More than half of Santa Fe’s workforce lives outside city limits. That’s the word from a new study released earlier this week by the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
While distressing — the money those workers make is spent in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho or Española rather than in Santa Fe, the report gives city and business leaders solid information to make a dent in those numbers. Currently, only 30 percent of Santa Fe’s workforce lives and works in the city. Some 51 percent commute from elsewhere, and another 19 percent live in Santa Fe and work outside the city. That comes at a cost. A 2007 study by Homewise found that the local economy loses some $301.6 million in annual spending because of commuting workers — those are dollars we could use, especially in tax revenues to pay for necessary services.
It’s clear that Santa Fe’s higher minimum wage is a draw to workers who don’t mind taking the train or driving to earn a better living. That makes it more important than ever for the state to raise its minimum wage; then, those workers can remain home, opening up jobs for people who already live in Santa Fe.
It’s also obvious, as Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Simon Brackley points out, that people might not realize how much housing prices have declined in Santa Fe. Folks who are driving two or three hours a day could save time and money spent on commuting and enjoy a good life in Santa Fe — if they believed housing was affordable.
A smart PR campaign to educate commuters (perhaps with some of our slick PR firms doing pro bono work) is worthwhile. We can see it now. Simple but effective, two pictures side by side. “This? or this?” is the tagline. In one photo, a shot of an uncomfortable commuter on the train, bothered by too much talking around him; the second, that same commuter taking a bike ride on one of Santa Fe’s trails. Or a commuter in traffic; same commuter, having an after-work beer with co-workers, the Railyard water tank visible in the background. The message has to be that life is better in Santa Fe (which is an easy sell, because as we all know, it’s true).
However, it’s probable that Santa Fe can’t absorb all of those workers as residents. There likely aren’t 29,140 empty houses or apartments available, and that’s more growth than we want anyway. A city that is watching its water use can’t serve that many new residents, even if they wanted to live here. Still, persuading at least some of those 29,140 people to take up residence in Santa Fe could prove an economic windfall for the city — they would buy groceries, furniture and other goods, purchase real estate and frequent restaurants and entertainment venues here. Think of how robust our public schools would become with children of such motivated people attending classes (and letting commuters know how schools are innovating and improving should be a big part of the PR campaign.)
A side effect of this study is that it does show how essential the New Mexico Rail Runner Express is in linking economic activity between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We no longer have “cities” — independent and isolated. We have, more than ever, an economic corridor of activity with more choices for workers. Live here. Work there. Drive. Take the train. Walk to work.
While we want more of those workers to come home to Santa Fe, people need choices. Now, the key is to make people choose Santa Fe as a place to live, as well as work.