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Sandel: 'We must not lose sight of the hard work before us in revitalizing our economy'


Jason Sandel  |  Member of the Economic Recovery Council

New Mexico is one of a handful of states greenlighted to reopen according to White House CDC guidelines. We are receiving high marks for our state’s proactive approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our path has been difficult and frustrating but reasonable and responsible. 

Businesses are rightfully opening across the state and must do so safely in accordance with COVID-19 Safe Practices.

Closer to home, the northwest region of New Mexico has accomplished a significant milestone by now meeting the reopening gating criteria. This accomplishment means we are able to progress along with the rest of the state toward economic recovery.  As our businesses open, we must not lose sight of the hard work before us in revitalizing our economy.

Initially, Governor Lujan Grisham’s Economic Recovery Council was focused on how, not if, a safe reopening would be put in effect. While a full and unfettered opening for every business has yet to occur, the focus for the ERC is shifting from "how” businesses can open to explore pathways for a full economic recovery for our state. In other words, we are working on where we go from here.

Thus far, state and federal programs have been rolled out as a bridge between shut-down and recovery.  These business and individual assistance programs serve a purpose, but they are not built for a long-term recovery. Local and state economic recovery will require fiscal prudence, smart investments and a visionary approach to revitalization. 

It is no secret that New Mexico is faced with significant budget challenges at all levels of government. This, at a time, when programs and incentives are needed more than ever, in every community and every corner of the state.  We must find a way to invest in our people, our businesses and our communities such that we leverage every dollar with purpose and meaning.  We must seize every opportunity that this moment might avail itself.   

In our next effort, the ERC has formed topic specific work groups to:

  1. Build additional recommendations for further safe reopening plans
  2. Review and recommend immediate economic relief
  3. Advocate and promote recovery for existing businesses and reemployment
  4. To build plans for short and long-term economic development by region

In short, our work plan is to develop a hub for economic development bringing together every state agency with such focus that revitalization is a forgone conclusion rather than a hope.

Northwest New Mexico presents unique and acute challenges for recovery. Our economy was already on decline prior to being hit by COVID-19, there is a potential for a stigma to take hold of our communities since we’ve gained world-wide attention as a hotspot. This challenge should not be underestimated, but in order for recovery to take hold we all must stack hands, across borders and across nations, on a strong united path forward.

As we embark upon recovery it is imperative that New Mexico not only turn to the playbook of the past, but one that we will write for the future. A playbook that recognizes the urgency and immediacy of providing life support for today and an achievable plan for tomorrow.   

Immediate and directed investment in infrastructure for under-served areas simply makes sense. It is a necessity to build-out basic utilities in the Four Corners; including safe drinking water, plumbing and electricity. At the same time rural communities must have world-class broadband to compete in a newly realized business marketplace. Finally, effective air transportation for people and products will open our area to markets that are otherwise untouchable. Investments in infrastructure will not only give rise to opportunity but also put people to work. As has been pointed out, jobs must be a priority considering nearly one in five are collecting unemployment.  

Rather than counting out our energy sector, we must embrace it as a springboard for diversification. Our energy sector can deliver recovery quickly. We must replace PNM’s stake in coal power with clean solar and natural gas power generation directly in San Juan County. There is a need for additional development of local natural gas power generation and even foreign exports of LNG on our horizon. Finally, we must quickly develop the untapped potential in the helium deposits and storage which has such great promise for our area.

Through a deliberate investment in Four Corners infrastructure along with a new vision of energy development; we can quickly chart a path for the future. I believe this future is founded in renewable and clean energy development, value-added food processing and outdoor recreation and tourism.

No question, solving our economic problems was going to be tough no matter. Now, the COVID-19 induced economic crisis has guaranteed that even more extraordinary — even unprecedented — efforts must be undertaken. We must not only focus on how to open the shop down the street, but how to revitalize our communities. I have faith that New Mexico stands ready to accomplish this challenge with inclusivity and civility. 

Finding our way out of this mess is going to take people working together in a way that we have never seen before and coming together with a common sense of purpose. It is in the action of listening where we find valuable and actionable ideas.  It is in this vein that rebirth is possible.  This is the task we now have, and we must embark upon.  Who’s in?

Jason Sandel is the executive vice president of the Aztec Well Family of Companies. He is also a member of the state's Economic Recovery Council