At the end of the month, Simon Brackley, who has been with the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce since 1998 and its president since 2006, will step down to travel and spend time with family. Current Chamber Vice President Bridget Dixson is set to become president on Nov. 1. SFR chatted with Brackley about his tenure and Santa Fe's business climate over the years. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
SFR: What has been the biggest change you’ve seen during your era for the Santa Fe business community?
Simon Brackley: I think a recession and then a recovery. The employment picture has completely changed in the last three to four years. For a long time, people used to say there are no good jobs in Santa Fe and now that's completely not true: We've managed to diversify our economy and now things are doing very well.
To what do you attribute that shift?
Some of that is recovering from the recession nationwide, worldwide. Some of it is investment in Christus St. Vincent [Regional Medical Center] and Presbyterian [Santa Fe Medical Center] and Los Alamos National Laboratory gearing up and doing some major hiring, and some new companies like Descartes Lab and Meow Wolf and the creative industry. The film industry is now doing well, and you add the oil and gas revenue that benefits all of New Mexico and the investment that represents … A number of things have all come together at the right time to improve the employment outlook.
What is your biggest criticism in terms of the City of Santa Fe as it relates to business?
I think two. I think the Railyard has been a disappointment and two is probably just the speed of government is still slow. I think the current administration is the best one I've worked with, but they seem to take a long time to make changes and improvements.
What is your specific criticism of the Railyard?
There's no people there. I think the design was flawed. I think the governing structure is flawed. I think the parking and transportation is flawed. I think the security is flawed. It's disappointing to have such a wonderful space in the middle of town, and be down there and there's not a soul and the businesses that are there have mostly struggled. Violet Crown and Second Street [Brewery] are doing well, but most of the others have struggled.
What’s the top concern you hear from local businesses?
Regulation. Licensing. And No. 2 is probably public safety … people watch TV news from Albuquerque and realize that's an hour away, and they worry that kind of serious violent crime might come to our community. We're a safe small town right now, and we'd like to keep it that way.
You told The New York Times in 2015 that you thought Somos Un Pueblo Unido had exaggerated the prevalence of wage violations in Santa Fe. What’s your take on that issue now?
I think it's gotten worse. At that time, I did some research on Department of Workforce Solutions data and the number I remember was 80 violations or reported violations statewide. That's back in the news recently and now there are hundreds. It may be improved enforcement by the department, it may be people's greater willingness to come forward and so on. I think that has become a more serious problem than it used to be and it certainly needs attention. That is basically straight theft from employees, which is completely unacceptable.
In 2007, you also told The New York Times—you’ve been in The New York Times a lot—you thought typical complaints about short-term rentals in terms of quality of life weren’t on point in Santa Fe. You said: ‘We are a pretty sophisticated town; people come here for the art and culture. We’re not a college town. We don’t have tequila-drinking contests.’ I’m guessing your thinking on short-term rentals has evolved in the last 12 years?
Well, yes. It's become a very important part of the local economy … I'm pleased the city has done good research, along with Homewise, to determine how many there are to make sure they are licensed. We want to see active enforcement to make sure they are following the rules and they are contributing both gross receipts and lodgers' tax. I'm optimistic the city will decide to take the additional gross receipts tax and put that toward the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. This is found money [$1.6 million] the city wasn't budgeting.
You must hear concerns from businesses about the housing situation.
It's the No. 1 challenge I hear from business owners. It's always workforce, but now it's places for workforce to live.
The chamber was part of 2003 litigation challenging the Living Wage Law. Where do you stand now and what impact do you think the law has had?
… I was not part of the decision the chamber took to sue. I think during the recession it made things worse in the sense that if a business is already feeling a squeeze, it was difficult to come up with $10 or $11-an-hour to pay entry-level people to work. My biggest concern now is that high school students will go to work rather than stay in school because they can make $12 or $15-an-hour working and not pursuing their studies, which keeps them stuck in a poverty trap because they don't acquire new skills or new education.
What are you going to miss?
Being involved in the community. This position allows me to know a little about a lot of things … it's an inch deep and a mile wide and I enjoy that. The reward of it has been working with entrepreneurs. I've had the opportunity to meet and help literally hundreds of business people and work really hard and come up with some incredibly creative ways to operate a business and that's been very rewarding.