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Downtown, Hometown: Relationships Revitalize Albuquerque

The local food, arts and culture businesses of Albuquerque are beginning to come alive with the innovative efforts of BALLE Fellow Eric Griego and partnerships with non-profits, local foundations, academic institutions, and the city.

Themes: Accelerate Collaboration

By Sarah Trent

Growing up in the historically Hispanic Barelas neighborhood near downtown Albuquerque in the 1970s and ‘80s, Eric Griego, his single mom, and three siblings lived a neighborhood-scale life: they got haircuts and used a laundromat a few blocks from their adobe home, rode their bikes downtown, and shopped at a local grocer.

“As kids my friends and I were kind of broke,” Eric remembers, “but my friend’s mom worked at Gizmo, a locally-owned clothing store, and we’d go hit her up for $2 – because it was 99 cents for a cheeseburger and coke at Woolworth’s – and we’d go sit at the counter.”

Shopping and living local were part of the consciousness of the time, he said, and the Barelas he remembers was vibrant.

Whether he knew it or not at the time, it was also in decline.

Rail Yards Market is open every Sunday in the Barelas; vendors include farmers, artisans, food businesses, and more.

Rail Yards Market is open every Sunday in the Barelas; vendors include farmers, artisans, and food businesses.

After World War II, Albuquerque experienced an unprecedented boom and its population nearly sextupled from 35,500 in 1940 to more than 201,000 in 1960. National prosperity, improved highways, and Americans’ love of the automobile brought tourism, light industry, small manufacturers, distribution and transportation companies, and more. But development wasn’t focused downtown – instead, the city started sprawling east and new residential subdivisions, strip malls, and the Winrock and Coronado shopping malls gutted Albuquerque’s downtown core.

By the time Eric was a teenager there were few local shops or places to hang out in the neighborhood, so he and his friends “did the same thing every other junior high and high school kid did: we drove or took the bus to the mall.”

Nearly three decades after his days at the Woolworth’s counter, after spending years in Washington, D.C., and working on international economic development in Mexico and Argentina, Eric returned to New Mexico in 2000 and turned his focus toward local economies, local politics, and bringing business and people back to downtown neighborhoods like the one he grew up in.

Since his return home, Eric has made a name for himself as a “sprawl fighter” and a “smart growth bulldog,” according to the local press, and has spent much of the last 16 years working both as an elected official and for them. He served one term on the Albuquerque City Council where he advocated for smart growth, less sprawl, green jobs, and renewable energy. After an unsuccessful run for mayor, he was appointed by then-governor Bill Richardson first to chair the State Economic Development Commission and later as Assistant Secretary for the State Economic Development Department, where he focused on downtown revitalization and Main Street initiatives across the state.

In 2009 he was elected to the State Senate where he championed green jobs and fought for small business interests like fair tax policies that balanced recruitment incentives with support for local entrepreneurs and small businesses. He lost a bid for Congress in 2012 but continues to consult with state and local governments, nonprofits, and foundations, using his connections and expertise in policy to educate lawmakers, connect projects with resources, and foster the conditions necessary to craft and pass Localist policy.

Lately Eric is focused on four major initiatives that each overlap in many ways. Each project brings together his local, national, and international economic development expertise with his passion and care for what’s happening in his own backyard, and are all working toward healthy local economies – especially in the historically Hispanic neighborhoods surrounding downtown Albuquerque.

Reviving a Historic Economic Engine

Eric is especially proud these days of his work co-founding the Rail Yards Market along with a group of community volunteers.  The seasonal weekly marketplace marries food, art, music, and community at the historic Albuquerque Rail Yards, which was purchased by the city in 2007 and had long been eyed for various development projects.

A hundred years ago, reports an Adobe Airstream story on the project, a quarter of Albuquerque’s workers were employed by the AT&SF Railway based at this site. Today the redevelopment project, which includes the market, aims to return the rail yard to its capacity as a local economic engine. The Rail Yards Market opened in 2014, saw more than 150,000 visitors in its first year, and served more than 100 vendors, many of whom have no other retail outlet. Eric has worked further with some to launch online businesses or open their own storefronts.

A Vehicle for Growing Food Businesses

Eric’s work on the Rail Yard project was supported by the Simon Charitable Foundation, which went on to hire him to help think through how to promote food entrepreneurship across Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties. They figured out how to get the state to fund the county in purchasing two state of the art food trucks, which became the foundation of an entrepreneurship training program called the Street Food Institute. In partnership with Central NM Community College (where Eric once taught political science and economics) and a local high school, they’ve put 60 students through the program so far. Four have since started their own trucks, six have launched other food businesses, and at least five more are “in the hopper,” Eric says. The program expanded to Santa Fe in 2015 and worked with the city council there to adjust legislation so the truck could serve food in the city’s main plaza.

“This is the kind of stuff I love,” Eric says. “It’s a public private partnership, we changed policy, and we helped leverage public money with private money. At the end of the day, these are more than just gourmet food trucks – they’re metaphorical and literal vehicles for growing food entrepreneurship in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.”

Incubating Business in the Barelas Corridor

The main corridor through the Barelas neighborhood where Eric grew up and lives now was once an important river crossing on the Camino Real, the main Spanish trade route between the U.S. and Mexico, and later became part of U.S. Route 66. But when downtown was abandoned for the sprawling outskirts of the city, the 4th Street corridor crumbled. Still an underinvested area, Eric and the nonprofit Barelas Community Coalition he leads are helping to revitalize the district and are currently working on the Calle Cuarta Marketplace – a future retail food, arts, and culture business incubator that will offer affordable space and technical support to aspiring local entrepreneurs, including some already selling at the nearby Rail Yards Market, training on Street Food Institute trucks, or using the Mixing Bowl, a commercial kitchen nearby.

The project aims to help new businesses thrive in those first few difficult years after launching, and cultivate both economic growth and community development at the neighborhood level. Funded by the city and local foundations, the Coalition is currently working with a developer to manage and build out 5,000 square feet of a new mixed-use development for the retail incubator space.

Connecting Local Economies and the Social Determinants of Health

Complementing all of Eric’s hands-on efforts planning, organizing, and advising local economic development projects is his doctoral fellowship research at the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, where he’s focused on the intersection of economic development policy and the social determinants of health. “I have tangible experiments in the field,” he says, referring to the market, the food truck training program, and the efforts to incubate Barelas businesses, which all help inform his research. Through connections he’s made at BALLE – including  fellow 2014 BALLE Fellow Steve Dubb of the Democracy Collaborative – Eric is looking at and beyond Barelas and New Mexico to ask: “How do you create healthy local economies, both in the economic sense and the human sense? What does that look like? How can we be more thoughtful about how we’re building our economic development strategies – and how are those determining health outcomes?”

BALLE is partnering with Eric and the Center for Health Policy this fall to host a conference on these topics, highlighting the connection between the social determinants of health and Localist economic development policy. Stay tuned for an announcement of that program in the coming months.

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