Albuquerque’s Driver for Economic Growth: Untapped Citizen Potential

New Mexico’s biggest city is supporting immigrant and indigenous populations in their business endeavors.
September 8, 2015
Albuquerque's "no-wrong-door" approach to entrepreneurship is helping residents establish successful businesses in the city like the natural popsicle company "Pop Fizz." (PopFizz)
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

President Calvin Coolidge famously said: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Indeed, when asked if there is a key to their success, many entrepreneurs point to their tenacity, perseverance or doggedness. Much like individuals, for cities, persistence pays. Such is the case of Albuquerque, N.M., which made its first bid to be part of the City Accelerator in the lead up to the first cohort.  When it wasn’t selected for that round, the city came right back and submitted a proposal for Cohort Two -- and found success.

It wasn't that Albuquerque’s leaders weren’t already moving forward with their plans for innovation, they simply wanted to do more and make better use of precious time and resources -- just like any other entrepreneur.

The city's first pitch laid out a sweeping strategy for rapid-fire improvement, detailing plans for a new "innovation corridor" running for more than a mile through the center of downtown and building a program around it to address the economic inequities of Albuquerque. Those inequities are serious -- Albuquerque is home to 50 percent of the state’s population and about 70 percent of the city’s residents are either unemployed, under-employed or under-educated.

To provide a physical rallying point, the city acquired the downtown former site of the First Baptist Church and slated it to become a cross between an incubator and a resource center -- a central location to give those in need access to people, places and opportunities for a better life.

During a recent trip to the city, I met with Dr. Frank Mirabal, Albuquerque’s director of collective impact, to get an update on the project. He told me the old First Baptist Church site is intended to be the epicenter of the city’s innovation efforts and they are proceeding carefully to ensure it works as intended. “Our sliver of the work is about immigrant and indigenous enterprise,” he said, noting that “indigenous” in Albuquerque goes beyond Native Americans to include long-term residents whose families have lived there since the surroundings were Mexican territory. The careful parsing of words and the attendant cultural sensitivity points to a special socioeconomic factor not found in many other urban centers of the country -- unique people bringing unique challenges to the job of giving them a better future.

Of course, Albuquerque has chased economic development dreams and pursued the same sort of industrial recruitment efforts as urban communities. The city assembled and proposed a healthy package of incentives to attract the proposed Tesla "Gigafactory," which promised to employ a projected 3,000 employees. When the prize ultimately went to Sparks, Nev., city leaders asked themselves: Why are we spending so much of our resources wooing big companies? Why can’t we grow our own jobs?

A different approach ensued. Dr. Mirabal said Albuquerque's common-sense strategy is two-fold:

1.  Develop a system to support immigrant and indigenous entrepreneurs.

2.  Work directly with immigrants themselves.

As part of this effort, the city is sponsoring a summit on needed services and suppliers on September 11, which will serve as a forum for mapping business opportunities and testing strategies with focus groups.

According to Dr. Mirabal, Albuquerque’s Central New Mexico Community College is an important player in the city’s efforts and part of a spectrum of coordinated services the city is putting together for the greatest collective impact. The city is also working toward a “no-wrong-door” approach to entrepreneurship. All local resources will be effectively networked so individuals seeking assistance can engage in the effort and get information at any point. Albuquerque does not want government bureaucracy to be an impediment.

Dr. Mirabal listed a number of success stories, including an Albuquerque resident who started a low-fee health care service for undocumented residents. The city has scheduled a “deep dive” business opportunity conference aimed specifically at the Asian-American population for September 22 and is supporting the White House initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which works to expand opportunities for young men of color.

After watching Albuquerque's Cohort Two City Accelerator application video more than a few times, I could not help but be intrigued by the engaging gentleman who somewhat haltingly admitted he had invested his entire retirement fund into his “bucket list” dream of having a business making “really delicious, natural popsicles” -- and then smiling, added with a little more confidence, “I don't regret putting my retirement into it at all. One of these days I'll get some profit back.”

I had to ask about him while in Albuquerque. Dr. Mirabel told me Rafael was doing well with his ‘Pop Fizz’ food truck and a storefront location at the Hispanic Cultural Center. I was relieved, and more than a little excited to see someone living their dream -- and winning.  The popsicle startup is also a win for the city.

Dr. Mirabel said Mayor Richard Berry has  tasked staff with making sure Albuquerque has a unique identity and offers things unlike any other city to avoid becoming “Anywhere, USA.” One unique quality the city is known for worldwide is Southwestern American arts and culture. “It's a $2 billion to $3 billion business,” said Mirabal. “The mayor has pushed us to go beyond just creating products and make it an economic driver."

As I drove north on I-25 out of Albuquerque, I had the same feeling I've had so many times when meeting a hard-driving successful -- or determined to be successful -- entrepreneur. Albuquerque as a city has grasped that special entrepreneurial quality and seizing on its unique sense of place as both a cultural and economic asset.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.