San Juan County, Farmington leaders reveal economic development priorities – The Journal

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Ancient San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner, left, Navajo Nation Chairman Jonathan Nez and Vice Chairman Myron Lizer sign a memorandum of understanding to continue a freight rail line Feb. 20 in the San Juan College in Farmington. (Courtesy of San Juan County)

Lleaders are coordinating efforts with businesses and the Navajo Nation to help turn the economy around

San Juan County Executive Mike Stark and Farmington Economics Director Warren Unsicker, citing rising inflation, falling oil and gas revenues and high unemployment, remain optimistic that new projects will attract jobs. new industries.

“Things are moving. We have a lot of projects going on. With all the new grants the federal government is rolling out, we have our hands full,” Unsicker said, referring to the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed Nov. 6. 2021.

Warren Unsicker, Farmington Economic Development Manager

San Juan County Executive Mike Stark (courtesy photo)

The two plan to continue working with groups including Four Corners Economic Development to promote outdoor recreation and tourism and to complete long-term projects like a freight rail line and two major transport proposals.

The Pinon Hills Boulevard Extension Project is slated for Farmington with Phase 1 of construction from Main Street to Hubbard Street – beginning in March.

And Phase 2 of the Eastern Aztec Artery Project is under review by the New Mexico Department of Transportation, with an expected completion in January or February.

Unsicker sees the redesign and reconstruction — with widened turns and sidewalks — on Main Street in downtown Farmington as a “positive step forward.” “The downtown has been a tremendous success on many fronts. It turned out to be a “little blessing” that construction continued during the pandemic shutdown…. while some businesses were closed.

He said 16 businesses have arrived downtown since completion. “We see people moving here after driving around town and going downtown and seeing what we’ve invested in.” “They say it’s a place that invests in itself, is proud and we want to be part of it.”

Wages have not kept pace

Stark, on the other hand, focused on the need for new jobs.

“With the erosion of long-time, low-cost, high-paying, middle-class extractive industries jobs in San Juan County, the County Commission has made it a priority to find ways to diversify our economy,” he said. -he declares. said, adding that the county’s recently adopted five-year plan devotes “eight of our 20 initiatives” to economic development.

About 1,500 jobs disappeared with the closure of the San Juan plant in September, even as employment growth over the next 10 years is expected to be 18.2% in the county, compared to a US average of 33 .5%.

“We are definitely an economy going through change,” Stark said. The station was the county’s second largest taxpayer, behind the Four Corners Power Plant.

“It’s not just the tax base, it’s the jobs that go with it,” Stark said.

The New Mexico Energy Transition Act, passed in March 2019, created the ability to replace up to 450 megawatts of electricity with two solar projects in the county. Industry Revenue Bonds have been issued for both projects, currently being developed by DE Shaw Renewable Investments Co. (DESRI). A project is 300 megawatts; the other, 130 megawatts.

Construction will create short-term jobs, lasting approximately one year. When complete and operational in 2024, one of the solar installations would require about 10 people to operate, Stark said.

Farmington and San Juan County officials face a tough set of economic data.

The unemployment rate in San Juan County was 5.2% in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 5.3% in August and a year-to-date high of 6.6%. in January. While the numbers may not reflect “actual” unemployment rates, they compare to a US jobless rate of 3.5% in September and 3.7% in August.

The average income for a county resident is $21,992 per year, compared to $28,555 nationally, with a household income of $48,824, compared to $53,482 nationally.

The San Juan County tax rate is 7.7%, compared to 7.3% nationally. The San Juan County income tax rate is 4.9% and 4.6% nationally.

San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner (L), Navajo Nation Chairman Jonathan Nez and Vice Chairman Myron Lizer (R) sign a memorandum of understanding to continue a freight rail line on 20 February at San Juan College in Farmington. (Courtesy of San Juan County)

Can fstraight rail turn the corner?

The freight rail project, discussed for years, moved forward in February 2020 after former County Commissioner Jack Fortner and Navajo Nation Chairman Jonathan Nez agreed to a feasibility study.

On September 1, 2021, the county received a $2 million BUILD planning grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, administered by the Federal Railroad Administration. HDR Inc. was selected to provide engineering services. The analysis will consider freight traffic demand and other relevant factors, such as inputs and outputs.

Two public briefings were held last month to share “the what, the why and the how,” said Stark, who took on the lead role on the project. “We are in the very early stages of soliciting feedback. »

He said the I-40 Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight rail spur to San Juan County and the Navajo Nation was a high priority in the strategic plan and would “open the door to economic opportunity.”

“After this study is complete, we hope there will still be some of these federal programs and funding that we can apply for,” Unsicker said.

“We’re kind of landlocked…we don’t have a highway, we don’t have a railroad, and we don’t have commercial airline service,” Unsicker said.

Companies such as PESCO Inc., Raytheon Missiles and Defense and Navajo Agricultural Products Industry would be able to ship large equipment more cost-effectively to shore, enabling international shipments, he said.

“At the other end of this equation, all your raw materials also become much easier to obtain here. You think building materials, steel, wood, even some retail products – automobiles… put them on wagons.

Desert River Guides and Bear Automotive have found a home with the city. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

How to develop a leisure industry?

“We’ve invested more than $1.2 million from the state’s Recreational Trails Program fund to improve more than 30 miles of mountain bike and ORV trails here at SJC,” Stark said.

The Mountain Bike Skill Park north of Farmington on Bureau of Land Management land is part of this effort.

Since taking charge of the city’s development in 2019, Unsicker has lobbied for outdoor recreation and developed the Outdoor Recreation Industry Initiative, with the goal of building high-level outdoor recreation infrastructure. level to stimulate tourism.

Unsicker called it a “three-pronged approach” with his department, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Parks Department. Using grants, they developed trails and he believes inspired entrepreneurs to join the effort.

In addition, a city incubator project has acquired a building as part of an oil and gas cleanup project that the city leases to outdoor companies Desert River Guides Rafting Co. and Bear Company. Automotive, which offers all-terrain vehicle repair, manufacturing, salvage and touring services. .

Unsicker sees “access to distribution” as a major hurdle.

“We need to make a business case for how they bring their products to market,” he said. “That’s why we have also focused on expanding our airport (runway system) so that it can now handle jet service.”

It also focuses on “value-added agriculture”.

The city “partnered with the college” by renting a building which was the Roof Shelter. It has been converted into the Harvest Food Hub and will soon be the Harvest Kitchen.

San Juan College received a $900,000 grant to build the Harvest Kitchen, which will serve as a test kitchen to help food entrepreneurs develop their product.

Unsicker called the Food Hub a “food aggregator” that allows farmers to store and sell their produce to larger customers. Farmer’s Market vendors can bring what they haven’t sold there for dry, cold, and freezer storage.

“We are all pushing in the same direction,” he said.

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