13 Investigates: The million dollar slab

A two-month KRQE News 13 Investigation

concrete slab
13 Investigates: The million dollar slab

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The Chairman of the State’s Legislative Finance Committee calls it, “a real abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Director doesn’t “think that anyone screwed up.”

And a former State Senator says it’s “sad because this didn’t have to happen.”

What’s going on? It’s an ill-conceived government project so obscure few people have ever seen it. It’s hidden away in Sandoval County. Don’t look for signs, there aren’t any. To get there you have to cross the Corrales drainage ditch then follow a dirt trail about an 8th of a mile.

On a rural spot in Corrales is supposed to be a brand new 6000 square-foot museum visitor center. Instead, all you’ll find is an abandoned construction site. If you want to see firsthand how the city of Albuquerque took in a million dollars and then squandered it away, then drop in on the weed choked concrete slab.

“What has happened with the slab reflects that it was not responsible,” said Senator John Arthur Smith.

At center stage of this controversy is Casa San Ysidro, an 18th century adobe hacienda in the village of Corrales. In the 90s the property was donated to the city of Albuquerque to be operated as a city museum. However, Albuquerque’s acquisition of the historic site presented a series of challenges. First, it’s an Albuquerque museum that isn’t in Albuquerque. Second, because it’s was built hundreds of years ago, Casa San Ysidro is not ADA compliant. Third, there’s no central heating or cooling. The solution was to build a visitor center behind the historic structure.

The Martin Chavez administration lobbied the state legislature to fund the project.

“When we looked at the Casa San Ysidro Museum the question was how to get more people there and how to make it a more meaningful experience. A Visitor Center just made sense,” says one of the legislative sponsors, former State Senator Steve Komadina.

Beginning in 2004, state legislators approved more than $1.2 million for Albuquerque’s new museum annex. The city hired an architect to plan and design the project. In 2009 city construction crews broke ground.

But shortly after pouring the cement foundation, Albuquerque officials sent the work crew home, shelved the plans and pulled the plug on the whole project. That was seven years ago. Today, the only visible reminder of the $1.2 million Casa San Ysidro Visitor Center is a concrete slab. Just like that, the city’s million dollar museum project was dead.

What happened? Shortly after construction began, Mayor Martin Chavez was defeated. When Chavez left office, interest in the Corrales based visitor center left with him. Albuquerque’s current Chief Operating Officer, Michael Riordan, claims the city never really wanted that million dollars in the first place. Riordan says legislators decided on their own to hand the city a gift of a million dollars.

“We never requested funds to build this building,” Michael Riordan says. He claims at no time did the city ask the state legislature for money for the Visitor Center.

Former Senator Komadina remembers it differently.

“I distinctly remember it was the Director of the museum plus members of her board. They actually came to us in the legislature … and asked us for money,” Komadina said.

By 2006 the legislature had appropriated more than $1.2 million for the Casa San Ysidro project. With that pot of money, the city spent about $400,000 on architectural plans, labor and materials. So what did Albuquerque do with the rest of the legislative money? Well nothing. Rather than spend the remaining $800,000 and begin construction Albuquerque stockpiled the state’s funding.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2009 that the city finally got around to laying the concrete foundation using Bio Park maintenance workers. By then the state’s economy had tanked. Because the city had not hired a contractor for the job, lawmakers took the $800,000 back.

“Because we didn’t (hire a contractor) that’s the excuse they gave for for fleecing our money away from us and not allowing us to continue construction,” Michael Riordan told KRQE News 13.

“We clawed that money back because (Albuquerque) did not provide us with proof that the project was underway,” says Legislative Finance Chair, Senator Smith.

With the loss of funding, Albuquerque officials knew they didn’t have enough money to complete the building. Nevertheless, they began construction anyway. They only got as far as the concrete pad.

“They proceeded ahead with the project knowing full well that the revenues were not there to support the completion of that project,” Senator Smith said.

According to Dana Feldman, the newly appointed Director of Albuquerque’s Cultural Services, “There has been no progress made on the concrete slab in the last six years. When the funding was reverted the momentum for the project also diminished.”

In fact, there hasn’t been any momentum or interest in the project ever since Mayor Chavez left office.

Albuquerque’s Michael Riordan says because of other critical priorities, the Berry administration has no plans to complete the museum Visitor Center using city taxpayer dollars.

“We had every intention of pouring that slab and then starting the construction on the visitor center, Dana Feldman said.

“I can understand what it is to come to that site and see that slab year after year. I can understand that it’s frustrating. I can understand that people have questions. Why is it just a slab? I can understand that,” Feldman added.

“It was not the state that came in and poured the concrete. It was the city of Albuquerque,” Senator Smith said.

The Senator added, “that’s where the responsibility has to fall. There’s no excuse for wasting the slab dollars by not completing the project.”

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