Valencia County News Bulletin
Assistant Editor
PUBLISHED: August 15, 2016

TOME — A new regional economic development group has hit its latest milestone and needs input from the public on a draft plan before it is submitted to USDA Rural Development in November.

The Middle Rio Grande Economic Development Association has been meeting since October to develop a strategic plan to strengthen economic vitality in the four-county region of Valencia, Socorro, Catron and Sierra counties.

Representatives from the region met for one last planning session last week at the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus to review the draft plan.

Collaborating with USDA Rural Development’s Stronger Economies Together program and New Mexico State University, representatives from the four counties have met nearly a dozen times and developed action plans for five economic clusters — agriculture, arts, recreation, entertainment and visitor industries, health care and social assistance services, renewable energy and forest products and technology.

The strategic plan focusing on those five areas has been drafted and Deb Caldwell, the lead coordinator for the MRGEDA SET, is asking the public throughout the region to weigh in and offer feedback on the plan.

“As a resident of the Middle Rio Grande region, you have a stake in its future,” said Caldwell. “We need to hear from you. We welcome your comments and suggestions for improving the strategic plan.”

The latest draft of the strategic plan can be found online at mrgeda.com/docs/SET, and comments about the draft plan should be sent to strategic-plan@mrgeda.com. Caldwell said she would like to receive comments by mid-October at the latest, so there is time to incorporate new information into the plan.

“We want to hear from everyone, all the stakeholders. We live here and all want a wonderful quality of life in the Middle Rio Grande Valley,” she said.

During last Tuesday’s review of the draft plan, Caldwell asked the nearly 20 people gathered to give their thoughts on it so far.

Steve Tomita, development services manager for the city of Belen, said one of things in the report to note, which is both a plus and a negative, is the amount of people leaving their communities to work elsewhere.

“Now that’s pretty much across the board in New Mexico. That gives us a good opportunity when we’re trying to attract business,” Tomita said. “We have this workforce and we’re losing it but we want to draw it back.”

On a recent trip to Chicago with New Mexico Partnerships to meet with business location consultants, Tomita said the consultants indicated they don’t have time to hear pitches from individual cities and counties.

“They want to hear bigger, regional groups. As we are coming together, these four counties, they are more prone to listen to us,” he said.

Caldwell said using the SET process allows the group to pinpoint what the assets were in each community in the region.

“The front part of the document paints a picture of the region. We want people to look at that and see if we market ourselves in the right way,” she said. “We went county by county but do we show what we have to offer together?”

She asked that people working in the five economic clusters review the relevant sections in the draft and give feedback about any critical missing information.

Kuan Tikkun, a resident of Rio Communities and a member of its economic development committee, asked how the group plans to get past the challenge of competition between communities. For instance, there is a lack of health care facilities on the east side of the Rio Grande, she said.

“How do we get people to get behind something that’s important regionally and may still leave Rio Communities under served?” she asked.

Caldwell said the purpose of the plan and MRGEDA is to “attack regional issues on a global level” but that wouldn’t stop local agencies from applying for grants on the local level.

“The communities can use this plan to go after projects for themselves,” she said.

Meeting facilitator Don Boyd said, for instance, Sierra County wants to develop a new five-unit health care cluster.

“When MRGEDA writes the grant for that, there’s no reason we can’t include a clinic in Rio Communities. It will have a better chance of success,” he said.

Socorro City Councilor Michael Olguin said he anticipated some push back from his constituents, saying they would feel that he should focus just on Socorro.

“But as this organization grows, if there’s an industry interested in relocation to the area, we can lay out everything,” Olguin said. “And if they don’t choose us, we can look at why they didn’t come here, what are the issues. So next time a Facebook comes knocking, we will be ready.”

Mary Homan, with New Mexico Gas and a city councilor in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, said years of constant battles between the Sandoval Economic Alliance and Albuquerque Economic Development saw few results.

“In the last few years, they’ve been working hand in hand while maintaining their own entities,” Homan said. “Recently, when a new company was doing a location tour, the comment was, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen other cities working together.’ They’ve become a close-knit community that companies want to be a part of.”

While there will always be some level of competition for businesses and economic development, Susann Mikkelson, the advertising manager for El Defensor Chieftain in Socorro, said there needs to be a balance.

“Maybe we can’t do something right now, but what else can we do to collaborate to help? Are there interim steps?” Mikkelson asked. “There isn’t a clinic in Rio Communities but maybe the interim issue is transportation to health clinics somewhere else.”

Tomita agreed, saying if a company is looking at a Belen location, but isn’t finding what it needs, his first call is to economic development people in Los Lunas or Rio Communities.

“We want to keep them in Valencia County, so it’s important to refer them there,” he said. “We can compete but cooperate.”

The strategic plan will go forward to USDA Rural Development on Nov. 1 for approval, and once approved, the plan will be used to apply for grants and other funding streams where regional collaborations are given preference.

During the public comment period, Caldwell said there will be a further series of stakeholder group meetings through October for discussion of the strategic plan draft. Anyone interested in scheduling a meeting, can contact Prescott Grey or Deb Caldwell via strategic-plan@mrgeda.com.

There will be a MRGEDA organizing meeting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro. Caldwell said anyone is welcome to attend the association’s meetings.

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