Conning the Rubes In River City

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino
Weekly Alibi

May 15 – 21, 2003
Wheels Museum is a ruse, so stop plugging it as a bona fide tourist destination
Music Man is one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. Watching Professor Henry Hill fast-talk his way through the initial skepticism of the rube elected officials of River City is great entertainment.

He sells a dream to the entire community of self-proclaimed hard-headed small town businessmen and farmers, charming them with elaborate visions of future glory. Their town will be a Mecca of culture, a wonderful place to live and prosper–if only they all invest in his scheme for a marvelous (and expensive) civic marching band.

The story isn’t as charming when you watch it unfold right here in our own River City. For four years now, I’ve been amazed at the sight of dozens of normally canny public officials falling hook, line and sinker for a fabrication so preposterous that I just know at any moment the con man feeding it to us will no longer be able to contain himself and will burst into laughter: “Just kidding! You folks are too easy!”

But so far, if anything, the monumental boondoggle called the “Wheels Museum” and the “New Mexico Exposition Center” keeps expanding, taking in more and more otherwise sober and clear-thinking locals and threatening to absorb even more tax money than it already has (by my count about a million dollars of federal, state, county and city funding so far, counting the recent $500,000 Legislative appropriation) before our version of Henry Hill vanishes, lugging a carpetbag bulging with cash.

In its full elaboration, as depicted in the illustrated brochures with which Franklin Conaway of Indianapolis, Indiana keeps skeptics at bay, the cavernous locomotive repair facility at the rail yards in Barelas (a wonderful, veritable “cathedral of industry”) will become the centerpiece for an enormous complex of convention halls, private businesses and hotels, all linked by a rail line that would continue on to the National Hispanic Cultural Center a couple of miles further south.

It would dwarf the city’s existing convention center 15 blocks north and would be so large that it would make Albuquerque capable of attracting all but the very largest of national and international gatherings. In one iteration of the plan, the new Amtrak Station would be built there, rather than on the city’s preferred site, integrated into the Alvarado multi-modal transportation hub.

That’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the Exposition Center scheme: while it actually seems to be seriously competing with the city’s avowed plans and facilities (the existing Convention Center, for instance, already is unused 75 percent of the time), it has managed to attract support from the entire spectrum of Albuquerque politicians, from city councilors of all persuasions right up to the entire congressional delegation in Washington.

Initially the plan was the brainchild of “Wheels,” yet another in the seemingly endless parade of museums that will make Albuquerque a bona fide tourist destination. You wonder what number, what critical mass, of museums a community has to offer to become such a destination.

I mean, if the Albuquerque, Maxwell, Atomic, Natural History, Expo, Balloon and Rattlesnake museums haven’t done the trick, will one devoted to the Maloof and Unser car collections and the same old steam locomotive that sat unnoticed in a city park for many decades put us over the top?

One is hard-pressed to imagine some future family vacation being planned around the dinner table, perhaps in a home in a Chicago suburb. “Aw, Dad, do we have to go to Disney World again? When are we ever going to get to see the Wheels Museum in Albuquerque the way Billy’s family did last summer?”

I know, it’s a bit far-fetched, but those brochures sure make it seem enticing.

Of course one of the more insidious developments recently is that Wheels, the original conceiver of the scheme, the group that brought Conaway in to help develop the idea beyond the initial vague notion, has now apparently been finessed out of the project by the very city slicker they invited to the party.

Oh, Wheels may still get negotiated into one of the outlying buildings, perhaps the corrugated metal shed where the AT&SF used to keep its tools and pesticides, but the “Cathedral of Industry” turns out to be far too valuable a site to waste on the dusty memorabilia that Wheels brings to the venture.

Government officials got sold on the initiative by the passion which the Wheels volunteers and board members brought to the table. It is but one of the ironies of this sordid tale that the Wheels group is now all on the outside while the Henry Hill they invited to the party waves his magic baton over the proceedings.

It is highly improbable that any part of the “New Mexico Exposition Center” will ever actually get built. Private investors turn out to be a whole lot harder to mesmerize with brochures and song-and-dance than public officials are. We can only hope that when it eventually collapses, some realistic and sustainable use of that potentially wonderful site will take place. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer, and not the opinions of the Alibi management or staff.

Jerry can be reached at jerry@alibi.com.