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Pueblo’s Tourism Problem



When you talk to city officials about the Pueblo Convention Center expansion one major point always arises: It will be a great way to attract visitors to Pueblo. Ultimately, a bigger space will attract bigger conventions, trade shows, the possibility to host some sporting events and, most importantly, people with money to spend.

The expansion is often talked about as a tourism fix. City officials say the convention center has outgrown its space, not because they cannot physically handle the amount of visitors, but because the events that would bring in all of those tourists aren’t interested in the square-footage currently available.

So, the fix is that if everything goes as planned the expansion will impact the economy in terms of fuller restaurants and more hotel rooms sold. When that happens local businesses are happy because profits are up and the city is happy because it’s making money from sales and lodging taxes.

But most city officials don’t mention what it takes to help attract those events, and really, tourists in general.

It takes marketing, and, more specifically, money for marketing. That money, partly allocated from the city budget, has been dwindling over the past few years as cuts have been made. For recipients of the money that has meant less than adequate marketing or maintaining the status quo in recent years.

The Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado State Fairgrounds receive money from the city’s budget specifically for year-round marketing for tourism. The convention center receives its marketing money from the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority, but partners with the chamber on nearly all projects. The chamber partners with the State Fair as well. So, much of the tourism effort in Pueblo is intertwined.

In the 1980s, a group of business owners from the hospitality industry in Pueblo and the chamber asked city council for a 2 percent lodging tax, which is an additional tax added onto hotel rooms.  The tax would ultimately pay for year-round marketing of the city to continue to grow the city’s tourism. City council approved the tax and set up a pass through so the revenue would go straight to the chamber.

Later the Colorado State Fairgrounds asked the same thing of city council. The fair wanted money for year-round marketing for events other than the Colorado State Fair. For instance, this includes the 14 additional horse shows the grounds host each year.

“We need a person to be out travelling and selling Pueblo in other states. And this person would not only be talking about the convention center but opportunities with parks and rec, the university, state fair and how we can sell a city-wide event.” – Donielle Gonzales, Visit Pueblo coordinator for the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce

The lodging tax was raised 1.5 percent and another pass-through was created, this time for the fairgrounds. Later on, the state fair received a grant to build the events center and asked the city to match $1 million over 10 years. An 8/10th of a percent was added to the lodging tax, which brought the total to 4.3 percent – the current rate.

But when the 8/10th of a percent didn’t pay for the events center the city froze the pass throughs to pay off the events center. The city ended up allocating what they could to the chamber and state fair. Today, the events center is paid off. But the pass through hasn’t been reinstated because of city-wide budget cuts.

The city’s deficit meant marketing money for tourism got put on the back burner.

“In the 2000s back starting in 2004-2005 we started getting 2 percent and it went that way until the great recession,” said Chamber President and CEO Rod Slyhoff. “In 2012, we saw council starting to push back and have to make reductions in the money that they were giving us, and we understood that. We aren’t upset with city council. We fully understood. It was a recession and they had to make cuts everywhere.”

In July, Slyhoff proposed to city council during a work session that the chamber return to receiving the full 2 percent instead of allocations. Even during the recession, lodging didn’t take a big nose-dive like other areas within the sales tax, Slyhoff said. The lodging tax remained fairly stable, but the amount the chamber receives from the tax has not.

In 2015 and 2014 the chamber received $350,000 for year-round promotion. In previous years it has been more: $400,000 in 2013, $440,000 in 2012 and at its high point $459,000 in 2009.

The punch of the presentation was the convention center.

The allocated amount of money is stretched pretty thin with advertising mostly in the Denver Metro area, and the city is already running behind in attracting events to the future expanded convention center, according to Donielle Gonzales, Visit Pueblo coordinator for the chamber. She was also at the July work session to present with Slyhoff.

“To be competitive you have to be marketing that stuff two to three years or even five years in advance,” she said later in an interview about the proposal.

Pueblo Convention Center General Manager Brian Hoffman said so far everything is on schedule for the bigger space, which is expected to be finished with construction in the fall of 2017.

“Right now we’re right on track, there has been a trend change in the industry where a lot of conventions and conferences of our size were booking three or four years in advance. But now they’re booking about a year in advance,” Hoffman said. “We have quite a few on the books for 2016 and we have some on the books for 2019.”

The renovated convention center will require more marketing, Hoffman said. But that will hopefully be accounted for in future budgets, which are approved by the convention center’s owner, the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority.

Sometimes the chamber and convention center will split costs on print ads, Hoffman said. Usually, the chamber helps the convention center with events that are already booked. That could mean arranging a reception, putting together welcome bags or arranging visits to local museums.

In terms of actual marketing, Hoffman said if the chamber didn’t receive any additional money for marketing, the convention center would get by just fine, but more money is good for everybody.

“It won’t hurt, but it would definitely help,” Hoffman said. “We don’t have a huge budget, but we try to work within our means. Any additional assistance would be great.”

The convention center has its own marketing person, but Gonzales and Slyhoff say it is not enough to draw in the types of events the chamber is wanting to sell. The chamber’s proposal included the possibility of adding a “city-wide sales person” if the city returned to giving the chamber the full 2 percent of the lodging tax.

“We need a person to be out travelling and selling Pueblo in other states,” Gonzales said. “And this person would not only be talking about the convention center but opportunities with parks and rec, the university, state fair and how we can sell a city-wide event.”

The fair works closely with the chamber, said Colorado State Fair General Manager Chris Wiseman. So, any more money the chamber could get would be good for the fairgrounds, especially because “there isn’t really any year-round marketing right now,” Wiseman said in a recent interview.

Technically, the city gives money to the fairgrounds for year-round marketing, but Wiseman said that is spent on incentives for events already taking place at the fairgrounds.

This includes, for instance, sponsorship of the Rocky Mountain Street Rod Nationals, which takes place each June. Wiseman said he might throw in a barbeque to “sweeten the deal” with a group using the fairgrounds as another example of what the money is used for.

Instead of looking for new events to occupy the fairgrounds, Wiseman is tied up keeping the current events coming back each year.

The Colorado State Fair – the event – isn’t included in marketing woes. Wiseman said he easily spends just under half a million dollars on direct marketing for the 11-day event, but that’s all budgeted. It’s the rest of the year that spells out trouble for the fairgrounds.

An audit earlier this summer pointed out the state fair is losing money. That prompted media outlets up and down the Front Range to write headlines that suggested the Colorado State Fair could leave Pueblo for Denver. A Denver Post editorial supported the idea.

“Year after year, auditors have told the same story. The fair is not generating enough money and the state is asked again and again to keep it afloat,” the Denver Post editorial board wrote. “A move would be sad, but it’s the only way to set the fair permanently on its feet.”

But the editorial board uses the Colorado State Fair (event) and the state fairgrounds interchangeably. A rebuttal from the Pueblo Chieftain quoted Wiseman as saying that the actual event does fine, it’s the fairgrounds that is losing money.

So, yes, while the Post’s editorial stated that the city of Pueblo has reduced financial support from $315,000 in 2006 to $125,000 in 2014, that has nothing to do with the Colorado State Fair (event). It actually has to do with marketing of other events, which doesn’t happen because there isn’t enough money to both keep current events happy and attract new ones.

“We appreciate all that we’ve gotten from the city and county in recent years,” Wiseman said. “We’ll have some meetings coming up (with the city) that spell out some of the fair’s needs.”

City Council President Steve Nawrocki said he wasn’t aware the state fairgrounds wasn’t using the money for marketing but rather for incentives.

Nawrocki added that the convention center expansion and talk of moving the state fair creates urgency in allocating more money to marketing, but Nawrocki said he is in favor of rebranding the city over other options.

“We’ve already started that process,” Nawrocki said. The hospitals have done some marketing work to try to lure more healthcare professionals into the city, but they are early in their effort, working largely on their own and focusing on jobs, not tourism.

Part of the rebranding plan Nawrocki said he would like the city to pursue would involve hiring a consulting group, which would cost around $100,000.

Previously, Nawrocki has said the city could benefit from have a couple of billboards that direct travelers on I-25 to stop off downtown for lunch and shopping.

The problem with that, Slyhoff said, is that the money isn’t really there and the chamber is really looking to direct their marketing to overnight visitors. If the chamber can sell hotel rooms there is more lodging tax, which would ideally go right back into marketing.

“It’s all about having a uniform approach,” Nawrocki said of any plan the city goes forward with for marketing and tourism.

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Navajo Nation marks 150th anniversary of return to homeland



A long-lost original copy of a historic treaty signed in 1868 by leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes and the U.S. government will go on display later this year as the Navajo Nation commemorates a dark, but significant chapter of history.

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez and other tribal officials gathered Tuesday in Albuquerque to detail some of the events that will mark the signing of the treaty 150 years ago.

That treaty is what cleared the way for tribal members to return to their homeland in the heart of the American Southwest after being rounded up years earlier by the U.S. cavalry and forced to make an arduous and deadly trek hundreds of miles to a camp in eastern New Mexico.

Nez recounted the hardships of what came to be known as the Long Walk, saying many Navajos died along the route to Bosque Redondo. He also talked about those who stayed behind and hid in canyons and on mesa tops, often foregoing the warmth of a fire to avoid capture.

“We want our younger generation to know about our history,” Nez told a room packed with tribal officials and reporters.

He also talked about problems facing tribal communities, from suicide to alcoholism, drug addiction and violence. He said he wants to tap into the resilience of those Navajo ancestors who endured the hardships of the 1800s.

“What this will do is inspire, encourage our people out there that they can’t give up, to jump back up, dust themselves off and to fight even harder than ever before for what they believe in,” Nez said.

Navajo President Russell Begaye has said this year’s commemoration is also about telling the story of the Long Walk, the signing of the treaty and the return home from the perspective of Native Americans. He and other tribal officials say one goal is to address what they called a “legacy of misrepresentation” that has stemmed from that era.

Before research and planning began for this year’s events, there were only two known copies of the historic treaty. The whereabouts of one is now a mystery and the other has been kept by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The third copy turned up only recently when the relatives of a peace commissioner who was involved in the negotiation and signing of the treaty in 1868 found the document in a trunk in the family attic.

It was rolled up and bound with the original but faded ribbon. It was in pristine condition along with notes and other documents that historians hope might fill in some of the blanks from that time.

Pages of that copy will be on display starting in June at the Bosque Redondo Memorial near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The National Archives is partnering with the Navajo Nation to display the other original copy at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, for the month of June.

It took more than two years of planning to make the exhibition possible as this marks only the second time an original treaty has gone back to a homeland.

Museum director Manny Wheeler said the treaty is more than just a document to the Navajo people.

“When I saw the document and I saw the marks of all of our leaders on that paper, it is a powerful thing and it is very much so opening up dialogue among all Navajos about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler suggested that as much as the document was key to the Navajos’ past, it also has the power to change the future by awaking tribal members to the importance of preserving their culture and language.

The leaders of the Navajo Nation’s three branches of government signed a proclamation earlier this year declaring 2018 as the year of the treaty, and the tribe launched a website .

The commemoration also includes a day of prayer across the Navajo Nation, cultural nights, tours of the tribal council chambers and a run that will span more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Fort Sumner to the Navajo capital.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico



ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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‘For fun’ killing reveals vulnerability for homeless Native Americans in New Mexico



The morning a homeless man was shot and killed in Albuquerque, police say surveillance videos showed him running down a street before sunrise, and then gunfire flash in the dark.

Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, had been shot a dozen times, including once in the forehead and temple, and four times in the back, according to a criminal complaint. Police say the two teenage suspects charged with murder this week apparently shot him “for fun” as they came and went from a hotel party nearby.

The homicide marked the latest in a series of brazen killings and assaults of homeless Native Americans in the city. In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.

“Just being harassed is part of everyday life, but it’s not as much harassment as it is overgrown bullying,” said Gordon Yawakia, who works at the Albuquerque Indian Center and was once homeless himself. “What do you do when people are against you and then the authorities are against you and you’ve got nobody, you know?”

In 2014, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, both Navajo, were beaten to death as they slept in a vacant lot. While authorities did not say the men were targeted because they were Native American, activists disagreed and the deaths spurred the creation of a city task force to address Native American homelessness that now-former Mayor Richard Berry said could set the stage for changes for the population across the Southwest.

Now, Ross’ death is underscoring how difficult it may be to protect and find solutions for the city’s Native American homeless population.

“When I hear a story like this it adds fuel to the fire,” said Dawn Begay, who is the city’s tribal liaison, and works with the homeless through a local nonprofit. “Where we’re headed is a good direction but it has to happen faster.”

Ross’ killing in March came three months after the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in an area not far from the Sandia Mountains that line the city’s east side. The 39-year-old had come from To’hajiilee, a tiny Navajo community west of Albuquerque, and records show she had multiple addresses during her time in the city, including at the Albuquerque Indian Center.

Willis’ especially grisly death sent shockwaves through Albuquerque, just as the beatings of Thompson and Gorman had three years earlier.

The two men had been killed on a July 2014 night when authorities say three boys — ages 15, 16 and 18_returned home from a night of drinking and decided to attack them as they slept on a mattress. The men were beaten with a wooden table leg, cinder blocks, and other objects, police said. One young suspect later told authorities that the teens had beaten dozens of homeless people, though apparently none others fatally.

In Ross’ death, the complaint filed against the 15- and 17-year-old suspects does not identify a motive, but says the two teenagers bragged to friends about the shooting.

According to police, friends and acquaintances of the boys — whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages — said the suspects had been showing off a gun at the party, and had said to others that they had shot a man. At one point, the younger boy also said to a close friend at the party that he shot a “hobo” in the back.

The boys made one more stop at the scene to find Ross still alive, prompting the older boy to shoot him multiple times, according to the complaint.

“It’s completely disturbing,” said Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They just shot this guy for fun.”

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