Recently, people gathered in the St. Francis Auditorium to discuss the economy from a Santa Fe perspective. First of all, let me express gratitude to the members of the forum and the many city council members and others who cared enough to show up. If I remember correctly there were representatives in the forum from different Santa Fe economic interests: real estate, small business, the arts, nonprofits, the Railyard development and banking.
It was clear that everyone was looking for solace and points of light in a bleak situation. However admirable these impulses may be, they may have been in the way of any solid analysis of our overall economic predicament. Perhaps this was the reason things felt unresolved at the end of the evening, despite the wonderful sweet desserts donated by Pojoaque Pueblo's Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino.
Let's start with a remark from the real estate guy who had obviously examined a lot of numbers concerning sales and values in the Santa Fe real estate market. All the numbers were down, both for sales and the value of houses. These difficulties are compounded by the increased amount of time that it takes to make a sale, not to mention there being no extensions of credit by banking institutions. Yet our real estate representative found one ray of hope: Remarkably, the sales of houses above $750,000 had not abated.
I think this is very interesting. Apparently, Santa Fe is still attractive to people who have made a good amount of money elsewhere and are now looking to live in a nice house in Santa Fe and can pay cash. Who are these people? I venture to say that these people are well-to-do retirees. Santa Fe has in many ways become a retirement town, and one quick glance around the St. Francis Auditorium confirmed this. I am in my early 50s, but I felt like one of the younger ones around. Where was the youth in the room? Where is the youth in general?
Some people in the forum were complaining that young people, once reaching a certain age, move away from here never to come back. One of the reasons that was offered for this fact is that Santa Fe real estate is too costly, so youth cannot find housing and small families and working people move away from Santa Fe to find affordable housing in Rio Rancho, Albuquerque, Pojoaque and so on. Many of these working-class families may still work in Santa Fe, but they commute and their money is withdrawn from the Santa Fe community. The Rail Runner will presumably make the commute even easier.
Because of this, Santa Fe is impoverishing at the rate of $250 million a year spent on housing and living expenses elsewhere. The older people who move here do spend money on their real estate, but after that there is no incentive for them to make investments in Santa Fe. They like to use their money for the wonderful services that Santa Fe has to offer, but they have no incentive to set up, let's say, a bakery or an independent printing business. In other words, other than consuming, they are not contributing to a lively commerce in Santa Fe or to the tax base. It is and has been in their interest to make their wealth last as long as it will by doling it out in small increments and meanwhile enjoying the high standard of living in Santa Fe.
The middle class in Santa Fe tells a different story: They are struggling to hold on and many have joined the ranks of the working poor. What happened to the middle class in Santa Fe is this: The generous "living wage" laws in Santa Fe made small local business owners with one sweep responsible for paying the highest minimum wage in the country. Without any type of compensation, and compounded by a host of other factors - such as competition, increasing utility and insurance bills, Wal-Mart, energy costs - the squeeze on the middle class went inevitably together with an abundance of business closures. I speak from experience here: Cloud Cliff was one of the earlier casualties of this trend.
Meanwhile, shortly after the living wage laws were introduced, rents and real estate prices went up by about the same amount. So not only was the middle class (compromised), the working class may only have briefly benefitted. The real beneficiaries were the politicians thumping their chests about having presumably done something about poverty, plus landlords and real estate, but of course that whole house of cards is coming down now. The middle class is, after all, a key component of local economy - it provides employment. It needs to be supported, not neglected.
Now we find ourselves in a very precarious situation. Let's face it - Santa Fe is in free fall. And this coincides with the moment that we actually need the economic stamina of a green economic conversion. What do some of the investments look like that we have to make immediately? How do we keep our youth and young families here and fill Santa Fe with life again? A city without youth doesn't have a future.
Someone at the forum remarked that we should have more educational programs that address skills and occupational training - education programs for plumbers, bakers, electricians, farmers. Let's face it, Gov. Richardson, we can't all be filmmakers and actors. So apprenticeship and occupational education with an eye to "green conversion' is a good start. Trainees immediately could start working with crews of green building and retrofitters, creating jobs.
With an eye on food security, lots of vacant land or forlorn parks such as Frenchy's Field can be converted into urban garden and farming plots run by youth cooperatives. The city's parks and recreation department converts into a "trees and urban farming" department. We invest massively in solar energy production, decentralizing the grid, wind and heating technologies and engage young people in this. The artists among us can make all of this very interesting and beautiful. As for transportation, what about green shuttle taxis for up to eight people instead of buses?
Tons of goods can be transported with the Rail Runner train - currently, lots of small business people in Santa Fe are transporting things like bread, pastries and produce to Albuquerque on a daily basis. Gas prices were definitely a contributing factor to Cloud Cliff's demise. The Rail Runner can facilitate exports from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and vice versa. The Farmers Market building can also function as a wholesale hub for goods, seven days a week.
This is just a beginning. All of these developments toward the retooling and conversion of the economy toward a green reality with a significantly smaller carbon footprint need to be funded by the wealthy. The middle class also needs to step up, but we have to keep in mind it was already forced to make a sacrifice and has exhausted its resources. The gap between rich and poor has only grown larger in the last 30 years.
The green conversion needs to be managed and funded through Santa Fe's multitude of nonprofits. With this investment, the feeling of justice and equality will greatly be enhanced in the tapestry of the Santa Fe community experience. This will lead to optimism and solidarity between us. Withdrawing old stock investments that made money on the backs of the very, very poor in far-away places and investing it locally instead, also relieves a moral burden that many of us have carried for far too long. Without an intelligent, conscious and immediate investment of old money into new ways of being, we could be forced to undergo untold tragedies that can all be avoided with awareness and determination.
Malten, who lives in Santa Fe, is the former owner of Cloud Cliff Bakery.