Noted for its scenic beauty, abundant sunshine, diverse cultures, and convenient location near Albuquerque, Sandoval County, New Mexico is transitioning from a bedroom community to an economic force to be reckoned with.
Jami Grindatto, President and CEO of the Sandoval Economic Alliance spoke with Business in Focus about the history of Sandoval County, its economic development and what makes it a great place to live and work.
“Companies make decisions to locate in places based on criteria such as costs and regulations and how they can start in an easy manner,” Grindatto explains. “Companies also appreciate doing business in great communities where it is safe and education is emphasized. Sandoval County provides that for people. Most of our growth consists of young, educated families. 27 percent of our adult residents have at least a bachelor’s degree (vs. the national average of 22 percent) and our school district is one of the best in New Mexico.”
Originally from Switzerland, Grindatto relocated to New Mexico to work for Intel and found that the area provided everything he wanted for business and raising a family. “The combination of education, public safety and affordable living means Sandoval County is the best that we could get for the money. Combined with culture and the outdoor beauty, scenery, and weather, it was the perfect place to raise a family and conduct business.”
Sandoval County is located in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the first settled areas in North America, and has a longstanding Native American and Spanish history.
Not long ago, Sandoval County was primarily rural and sparsely populated, having as few as 35,000 people in 1980. Today, the county has grown to approximately 135,000 people and is the fastest growing county in New Mexico, having grown over 73 percent since 2000. The City of Rio Rancho has the vast majority of the county’s residents with 91,000 people, and was one of the top three percent fastest-growing cities in the United States in 2013. Originally developed as a retiree and bedroom community northwest of Albuquerque, the area is prime for future growth due to geographic constraints in other parts of the metro area.
With the growth of Rio Rancho, facilities to support the growth have included the opening of the Presbyterian Rust Medical Center, The University of New Mexico (UNM) Sandoval Regional Medical Center and expansive housing and retail development including the 433 acre, 900+ home master planned community of Loma Colorado.
Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) are located adjacent to Sandoval County. Originally built for classified work designing nuclear weapons, the laboratories have grown to become one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world. For instance, LANL serves as the largest employer in Northern New Mexico. Employees of LANL conduct multidisciplinary research in fields such as national security, space exploration, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and supercomputing. The laboratories have created a highly educated workforce that has attracted tech companies to operate facilities in Sandoval County and the Greater Albuquerque Metro area.
Intel was one of the first companies to locate in the area, opening a semiconductor manufacturing facility in 1980. “Intel was a complex operation that required an educated workforce,” Grindatto says. “Our proximity to the laboratories gave the company access to advanced technology that reduced the risk to build complex products. Intel has continuously invested in capital and people in New Mexico, and the people in Sandoval County were an integral part in Intel’s rise to become one of the most impactful and admired companies in the world.”
Another tech company, Hewlett Packard, consolidated several tech support centers for different products lines including their business to business, business to consumer, and printer divisions in Sandoval County. The company also has a data center on-site to replicate customer problems and develop solutions.
The proximity to the national laboratories has also given workers in the private sector the opportunity to team up to support local commercial and industrial companies in resolving problems and integrating technology into their operations. Many companies in the telecommunications, aviation and repair fields have also begun to set up operations in the county, and indeed, the area has become ripe for entrepreneurial endeavors.
“We have people establishing themselves here, particularly individuals who came from labs or companies who moved to NM and were attracted to our cost of living and business-friendly environment… they have since started their own enterprises,” shares Grindatto.
As a result, there have been burgeoning efforts at enterprise and innovation in the county. Innovate ABQ – a collaborative initiative consisting of the University of New Mexico, the Science and Technology Corporation (STC), city and county government, and the business community in Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley – was created to spur entrepreneurship and innovation in the area. “We’ve had large, medium, small, and micro businesses who have established themselves here, so that bodes well for the future.”
Another reason for the growth of business in Sandoval County is the tax incentives that are offered by the State of New Mexico. “The State of New Mexico was a pioneer in industrial bonds back in the 1950s and 60s,” Grindatto explains. “This gives companies the ability to utilize bond capacity to self-finance startup costs, and up to 30 years of tax abatement, which has been extremely valuable and enables long-term commitment from a company in the area.”
Other tax credits include high wage jobs tax credits and companies getting cash back from the state for creating high-wage positions in the state. “Manufacturers also get to file state income taxes using a single sales factor formula that significantly reduced their income tax liability. In addition, a sales tax exemption for manufacturing inputs including energy, fixtures, chemicals, and gasses, reduces company operational costs in New Mexico.”
Locally, there are two incentives for businesses in Sandoval County. The local economic development act involves assistance with closing funds to offset capital investments and potential infrastructure when a company sets up shop in the area, helping companies reduce capital expenditures when relocating to Sandoval County. There is also a job-incentive training program in which the State of New Mexico pays for up to half an individual’s wages up to six months of training.
“When a new company hires these workers with new skills and new products, this allows skill sets to improve and enables us to offset costs,” Grindatto says. “This helps reduce risks and reduces capital and infrastructure expenditures – in combination, these are great funds to help the county grow its economy.”
Grindatto was named President and CEO of the Sandoval Economic Alliance in 2014, after the county commission and the Rio Rancho city council teamed up to spur economic development in the area. He explains that, “Our direction is to be innovative and creative. The county and city are starting new and noteworthy efforts and we are reaching out to companies throughout North America and the world. We want to engage businesses to build and give Sandoval County an economic edge, plus encourage the private sector to offer up competitive and new incentives to bring companies in addition to the state and local incentives that are already out there. We also have long-range strategic plans for transportation, utilities, infrastructure, development – we’re very active to help our community grow and bring new projects to area.”
Some of these projects include expanding the educational facilities in county. “My job as an economic developer is to also help grow education in the area. For example, over the last two years, UNM opened a campus in Rio Rancho; Central New Mexico Community College also opened a campus. With our proximity to the city center, the campus for the community college and research university will drive future growth and talent in the area.”
In addition, the new UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center serves communities outside of Rio Rancho. Opened in 2011, the goal and target was to expand services out to the rural part of the county; thus far, it has proven highly successful. “It started and added a whole new healthcare quality dimension,” Grindatto believes.
Of course, besides its business-friendly climate, Sandoval County is also known for its many attractions and amenities. “New Mexico is a Mecca of culture,” says Grindatto. “Some of the oldest settlements in North America are here, providing a level of diversity, culture, and opportunities not found elsewhere.” With a large Native American population consisting of nine nations, Sandoval County is home to two reservations and seven pueblos, which feature artwork, food, and authentic celebrations passed down through the generations. The Native American communities in the area continue to weave an integral pattern into the fabric of Sandoval County.
Sandoval County is also home to a number of protected areas including the Cibola and Santa Fe National Forests. Camping, hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities are in abundance in the area. The Sandia Mountains are also nearby as well as the picturesque capital of Santa Fe and the skiing areas near Taos. The presence of UNM brings NCAA sports and bowl games to the area.
With its beautiful location, business incentives, and low cost of living, Grindatto sees a bright future for Sandoval County and knows that more businesses and people will come to the area. “I and many others can truly call Sandoval County home,” he shares. “It’s a wonderful place to live. For business, it’s appealing because when you open up shop here, New Mexicans are working hard, giving you personalized attention and are open to helping you succeed. We’re small enough to create a difference to get businesses and new operations started due to innovation and hard work. I love living here and others will too.”