Up, up and away: Albuquerque’s million dollar balloon blunder

A KRQE News 13 investigation

Up, up and away: Albuquerque's million dollar balloon blunder

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It was a $1,000,000 blunder.

“We’ve seen planes and trains and automobiles related to government waste. But now an amusement ride? That’s a whole new low,” said Albuquerque’s Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.

“Even if this had been a good idea it’s the wrong thing to be spending taxpayer dollars on,” said Think New Mexico’s Fred Nathan.

Think of it as a bit of Disneyland on the Rio Grande: An adventure attraction at Albuquerque’s Balloon Museum. The idea was to draw visitors from all over the world.

It’s called a 4-D (as in 4th dimension) experience where a fast paced movie is projected on a special screen in a custom built theater. Visitors feel the action through special effects like rain, strobe lights, wind and vibrating chairs.

“The hope was that it would add another exciting attraction or element to the museum,” founding Balloon Museum Board member Michael Anderson said. “We wanted it to be an overall educational experience that people really enjoy.”

So the Balloon Museum plopped down $1,000,000 to purchase New Mexico’s first 4-D theater experience. Truckloads of sophisticated equipment was shipped here and museum officials hoped to have the theater installed in time for the 2006 Balloon Fiesta. But 10 Fiestas later, the expensive apparatus still sits in a warehouse. Albuquerque’s million dollar investment in a Disneyland-like attraction was a bust. As blunders go, this one was a whopper.

“I was so disappointed and really flabbergasted that this significant expenditure was so ill-conceived and thoughtlessly analyzed that we ended up basically buying a white elephant 10 years ago,” Rob Perry said.

The genesis of this project goes all the way back to 2006 when Michael Anderson, who chaired the Balloon Museum board at the time, personally lobbied then Governor Bill Richardson for funding.

“He was very willing to allocate a significant amount of money for the museum, for the theater,” Anderson said.

Without any hearings, debate or public notice, Governor Richardson reached into a pot of capital outlay money and single-handedly doled out a million dollars for the specialized Balloon Museum theater.

In the Fall of 2006, a purchase agreement was signed with SimEx, a Canadian firm. In 2008, the 40 seat 4-D theater equipment was delivered to Albuquerque. Included in the shipment were vibrating seats with seat belts, a computer controlled surround sound audio system, projectors, electrical lift platform, power control cabinets, a large format 3-D projection screen, snow machines, wind machines and leg ticklers.

The Balloon Museum had everything it needed to install the attraction, everything except a feasibility study. It was only after the equipment was delivered that museum officials learned the massive apparatus wouldn’t fit in the building.

The concrete floor would have to be ripped out. Underground utilities needed to be relocated. And, the projection screen was too big for the building. Installation of the equipment would cost millions, which the tiny Balloon Museum could not afford. So, truckloads of brand new theater equipment was relegated to storage where it’s been sitting for 8 years.

Michael Anderson calls what happened, “one of those unfortunate comedy of errors unfortunately.”

One of the key players involved in the planning the 4-D theater was architect Marc Schiff. Schiff’s architectural firm was paid $65,000 to design the installation of the theater.

“The architect was the one that was supposed to make it work. I would say the architect was the one that really possibly dropped the ball,” former Board Chair Michael Anderson said.

At the same time as Schiff was designing the Balloon Museum’s theater installation, he was paying bribes to public officials in the Metro Courthouse scandal. Schiff later pleaded guilty to federal charges and served time behind bars.

If you thought Balloon Museum officials carefully planned the theater purchase in advance, think again. Instead of studying the feasibility of a theater before plunking down a million dollars, Balloon Museum officials commissioned a study, three years after buying the equipment.

According to the 2009 feasibility study, the Museum’s purchase was ill-conceived. The consultants said, instead of being a draw for the museum, the 4-D theater would likely be a significant drain on Museum resources. In fact, the study’s author said a specialized theater in Albuquerque would probably be a losing proposition.

The study concluded, “Given the constraints of installing the simulator theater within the existing building, the costs associated with an addition or separate structure, and the economic analysis of operation it appears that the simulator theater is not viable as an attraction at the … Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.” Oops.

“I don’t think there’s a good way to explain this to taxpayers,” said Think New Mexico’s Executive Director Fred Nathan. “I think they would expect that there would have been a minimum of planning on the front end. And so it’s really indefensible.”

Think New Mexico has been a proponent for Capital Outlay reform. Nathan says the State Legislature needs to change the way it funds public projects like Albuquerque’s 4-D theater.

“You have to keep in mind that this is money that’s supposed to be used for public infrastructure things like roads and water systems,” Nathan said. “Our elected leaders in Santa Fe need to pass a law so that we’re funding worthy projects and not projects like this that should never have been funded in the first place.”

Legislative Finance Committee Chairman, Senator John Arthur Smith tells KRQE News 13, “In my district a million dollars is a lot of money. I’d dearly love to have it for my streets and my local government whether it’s Lordsburg, Deming, T or C or Las Cruces.”

“It’s sort of a sad day in government when you hear about incidents like this. It’s not just a reflection on the legislature. It’s a reflection on all elected officials,” Senator Smith said.

In an effort to salvage its $1,000,000 investment, Balloon Museum officials have now decided to retrofit exhibit space and install portions of the equipment to create a 3-D theater. However, the decade old equipment is no longer under warranty and the Museum has yet to figure out how it will pay for movies to be shown on the big screen. Among the equipment that can’t be used in the new theater is a massive electrical lift platform.

The theater equipment was purchased during the Martin Chavez administration.

“I think if you look back in the crystal ball and the game film on this about what happened you’d probably find a lot of different people that bear responsibility for fairly thoughtless, poorly analyzed and publicly funded waste,” Rob Perry said.

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