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Governors’ conference puts Santa Fe in global spotlight

July 15, 2018

The National Governors Association’s summer conference is not quite Indian Market, but it will be busy.

Plus, the convention could become the season’s main event if President Donald Trump goes against the grain and decides to attend.

The conference, which begins Thursday in Santa Fe, will transform a part of downtown into a national political circus the likes of which rarely rolls through the city.

It’s a high-profile event, but not one that should infringe on residents too much, said organizers and backers, who claim it will make a sizable economic impact on businesses and further elevate the global visibility of a city already considered a prime tourism destination.

More than 20 of the nation’s governors will take part in the three-day conference, which is both a Southwest-themed vacation and series of sober panels and talks — “leadership luncheons” and racial equity discussions by day, private burning of Zozobra-like effigies and Western-themed entertainment at Bonanza Creek Ranch by cool summer night.

“We all want our nation’s leaders working together to find creative solutions — and there is no place on Earth that stimulates creative, transformative thinking like Santa Fe,” said state Tourism Secretary Rebecca Latham. “So it’s important that we as a community celebrate having this group here. We have the ability to have an impact on the future of our country by being the venue for this historic event.”

The turnout of governors is expected to be a bit lower than in other years, a development some attributed to the fact that 2018 is a busy election year. Three dozen gubernatorial elections are taking place nationwide, and other important state primaries are on the ballot.

A few downtown streets surrounding the Santa Fe Community Convention Center will be closed off beginning Thursday night, and there will be more than a few official vehicles humming through the city center and a police escort here and there, as well.

It remains uncertain whether Trump or Vice President Mike Pence will appear. Asked over the phone early last week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, did not answer and told a reporter to email questions instead. Three emails were not returned.

Trump would seem unlikely to make an appearance in a deep-blue enclave like Santa Fe, though he is famously impulsive. Pence, however, has maintained friendly relations with Gov. Susana Martinez, a fellow Republican, and sometimes travels in the president’s place.

A spokesman for Martinez deferred a question about her knowledge of White House travel plans to an NGA spokeswoman, who said the NGA did not expect the president, vice president or senior Cabinet officials would attend. “But I can never say never,” said Tiffany Shackelford of the NGA.

Trump or no Trump, the event could put Santa Fe on the bleeding edge of national politics. Last summer, the conference in Providence, R.I., became a sort of referendum on congressional Republicans’ bid to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Pence spoke and urged the governors to help the effort to roll back the health law. But the governors, even some Republicans, came out sharply against the proposed repeal bill, which ultimately failed. The vice president also met there with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who delivered a keynote address.

With the controversy brewing over the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrant children and families at the southern border, it is possible federal immigration tactics will take center stage at a national political event in the capital city of a border state.

Whether the annual NGA summer conferences become consumed by the issue of the day depends largely on the states’ ability to affect change, Shackelford said.

The 2018 conference agenda does not have any immigration-specific items.

“This year, what you’re seeing on the schedule, we’re looking at the future of work, economic opportunity, how that affects education, infrastructure funding, supply-side logistics,” she said.

At least one group was already planning a rally, but not about the hair-trigger immigration issue.

Activists and students from New Mexico and a few other states will call on governors to fund electric school buses. They will rally Thursday at the Capitol, according to the advocacy group Conservation Voters New Mexico.

The potential for a high-profile visit is a double-edged sword, said Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe.

“If a senior official from the White House were to come, the event will clearly get more notoriety,” he said. “Then again, it adds gridlock to our normal behavior here in Santa Fe.”

Otherwise, traffic shouldn’t be too bad, Randall and others said.

The city will close all the streets directly adjacent to the Community Convention Center on Thursday evening through 5 p.m. Saturday. Sheridan Avenue, the site of the city’s downtown bus transit center, also will close. Bus stops will be temporarily relocated to Alameda and Sandoval streets, said city spokesman Matt Ross.

The city parking garage beneath the convention center will be closed to the public as well.

Perhaps as many as 700 people will be in and out of the convention center for the daily events, Randall said — a far cry from the crowds in excess of 100,000 across two days that descend on the city for the annual Indian Market in August.

“The meetings are so self-contained,” said Ed Pulsifer, director of sales at La Fonda on the Plaza, who co-chaired the conference’s volunteer committee. “You won’t see any impact on locals from a security standpoint.”

Normally, about 25 governors attend, Shackelford said, but home-state priorities this year could keep some governors away.

“After that conference, we’re two weeks away from our primary. It’s a likely ‘no,’ ” a spokeswoman for Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer said when asked about his attendance.

Thirty-six gubernatorial elections are scheduled across the U.S. this year, including New Mexico’s.

Although these politicians are household names in their home states, the governors en route to Santa Fe are not necessarily established, high-wattage political stars. There is no Chris Christie, for instance, the once-popular New Jersey lightning rod whose second term concluded earlier this year.

Some of the attendees, however, could soon emerge onto the national stage. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, a Democrat who has won two terms in a generally red state, is frequently mentioned as a prospective candidate for president. He will attend.

Rumors about a presidential run have swirled around Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado for years. Most recently, there has been buzz that Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could team with Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio on an independent or so-called unity ticket in 2020.

Hickenlooper will attend the convention. Kasich’s office did not return messages seeking comment.

Foreign leaders and notable business executives also are expected to attend the convention.

That roster includes more than 20 governors from Kenya and perhaps a few from Mexico.

Also attending will be the general secretary of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party, the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the United States, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security adviser.

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber has said he hopes the city will “make a lot of friends” with governors and other attendees.

But, Webber added, “It’s really going to be largely Governor Martinez’s show. The role of the city is more or less to try to support the public safety element and make sure we’re delivering the services they want.”

Asked about her expectations for the conference, a spokesman for Martinez issued a brief statement, saying the meeting “is expected to garner global publicity while bringing millions of dollars in economic impact to New Mexico.”

The actual dollar amount of direct economic impact is difficult to project. Randall estimated $1 million to $1.2 million in local spending. Pulsifer, with La Fonda, one of the four downtown hotels where the governors association booked rooms, said the conference business at one hotel would be “worth a minimum of $100,000.”

Pulsifer said La Fonda increased the number of rooms the NGA booked from roughly 60 to 80 to 90 per night because of increased demand.

“We see that time and time again in Santa Fe,” he said. “When a group is coming to Santa Fe and it’s their first time here, attendance increases. It’s a place people want to come to. It’s on so many people’s bucket list.”

Santa Fe’s summer high season is a busy period for the hospitality industry regardless, however. Shawn Buckley, the communications director with Heritage Hotels and Resorts, the operator of the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, said that while the governors conference represents a larger volume of guests, the hotel had larger group business by length of stay and rate over the same time period last year. (Buckley declined to say who that customer was, citing the “confidential nature” of the group.)

Shackelford said Providence, during last year’s conference, saw $2.5 million in direct business sales. The attendees spent some $600,000 in the city. Rhode Island, she added, collected $132,000 in taxes.

Latham, New Mexico’s tourism secretary, said the average spent by a business traveler in New Mexico is $469. That jumps to $983 when the traveler brings his or her family, an increasingly common practice, Latham said.

The economic benefit, she said, spans the spectrum from hotels, caterers, shop owners and security guards down to food suppliers, gas stations, laundry companies and other industries that will experience to some extent some benefit of the money being spent by visitors.

And while she and others were quick to highlight the financial aspect, it’s the potential to enlarge Santa Fe’s place on the national map for a few days that Latham said makes the governors conference one of a kind.

“It’s not out of the ordinary for Santa Fe to receive worldwide attention for arts and culture and being such an incredible destination,” Latham said. “So, from a tourism perspective, this isn’t unusual. It’s the business element, the political element, the high profile of the attendees — this is just a great opportunity to get some real positive attention on Santa Fe, and have people thinking about New Mexico in a way they haven’t before.”

National Governors Association: The basics

When and where

The National Governors Association’s three-day summer conference begins Thursday. The conference will be held at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, with excursions to a private burning of a Zozobra-like effigy and Bonanza Creek Ranch.

Who’s going

More than 20 of the nation’s governors will take part, a lower turnout than in other years. Also attending: more than 20 governors from Kenya, the general secretary of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party, the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the United States, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security adviser.

Who’s (likely) not going

The National Governors Association does not expect President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence or senior Cabinet officials to attend. “But I can never say never,” said Tiffany Shackelford of the NGA.

Who’s speaking

Past National Governors Association meetings have featured high-profile presenters such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who spoke last year. Among the presenters in Santa Fe this week will be the CEO of the Kellogg Foundation, La June Montgomery Tabron; REI’s CEO, Jerry Stritzke; and economists Alan Krueger of Princeton and Larry Katz of Harvard.

What to expect downtown

The city will close all the streets directly adjacent to the Santa Fe Community Convention Center on Thursday evening through 5 p.m. Saturday. Sheridan Avenue, the site of the city’s downtown bus transit center, also will close. Bus stops will be temporarily relocated to Alameda and Sandoval streets, said city spokesman Matt Ross. The city parking garage beneath the convention center will be closed to the public as well.

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