(This article was originally published on May 2, 2014)
“This particular project,” said Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry, “is probably a showpiece of government waste.”
State Sen. Pete Campos adds: “This is one of those issues that is unconscionable.”
Campos’ colleague in the Senate, Cisco McSorley, sums it up this way: “Absolutely this is wasted taxpayer money … Theres no explanation for this.”
Two years ago, a KRQE News 13 investigation revealed the secret behind a worn out, ramshackle building. But don’t think of it as just some seedy warehouse. Think of it instead as a half million dollars squandered by the government.
“The taxpayers deserve an apology,” McSorley said.
What’s this all about? Flamenco.
When the the non-profit Flamenco Institute needed a new dance studio, it petitioned the legislature for money. In 2006, lawmakers responded by generously dedicating a half million tax dollars to the cause.
Though the performance space Flamenco wanted wasn’t exactly new, the dance institute thought, once fixed up, that an abandoned, run-down tire and battery warehouse in Downtown Albuquerque would be a perfect place to showcase the Spanish dance form.
Lawmakers can’t use public money to buy buildings for private organizations, like the Flamenco Institute. So legislators appropriated the half million and then handed the cash to the city of Albuquerque. The plan was for the city to buy the empty warehouse and then lease it to the Flamenco folks for $10 a year. In exchange, Flamenco promised free classes for low-income youth, dance demonstrations in Old Town, as well as collaborative programs at APS and UNM.
However well intentioned it sounded as a community arts project, the Flamenco deal was a boondoggle, a classic textbook case: how to waste a half million dollars.
It was only after the city bought the seedy warehouse that anyone bothered looking inside.
No one noticed the decaying walls, the rotting wood floors, the leaky roof, the fire and water damage, the badly cracked concrete walls, or the dangerously precarious support beams. City inspectors found the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to be totally inadequate. The entire warehouse was deemed uninhabitable. Because lawmakers only appropriated enough money to buy the building, there wasn’t anything left to fix it.
Because the Flamenco Institute didn’t want to move in to a dilapidated warehouse, the nonprofit simply backed out of the deal, telling the city thanks but no thanks. Just like that, the Spanish dance troupe moved its flashy costumes and spirited music elsewhere, sticking the city of Albuquerque with a useless, half-million-dollar, derelict warehouse.
Due to its total disrepair and lack of any redeeming qualities, the Flamenco dance studio that never was, was demolished last month. News 13’s cameras were there.
As the walls come crumbling down, the final chapter on the legislatures’ $500,000 boondoggle is written in the dust and the rubble.
“This property when it was originally purposed was in substandard condemned condition,” said Perry, the city CAO. “It just became worse and worse, which obviously required the demolition and razing of the property … We have to remove this type of blight and danger from the public community, which we will do. We’ll complete the demolition, we’ll surplus the property and sell it on the open market, returning any of those funds to the state of New Mexico.”
The names of individual lawmakers who sponsored the Flamenco project is a legislative secret.
However, News 13 has learned nine lawmakers and former Gov. Bill Richardson used tax dollars to fund the Flamenco deal. Today, of the five legislators still in office, only McSorley voluntarily came forward to talk about the dead dance deal.
“Somebody along the line didn’t do their due diligence in determining that the property and the money they were spending fit the reason for spending the money in the first place,” he said. “When you appropriate money you expect people not to go out and buy a building that is on the verge of being condemned.”
Senator Campos was not a sponsor of the Flamenco project. However, he has been a long-time advocate for change in how the Legislature spends tax dollars.
“It should not have been funded, and as a result what we have are a half a million dollars that were taxpayer resources that were not used in a proper fashion,” Campos said. “Change needs to happen, and this project is a prime example why that change needs to happen and it needs to happen soon.”
News 13 asked McSorley whether the taxpayers deserve an apology. His reply: “I think theres enough blame to go around to everybody, and I want to make sure that people understand I’m as guilty as anybody. I think the whole system owes taxpayers an apology.”
Campos added: “It’s disheartening. It’s hurtful. Those are resources that could have gone into a child center. They are resources that could have gone into a senior citizens’ center. They are resources that could have gone into a clinic that would provide good healthcare.”
Perry’s assessment: “I think the lesson is to carefully select projects that provide public critical infrastructure needs truly, to fully vet those projects and then ultimately to fully fund them so that we don’t have a pile of rubble and a half million dollars wasted at the end of the day.”
It cost the city of Albuquerque $55,000 to tear the building down and haul debris away. Today, it’s all gone. A single faded sign and an empty lot are all that remain as a costly reminder of New Mexico’s monument to waste.