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Adrian Perez (left) and AJ DeForest of Pfeifer Studio visit with Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres during a Sandoval Economic Alliance event announcing new jobs in the county.

Small businesses expand employment

~Signpost Staff

While New Mexico business recruiters fish for big jobs creators, Sandoval County has landed a lot of little ones.

During an October event by the Sandoval Economic Alliance (SEA), ten companies revealed hiring plans for at least 140 jobs, ranging from video production and high-performance lighting to manufacturing and freedom from substance abuse.

“When you’re a small business, adding that one employee can be an agonizing decision,” Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull told the crowd assembled October 3 at El Zócalo Plaza in Bernalillo. “It takes a lot of commitment for these small companies to grow.”

For AJ DeForest of Pfeifer Studio, which makes high-end home furnishings in Bernalillo, said the problem wasn’t moving ahead but holding back. “We’re very conservative businesspeople,” DeForest told the Signpost. “We try not to get ahead of ourselves.”

The company hired a business consultant, is moving into larger space, and is adding one full-time and two part-time employees to its staff. The company designs its products and retails online with manufacturing done both locally and in India using traditional Southwest techniques and materials. “We were at a point where we just didn’t have a choice,” DeForest said.

At the other end of the scale, MCT Industries is adding fifty jobs to the Bernalillo plant where it makes mobile and mechanical systems, some under military contracts.

“It’s important for our economy to be diverse,” said SEA Chair Tom Novak of Klinger Construction. The private, nonprofit SEA began operating in 2014 and is something of a successor to the Rio Rancho Economic Development Corp. It’s mission, however, extends beyond Rio Rancho to economic development throughout Sandoval County.

“The town of Bernalillo believes in regionalism and partnerships,” Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres said. “Success for any of us is a success for all.”

“It’s all about connections, about relationships, and helping each other out,” added Charlotte Garcia of Jemez Community Development Corporation at Jemez Pueblo.

The other businesses with hiring plans, giving credit to assistance from the SEA were:

Rio Rancho:

  • Insight Lighting, high-performance architectural lighting—three jobs
  • Gonstead Physical Medicine, customized spinal care and physical therapy—thirty jobs
  • Edit House Productions, video production company—two jobs
  • MLS-ECS, specialty electrical contractor installing green infrastructure—twenty jobs
  • McDermott Athletic Center, The MAC, 60,000-square-foot indoor sports facility with ice rink and hockey—12 full-time and four part-time jobs

Corrales:

  • Ideum, developer of multi-touch and multi-user exhibits—seven jobs
  • Jemez Pueblo: Walatowa Lumber, sawmill using timber harvested during forest-restoration projects—ten jobs

Peña Blanca:

  • Interfaith Leap, promoting family self-sufficiency including healthy lifestyles and freedom from substance abuse—six full-time and six part-time jobs

Cannabis buds branded as “Purple Fat Pie” are almost ready to harvest at Ultra Health in Bernalillo.

The Ultra Health greenhouse in Bernalillo holds cannabis plants in various stages of growth.

This cannabis plant at Ultra Health is heavy with buds known as Skywalker.
Photo credits: —Bill Diven

Bernalillo grower taps into expanding marijuana market

~Bill Diven

Not only have public attitudes about marijuana changed, so has the name of choice. “We always call it cannabis,” Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ultra Health Inc., said in an interview with the Signpost. “Let me be clear. We actually produce medical-grade cannabis.”

Rodriguez is hardly putting a happy spin on the language used around the Ultra Health greenhouse in Bernalillo. Cannabis is the proper name for the plant genus colloquially called reefer, weed, pot, and hemp among other slang names.

Arizona-based Ultra Health expects to produce about 1,500 pounds of cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and hybrids in Bernalillo this year. The expansive greenhouse near Camino Don Tomas and U.S. Highway 550 is a former wholesale nursery left vacant when the housing crash drained its national market.

“We looked at it long and hard,” Rodriguez said. “We felt that that was probably the top facility available in the state for converting into a pretty advanced state-of-the-art cannabis facility.”

Were social-use cannabis legal as it is next door in Colorado, the site could produce up to 23,000 pounds a year, he added.

Among Colorado’s four hundred marijuana retailers, prices have been dropping with recent data submitted by customers showing non-medical prices ranging from one hundred to two hundred dollars an ounce, according to PriceOfWeed.com. Prices tend to rise closer to neighboring states even though state law expects out-of-state visitors to consume their purchases before leaving.

Medical and recreational sales are forecasted to top one billion dollars in Colorado this year with state taxes collected through July reported at $105 million.

Ultra Health is currently building lab space in a joint venture with Panaxia Ltd., an Israeli pharmaceutical company specializing in research and development of medical cannabis products. In announcing the deal in March, Ultra Health cited smokeless medical products as making up one-third of the estimated $6.7 billion market for medical cannabis.

Rodriguez is no stranger to the area, having been chief operating officer of Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque about 25 years ago. Gov. Gary Johnson later appointed the New Mexico State University graduate to be his Human Services Division cabinet secretary.

He formed Ultra Health in 2013 in Arizona and remained its owner after a legal dispute with investors left them in control of other marijuana-related businesses there. In September of 2015, the Bernalillo Town Council granted special-use zoning for the property owned by Stormwind Group LLC, another Rodriguez company.

For now, quotas set by New Mexico Department of Health regulations limit licensed nonprofit growers to 450 plants. Initially twenty producers received licenses under the state Medical Cannabis Program, although 15 more growers approved in late 2015 are beginning to come online.

The quotas and a doubling of card-carrying marijuana patients to 31,000 over the last year have left NMDOH embroiled in two controversies. Production can’t keep up with demand, and delays in renewing patient licenses are leaving them in legal limbo.

With demand this year forecast at 33,500 pounds and commercial and personal cultivation estimated at 13,900 pounds, that leaves a shortfall of nearly 22,000 pounds, according to economist Kelly O’Donnell, Ph.D. Legal consumers either do without medication or buy from illegal sources, O’Donnell Economics and Strategy wrote in a study commissioned by Ultra Health released in September.

“One of the underlying findings is that regulation, how it’s regulated and is going to be regulated, is already very significant in how the market functions,” O’Donnell, a top taxation, regulation and economic-development official during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, told the Signpost. “If not done right, it can have unintended negative consequences.”

The shortage of legal cannabis prompted a lawsuit filed in August by the mother of an infant suffering from life-threatening seizures treated with an oil derived from cannabis. Ultra Health’s nonprofit production and distribution arm, New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health Inc., joined the suit amid claims production limits are arbitrary, not supported by the underlying 2007 law, stifle medical innovation, and may affect patient health.

O’Donnell’s study didn’t focus on medical cannabis, however. Instead she looked into the economic effects of opening the cannabis market to any adult user, likely those 21 and older.

Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia already have done that, and legalization questions are on the November 8 ballot in five states with current medical programs: Arizona, Nevada, California, Massachusetts, and Maine. Voters in Florida, Arkansas, and North Dakota are being asked to allow medical marijuana.

O’Donnell estimated the New Mexico social-use cannabis market would grow to $415.5 million its first year—three times the value of the state’s pecan crop—and $677.7 million after five years. The report forecasts an initial 6,600 direct jobs plus nearly 4,800 more in businesses outfitting and supporting the industry.

The study also forecasts legal competition reducing prices and driving most illegal sources out of the market.

“It’s no longer a question of if this will happen in New Mexico. There’s no question it will happen,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’re down to when will it happen.”

But that involves the Legislature where repeated efforts at legalization have failed in the face of tough-on-crime politics and conflict with federal law. There also are concerns about children having easier access to the drug, sending the wrong message to young people, potential social costs, and larding the New Mexico Constitution with issues best left to legislation.

At the partisan level are worries by Republicans who suspect a marijuana ballot question would bring out large numbers of younger voters who tend to vote Democrat.

State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, has toured the Bernalillo greenhouse and tried during the recent special legislative session to remove the 450-plant limit on medical cannabis growers. When the Legislature convenes for its sixty-day session in January, Ortiz y Pino said he’ll again try to amend the state Constitution to make personal possession and use of marijuana legal.

“When I first started introducing this constitutional amendment four years ago now, we would have been the second state in the country,” he said. “Now if it happened this year by some miracle, by the time we voted on it, we’ll be the twentieth state in the country. The 25th state, I hope, not the 50th.”

A proposed amendment would go straight to voters bypassing a potential, if not likely, veto by Gov. Susana Martinez, a former district attorney. Unlike some other states, New Mexico doesn’t allow statewide ballot questions initiated by voters.

“This is our only way of getting the public voice on the matter,” Ortiz y Pino added.

Martinez already has vetoed a bill passed earlier this year allowing research into producing industrial hemp, a cannabis cousin and potential agricultural product containing little of marijuana’s active ingredient. Congress, in 2014, authorized such pilot projects, and at least thirty states have approved them in some form since then, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, a newly released national Gallup poll shows sixty percent of respondents support legalizing marijuana continuing a 47-year trend of softening opposition. The number mirrors the New Mexico result of 61 percent support—found in polls commissioned by Ultra Health and the Albuquerque Journal conducted by Research and Polling Inc.

Rodriguez sees in those numbers recognition of injustices the marijuana prohibition has created since it was imposed in the 1930s.

“Not only have people finally dealt with the science of this issue and the economics of this issue, now we’re starting to understand the social implications of what wrongs we have passed down to a large segment of our population through incarceration and stigmatizing them falsely,” he said. “I don’t think we’re quick to admit how many people we’ve harmed because I think the embarrassment is too great to recognize.”


Election draws early voters in large numbers

~Signpost Staff

With the contentious presidential campaign nearing its end, a lot of Sandoval County residents voted as soon as they could and moved on. Two days before early voting expanded countywide on October 22, the county Bureau of Elections reported 2,879 people had trekked to the county administration building and cast their ballots.

“That’s pretty high,” Bureau of Elections Director Bernice Chavez said. “It’s been pretty busy, which is nice.”

When early voting began at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church that Saturday, voters lined up before the 10:00 a.m. opening. One of them, Mark Forshee, said he really isn’t a fan of early voting since a lot can happen before Election Day. “There’s too much at stake in an election,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to be coming up.”

But that’s not an issue this year. “I’ve made up my mind,” he said, adding, “There hasn’t been any indecision on my part since Nixon.”

The Secretary of State’s Office reported heavy, early, in-person and mail voting around the state. It’s not clear if that points to a record turnout overall, however, since New Mexicans increasingly don’t wait for Election Day to vote.

While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump occupied the national stage, two down-ballot races affecting Placitas fanned political fervor with real and robo calls and large color postcards and fliers. Acrimony evident in the District 9 state Senate contest came as no surprise as Republicans made it clear early on they were gunning for Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales.

Mailings from Republican Diego Espinoza of Rio Rancho touted his business experience, support for the death penalty, and willingness to fight corruption. But he also used a photo of clinking champagne glasses to question Sapien’s campaign spending.

Sapien, in turn, cited his advocacy for education and educators and opposition to what he called corporate welfare through tax breaks. He also attacked Espinoza for his ties to Gov. Susana Martinez’s political consultant Jay McCleskey who was involved in an FBI investigation of political fundraising that ended without any criminal charges.

The House District 22 race maintained a higher road as a mailing by incumbent Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, listed his priorities and experience without mentioning his opponent, Democrat John Wallace of Placitas. The men also faced off in the 2014 election with Wallace nearly carrying the Sandoval County portion of the district while losing heavily in Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties.

Smith, a retired educator, voiced support for better schools, economic development, and public safety. Wallace, a teacher currently working for the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers, also supports education but added a call for investment in renewable energy and infrastructure investment.

Wallace challenged Smith by name criticizing Smith’s votes for corporate tax breaks and deficit-related budget cuts to education, infrastructure, and health care.

Early voting continues from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through November 5. Polls on Election Day, November 8, are open 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with anyone in line at 7:00 p.m. still allowed to vote.

Information on polling locations and the 26 voting convenience centers, where people can vote even if outside their home precinct, can be found on the county website SandovalCounty.com—click on Voter Information and follow links from there.

Convenience centers are located in Placitas at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church and Placitas Community Library and in Bernalillo at Carroll Elementary and Bernalillo Middle schools, the Alegria Club House, and the county administration building.

There are two sites in Corrales, one in Cuba, and the remainder in Rio Rancho..

 
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