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ATT Convention Center
Reach out and touch some gossip about the Santa Fe Convention Center going corporate.

Zane's World

Conventional Rumors

June 2, 2009, 12:00 am

Santa Fe is always ranking up at the top of some list or other, usually related to “quality of life” or “best art towns” or “most likely to enforce a leash law for cats,” but we never get credit for what we really excel at: generally baseless rumors.

A doozy came across my desk recently, claiming plans were in the works to privatize and sell off the recently completed Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The implication of the rumor is that the City of Santa Fe, in a desperate attempt to make up budget shortfalls, would lose millions of dollars by pawning off the $50 million plus, LEED-certified eco-gem on the cheap to…whom?

It’s fun to imagine who, especially after we went through a prolonged public input process of naming the new center to eventually arrive at its startlingly bland—but arrestingly clear—title. Maybe it could be the 3M Santa Fe Convention Center, the American Spirit Event Plaza, Santa Fe Cricket Mobile Convention Castle or Bobby Redford’s All-Natural Sundance Center? My favorite is the Buffalo Thunder “Cherriest Slot” Convention Casa.

Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Keith Toler says no, the convention center is not for sale, is not looking for corporate sponsorship and is not pining for a specialty management contract with a national corporation. And its relationship with the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino remains one of “friendly competition.”

The likely source of the rumor is a proposal put forward by Toler in a March 13 report to the city in which he suggested privatizing the Convention & Visitors Bureau—which operates the center but is wholly unrelated to the bricks and mortar center. Toler had been asked to look “outside the box” in considering his department’s future. Because Santa Fe wouldn’t recognize a box any sooner than it would a plumb wall or a level windowsill, Toler was able to accomplish this by looking in the box.

“Most CVBs are private,” Toler says. “Santa Fe is unusual in the sense of having the CVB be a wholly controlled city department.” Albuquerque has a private CVB, as does Bucks County, Penn., where Toler was director before being lured to Santa Fe.

“It’s really just a concept for discussion at this point,” Toler says, although he admits no city councilors have clamored to discuss it with him; as far as he knows, the idea has no traction with City Hall. On the other hand, he’s heard no compelling arguments against such a move, excepting general resistance to change. Of course, that seemingly minor resistance is one of the primary factors in Santa Fe-style decision making.

But privatizing the CVB does merit consideration.

The city would still be responsible for directing the lodgers tax toward the CVB—where else would the money legally directed to contribute to marketing and hospitality go?—but CVB would be able to make faster decisions, utilize a broader range of contractors and recruit private members. Some new ventures, including the Drury hotel, which the Historic Design Review Board just approved for construction at the old St. Vincent Hospital location downtown, have never bothered to contact or form relationships with Santa Fe’s CVB. The situation might be different if the CVB were a sleeker, less civically encumbered operation. And there would be other benefits.

“We could investigate a relationship with the county,” Toler says, “because currently we provide the county with a free promotional service.” He says a privatized CVB also could recruit members from the private sector, look at partnerships with entities like Buffalo Thunder, and dramatically increase the operating budget and the organization’s effectiveness.

Toler insists additional money would be saved if the CVB could hire and fire at will, without navigating the city’s arcane policies, and could renegotiate contracts for such routine business as, say, mailings. The downside, as he perceives it, would be the benefits CVB employees would likely lose if they were no longer employed by the city.

Effectiveness, surely, is the solution to the city’s budget dilemmas.

That’s not to say City Councilor Matthew Ortiz’ proposal to cut all deputy department heads is the right way to go, but certainly there’s fat to be trimmed from the bureaucracy before the citizens—from whom the tax dollars poureth forth—have hard-earned services, like buses and recreation centers, hacked into uselessness.

Toler’s concept aims for effectiveness above popularity, easiness or shyness to buck the system. That’s reason enough to suspect it has merit. And the city’s hospitality businesses could use a leaner, meaner advocate that is able to form better partnerships.

Why do Santa Fe hotels fear Buffalo Thunder? Because outer-limit pueblo establishments don’t have to pay the lodgers tax (which also largely funds the city’s Arts Commission, by the way).

What has Toler heard about the possibility of a new pueblo-owned-and-operated hotel planned for the Indian School land fronting Cerrillos Road, where buildings and trees recently disappeared in preparation for some undisclosed development?

“Rumors,” Toler says, “only rumors.”

 

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