Despite the recent spate of summer that has intruded into our winter and filled skiers' dreams with nightmarish visions of global warming and wasted season passes, the pending New Year is still a time of reflection and contemplation. For cities and individuals alike, reflection often begins with how we're perceived from the outside, particularly in relation to our own self-perceptions.
Where, then, are the alignments and disconnects between how Santa Fe sees itself and how it is perceived from outside its happy bubble?
We know that, as usual, Travel Leisure magazine and CNN teamed up and used genuinely suspicious methodology to rank Santa Fe as one of the top travel destinations in the US. Whether or not that appraisal is wholly true—the study isn't based on data, but on survey opinions—it's an outside perception that jives with Santa Fe's sense of itself as a blockbuster tourist destination. Although we might like to see slightly higher occupancy rates, we have hotels, and heads are in those beds often enough to justify some pride on this point.
Retiring to Santa Fe appears to be popular—too popular for some of us—but when we look past our crotchety disregard for newcomers telling us how they do it in wherever, it turns out retirees to Santa Fe are often engaged community volunteers and/or philanthropists who bring value and energy to the larger community. Still, according to AARP, Santa Fe doesn't come close to the top 10—we're No. 43 on the organization's ranking of top 100 cities in America for retirement. We trail well behind Las Cruces. Presumably, people like to retire to warm places, but we're also well behind a more usual suspect/competitor: Boulder, Colo.
Several studies this year rank Boulder as the brainiest city in the country. Despite the Santa Fe area's high concentration of doctoral degrees—situated as we are between Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories—we don't make anyone's smartest populations list. That hurts. We like to think we're pretty smart around here. We also like to think we have more soul than Boulder—anecdotally, we kick ass in the soul department, but no one has yet come up with any easily measurable metrics for such esoteric indicators. Some smarty-pants lists that use viable metrics, such as portfolio.com, don't even look at Santa Fe because we fall below their population thresholds of approximately 200,000. One wonders what sort of math they used to select Boulder No. 1 in their survey, since the Colorado sports and tech mecca also falls well short of meeting that figure.
The two big drawbacks that keep Santa Fe off the national smart radar appear to be our abominable high school drop-out rate and our deeply medieval connectivity (fat data pipes, wireless internet saturation, etc.) score.
Again, being honest with ourselves, we also have to admit that relying on government laboratories to pad our smart factor is cheating a bit. Boulder is full of brainiacs because, like Austin, Texas, it has successfully recruited lots of tech industry and innovation start-ups. Like tourism, innovation is an area in which Santa Fe has mostly stood on its rapidly fading laurels rather than push for real transformation and innovation.
However, a fluffy but interesting article (select page 86 in the upper left to see the article), recently published in sister magazines Energy Digital and Business Review USA, demonstrates what we have accomplished in terms of workforce and economic development, and how Santa Fe is positioning itself for the future.
The article, by Laura Clapper, is called "Where Art, Science & Innovation Thrive: America's oldest capital attracts creative and educated innovators at the forefront of the sustainability revolution." It's a tad hyperbolic, perhaps, but true enough on a modest scale. The article lays out well the positive side of the city's efforts—both in terms of attracting and supporting small businesses and in pushing progressive legislation through building codes, sustainability plans, and improved parks and trails. Most of what's published in the world about Santa Fe is fluff—but this is the kind of fluff we need more of, while maybe toning down the adobe Disneyland rhetoric.
On the whole, it appears the time is right for Santa Fe to head into the New Year understanding that accolades from travel magazines are nice, but clear-eyed assessments of how to move into the future are nicer. All of us need to consider the short- and long-term paths to maintaining the city's integrity and character while positioning it as a genuine center for creative innovation. The long term is beginning to look less fuzzy. In the short term, we have to address problems with the school system.
Fortunately, for the first time ever, on Feb. 11, 2011, the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education and Santa Fe Community College Governing Board elections will be held together. Ideally, combining the elections will maximize participation in these typically low-turnout elections.
If you've been paying attention to how the Santa Fe Public Schools Board has been trying to "fix" our problems, you'll know it's time to take a tip from the tea party and "throw the bums out." That should at least give us a better perception of ourselves.
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