In Southwest, a star rises over the high desert

Albuquerque has long been the kind of city people tend to blow right by - or blow off completely.

Thousands of tourists flock to its airport every year - only to trundle up to Santa Fe.

Bill Gates founded Microsoft here, but fled before his company hit the big time.

Even Bugs Bunny took a wrong turn here and ended up in the middle of a Mexican bull fight. "I knew I shoulda took that left turn at Albuquerque," he laments.

But things are changing. Increasingly, folks who come tend to like it - and stay.

Albuquerque is one of a handful of smaller Southwest cities whose growing appeal lies in a noticeable lack of smog and long commutes, a low cost of living, and easy access to the great outdoors. Indeed, signs abound that this high-desert jewel is finally finding its luster.

• Its $300 million downtown revitalization effort - the 32nd resurrection plan begun over the years - may actually succeed.

• Its long-stagnant housing prices are on the upswing - along with new worries about sprawl.

• After a decade of high-tech growth spurred by firms like Intel, it's showing up on high-tech A-lists. Along with Santa Fe, for instance, it's on Wired Magazine's list of the world's 46 hottest high-tech regions.

After years of studying Albuquerque's lackluster economy, Larry Waldman is pleasantly surprised at its relative strength: "Albuquerque is growing a lot stronger than we anticipated," says the senior economist at the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research here. "Downtown is the big thing. There's quite a bit of money down there and a lot of support for the revitalization." He adds, "the housing market has been surprisingly strong."

But the story of a rising Albuquerque is told mostly in the lives of folks who live here - especially the newcomers who largely account for a population leap of 123,000 (a 21 percent jump) in the '90s.

Take Brandi Sanders. She's a corporate executive for Gap Inc., the clothing giant that recently transferred much of its financial operation to Albuquerque.

She moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, where her family of four at one time lived in an 800-square-foot house. Now they have a 2,500-square-foot home overlooking the Sandia Mountains. It was cheap enough that they could afford to send her husband back to school.

"I sit out on my deck in the mornings and look out over the mountains and our large house and think, 'Life is good,' " Ms. Sanders exults.

Albuquerque's average single-family home sold for $130,400 in 2000. By contrast, San Francisco's price was $454,600, and Denver's was $196,800. Other small Southwest cities compare at $120,500 for Tucson, Ariz., and $154,100 for Colorado Springs, Colo.

The average one-bedroom apartment in Albuquerque, meanwhile, goes for $516 a month. But in the past year, apartment rents have gone up 7.5 percent, according to one estimate.

For Ms. Sanders, the small-town touches also count. When the family first moved in, a neighbor brought over a basket of peaches grown in his yard. Every week there's a "flamingo party" - a rotating block party where the hosts put a pink flamingo on their lawn and invite the neighborhood over.

There are troubles, too, in this river city (which straddles the Rio Grande). A recent ranking by Morgan Quitno Press named New Mexico as the most dangerous state in the nation - and Albuquerque as the 49th most dangerous city. As in most cities, though, the crime rate has fallen.

New Mexico public schools also have one of the lowest per-pupil spending rates in the nation. And economic growth is slowing. One thing may help, though: Albuquerque is home to the US government's Sandia National Labs and several military installations. They account for one-fourth of the local economy, making the city less vulnerable to business-cycle swings.

Frank Bellino, whose slicked-back gray hair frames Sinatra eyes, hopes downtown Albuquerque is on the upswing for good. The owner of Sweet Peppers, a Chicago-style deli, boasts, "I make all the food myself." As Mr. Bellino flips through photos of him hand-kneading 200 pounds of sausage, Frank Sinatra croons over the stereo and Chicago's skyline glints out from wall posters. He moved here 13 years ago, choosing it because "Texas was too Texas, and Arizona was too hot." (Albuquerque, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, seldom has more than 10 days a year over 100 degrees.)

Bellino has seen many downtown-rehab efforts, but this time, he says, signs look good. He likes the new street lights and refurbished curbs. A gallery is opening in the empty space next door. There's the hot new sushi restaurant, Raw, and a 14-theater cinema that's part of a one-square-block construction project. "We're waiting to see if it all comes together," he says. "The traffic is great, the weather is great, but we'd just like to make a little more money."

For Nancy Morgan, Albuquerque is all about the outdoors. "I'd never done anything active," says the University of New Mexico researcher. Then she moved to this Mecca for runners (who like the altitude and weather) and skiers (who make good use of 10,378-foot Sandia Peak).

Ms. Morgan figured she could walk a 5-kilometer race. Next came a 10K walk, then a half-marathon that finished downtown. She knew she was hooked on walking - and on Albuquerque - when she came around the final corner and realized she was dead last. But a crowd was still there, cheering her on. The Roadrunners club encouraged her to join - even though she's a walker. "I'm just surprised," she says, "how supportive people are here."

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