor may put the kibosh on aggressive spending for economic-development ideas considered esoteric and experimental during a time when voters are demanding hard-headed fiscal practicality. But remember, it’s the framework that counts. With the land purchased and designated for this particular use, if it has to languish for four years, it will at least languish with a mission.

To be realistic about it, a master-planning process is likely to take that long, anyway. Especially if it's an engaging one that leverages the assets of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the Santa Fe Art Institute—two neighbors to the plot of land, who bring both concerns about how it will be developed and skills that might be well-applied to the planning process.

Meanwhile, the city—pending approval of the purchase by the state’s General Services Department—walks with $4 million. Not a bad piece of work.

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