Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales realizes the question might jar the senses of some folks.
What can Santa Fe, with its 400-year history and renowned artistic sensibility, possibly learn from gaudy and frenetic downtown Las Vegas?
That’s what Gonzales and members of the Creative Santa Fe community organization came to Las Vegas to answer for themselves last week. Gonzales made the rounds of the old and new downtown with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and met at flashy Las Vegas City Hall with Mayor Carolyn Goodman.
Gonzales would be forgiven for thinking he’d arrived on another planet, or at least in another country, as he strolled downtown. He comes from Santa Fe, one of nine places on the planet with a UNESCO “Creative City” designation. Downtown offers Glitter Gulch, one of the only places in the world you can take a zip line and eat a deep-fried Twinkie at the same time.
Santa Fe’s most celebrated apparition is artist Georgia O’Keeffe. A museum is named in her honor.
Downtown Las Vegas is haunted by the ghost of Benny Binion. Catch his reflection at the Mob Museum.
In Santa Fe, tourists sojourn to the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
In downtown Las Vegas, throngs of visitors pay homage to Vegas Vic, the metallic cowboy of Fremont Street. He’s part of history, too.
Downtown is changing thanks to a reported $300 million investment from Hsieh and the Downtown Project development group, and Gonzales is unabashedly intrigued.
He believes Santa Fe can benefit from the youthful scene and redevelopment energy on display in places like the Living Room and the fashion incubator without sacrificing Santa Fe’s internationally recognized brand as a vortex of creativity, art and, of course, state government.
“There’s a lot that Santa Fe can learn from a number of cities around the country that are trying to pull themselves out of this recession,” said Gonzales, 48. “Santa Fe is largely built on a tourism and government economy. Our small businesses that have been created over the years have been created to support those two employment bases. When the recession hit, it had a huge impact not only on our economy, but on families in Santa Fe.”
With wages and job growth flat, an aging employment sector, and a generation of young people challenged to find meaningful work, there’s room for some fresh ideas. Gonzales thinks some of Hsieh’s downtown ideas might work for his favorite New Mexico city.
“None of this effort to be in Las Vegas, or anywhere else, is to change the brand of Santa Fe,” Gonzales said. “We’re going to continue to be a global brand when it comes to arts and culture. The question is, how do you leverage that incredible, unique, authentic brand, in ways that allows for an economy to start growing again, that’s a little more sustainable, that isn’t so highly dependent on tourism and on government. The idea of entrepreneurship, and how you create an environment where entrepreneurship can come forward, is an important concept that I’m exploring now so that we can have that environment in Santa Fe.”
People from Santa Fe can expect to see affordable housing with studio space for artists to take shape within a year, the mayor said.
There has also been much talk about making redevelopment changes to part of the city’s rail yard.
“We’re going to stay true to our identity,” Gonzales said. “We’re going to stay true to our authenticity and the tradition we’ve had for more than 400 years.”
So don’t expect a metallic facsimile of Vegas Vic to appear in Santa Fe any time soon.
But, come to think of it, just the other day I’d swear I saw Georgia O’Keeffe riding the Fremont Street zip line and eating a deep-friend Twinkie.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.