Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima lost his first and last election in 1990, and has spent the past 11 years as mayor of New Mexico’s second largest city.
By the end of his term, he will have broken Ruben Smith’s record for longevity as mayor and, thanks to that city’s lack of term limits, he doesn’t have to give up the job.
“My term expires in 2019, and I may run again,” he told those at the El Paso Central Business Association’s July luncheon.
He won a third, four-year term in 2015 with 51 percent of the vote after a conservative, out-of-town PAC spent heavily to defeat him.
To break the ice, he joked about the No. 1 question he’s been asked during much if not most of his 55 years, “What are you?”
It’s funny now, but for a boy named Kenneth Daniel Gallegos Miyagishima who was born to a Japanese father and a Mexican mother, it wasn’t amusing.
“I was teased,” he said. “But in 1973, Bruce Lee came out in the movies. All I had to say was that I knew karate, so the kids left me alone.
“It stopped in middle school but resurfaced once in a while when I first ran for office in 1990. It still continues today. Every so often, they make disparaging remarks about me being Asian, but it doesn’t bother me.”
Although Miyagishima didn’t like losing that first race for state representative in 1990, he learned something about himself – he liked politics.
“I found my calling,” he said. “Two years later, I ran for the county commission and was successful. I won re-election in 1996 but was limited to two terms.
“So, in November 2001, I ran and was elected as Las Cruces city councilor. I ran unopposed in 2005 and for mayor in 2007.”
As in Texas, New Mexico’s city offices are nonpartisan, but Miyagishima is a progressive Democrat with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King as his cover photo on Facebook. He’s a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which supports universal background checks and gun registration.
Miyagishima and his wife, Rosario, have four children – a daughter who’s a senior at Yale School of Medicine, two sons at NMSU and a third who’s a high school senior.
Miyagishima has had a successful, 33-year career in insurance. Today, he’s the district manager for Farmers Insurance in Las Cruces – a city of 102,000 people 45 miles north of El Paso.
After his address to the Central Business Association, Miyagishima sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about his city, hiring former El Paso city executives, taxes and how Las Cruces handles debt.
Q: Your CBA luncheon comments sounded a bit like an announcement that you’re running again next year.
Most likely, unless something comes up or if I win the lottery or something. Actually, that would be great. Then, I’d spend even more time being mayor.
Q: You’ve been district manager for Farmers Insurance for how long?
That I’ve been doing for four years. I was an agent from 1985. Now I have 31 agents in nine cities. Really, if you were to sum up what I do, I recruit and train agents for them to take over their own business. I don’t sell anymore, but what I do is I offer positions to someone who I think would be a good agent.
Q: What would you point to as accomplishments during your time as mayor and the progress Las Cruces has made in the 17 years you’ve been on City Council?
We built a new city hall, a $33-million city hall. We moved in there in 2010. We also built a $22-million aquatic center. That’s about six, seven years old. A convention center. That was about $25 million. In fact, we’re adding a $9-million expansion to it right now.
There’s going to be a four-story Courtyard by Marriott hotel right next door to our convention center. We’ve also built a $10-million police and fire complex.
We are doing what we call the Amador Project, which is a nightclub that’s one-of-a-kind. It’s a restaurant, nightclub and concert area venue.
Q: And the city financed it?
We own it. It was a public-private partnership. They built it. We own it. They’re going to lease it from us, and then they’re going to pay us. We’re also building an Olympic-sized swimming pool. We’ve added LED lights to the city to help reduce electricity costs.
We’re slowly converting most of our city-owned buildings to solar. Our electric bill right now is about $5 million a year. It saves about 20 percent, or about $1 million a year. We have to come up with the money, but the savings will cover the debt service.
We’ve added about another $20 million plus in Downtown improvements .
Q: What else?
We’ve really expanded a lot more into space and aerospace whether through Spaceport America or unmanned aerial vehicles through the university. We’re trying to focus a lot on more high-tech businesses.
Q: Is Spaceport America an attraction for Las Cruces?
Actually, it is. They’re still developing Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two, which is the one that’s going to cost $250,000 per trip, per person. What they’ll do is they’ll go up about 25 miles into the air, look down, see the earth, and see the sphere. They’re working out an arrangement through the hotel.
It’s very exclusive. For that amount of money, you get three days of being pampered, and the finale is going up into space.
Q: Will it bring people to Las Cruces?
Absolutely, with the new road being constructed. It’s about a $25-million road that makes it a lot easier to access. We’re going to have about 100 employees from Virgin Galactic moving to Las Cruces. You figure the company’s not going to send them here if things aren’t happening.
Q: You think this is actually going to get off the ground?
I do. But it’s something that you don’t want to rush because you don’t want to have an accident up in space.
Q: Is there a target date for the first trip?
Not that I’m aware of.
Q: How much tourism interest is Las Cruces getting from the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument established in 2014? Is it a big draw?
It is. It’s starting to get bigger and bigger. A lot more people are discovering it. There’s really a lot of interesting aspects of the monument to visit. Kilbourne Hole is one.
Q: In terms of employment and commuting, is there a lot of traffic going back and forth between El Paso and Las Cruces every day?
The numbers I’ve heard are hard to believe. Almost 7,000 cars travel back and forth every day.
Q: Do you think we’ll see any ideas come up for expedited transportation between El Paso and Las Cruces?
Our best bet would be to have an extension of the Rail Runner Express going to El Paso. For us to do it on our own would be cost-prohibitive. But if the state of New Mexico and the state of Texas went to work on it – and maybe even Mexico, too, because I could foresee it going into Mexico – that would really help a lot. I know it would.
If you put New Mexico’s Rail Runner through Las Cruces and El Paso and on to Mexico, that would be something.
Q: Las Cruces has always had a slower pace and seems like a nice, easy-going place to live. Is that the atmosphere you’re hoping to maintain, or is there an ambition in Las Cruces to grow bigger and bigger?
It’s important that we grow, but it doesn’t have to be by leaps and bounds. I think a nice steady growth of 2 percent net migration would be good.
Q: When it comes to retirement, folks have looked to Las Cruces more than El Paso. Why is that?
Our property tax rate is probably one-fourth that of El Paso. The cost of living is good. Although we do have a state income tax, you can get the effective tax rate, depending on your particular write-offs, down to at least 6 or 7 percent as opposed to the 10-percent rate, which is what it is.
There are a lot of facilities here for over 55, and you see a lot more medical facilities. They cite that as the reason why there’s a good percentage of retirees.
Q: For years, El Paso and Las Cruces have talked about a regional approach to growth and economic development. But it’s been difficult to get beyond talk about a regional approach.
If clients are talking to The Borderplex Alliance, I will let them take the lead. If they are talking to Davin Lopez and the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance or our city Economic Development Department, we will promote Las Cruces first.
But we’ll work with El Paso and Juárez for a larger approach. Had we gotten Amazon, that would have been a huge benefit for all of us. Our response to Amazon would have involved the whole borderplex region. My understanding is El Paso did their proposal individually.
We just landed a company that looked at communities that applied to Amazon. We beat out Albuquerque.
Q: Las Cruces handles debt differently than El Paso does. In fact, you’re holding a $35.6-million bond election by mail-in ballot right now that ends Aug. 21. Texas doesn’t do elections by mail.
This will be the first one we’ve had in over 20 years. All the other bonds we have are all revenue bonds that we pay ourselves from the budget. We have zero government obligation bond debt. El Paso, I think, has $2 billion.
Q: El Paso pays off bonds by increasing the debt service portion of the tax rate. But Las Cruces makes debt payments from the general budget, rather like a household. How?
Just through efficiencies, belt-tightening. Let’s say we have a revenue source. At the end of each year, let’s say we have $5 million left over. We can use that to pay off bonds.
Q: And you pay them off in only 10 years, as opposed to El Paso’s 20 or 30-year bonds.
That’s the most – 10 years. Most likely, we’ll pay it off in about eight years.
Q: Do you have any thoughts of looking for bigger, more ambitious developments as well? Are you planning on doing anything like El Paso?
No. I was going to be a banker, so I’m going to be a little bit more on the conservative side.
Q: What about Santa Teresa? It’s one area of New Mexico that’s booming economically. Do you see any sort of partnership developing with Santa Teresa?
Absolutely. In some respects, just like moving the railroads was a big gift from Texas to New Mexico and to the city of Las Cruces. We know that a lot of people moved into Santa Teresa or work in Santa Teresa. I’d say half of them live in Las Cruces. We know that anything that goes on in the county, we benefit from – sometimes greatly. It’s good all the way around.
Santa Teresa has great schools, but Las Cruces is the No. 1 city in New Mexico with the highest graduation rate. We have really good schools in Las Cruces, and they’re public. They don’t have to spend a lot of money for private schools. They can attend good quality public education.
Q: In your comments to the El Paso Central Business Association today, you talked about the refugees in El Paso and the separations of children from parents. El Paso Mayor Dee Margo invited mayors who were interested in coming to the border, but he didn’t invite you or the mayor of Juárez. What happened?
I’m listening to the news like everybody. Mayor Margo had invited 50 mayors to visit the Tornillo site. I go, “Really? I don’t remember getting an invitation.” It was probably an oversight, so I texted Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti, who says, “Oh no. Come. I’m not sure how invitations were handled.”
At the same time, I texted Mayor Margo. “Good morning, Mayor, media is reporting that you invited mayors to El Paso. Can a couple of New Mexico mayors (Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and myself) come even though I wasn’t invited? Thanks for the consideration.”
He goes, “I was told that you were invited by the Conference of Mayors. Of course, please come tomorrow. Dinner’s tonight.” I take it that it was an oversight. I know Mayor Margo wouldn’t purposely leave me out.
Q: Did you go?
I didn’t. The reason why I didn’t go is that Mr. Trump signed the order that he wasn’t going to separate them. The whole purpose, in my opinion, to go was to rally support to get him to change his mind. So when he changed his mind, I thought mission accomplished even though I didn’t go.
Q: You have a former El Paso city executive as your city manager.
Yes. Stuart Ed.
Q: I think you have El Paso’s former CFO, as well.
Yes, William Studer
Q: And you have El Paso’s former planning director, Larry Nichols. How is this working out for you with these folks who were well-known, experienced execs at El Paso City Hall moving over to Las Cruces?
Stuart’s doing a fantastic job. Mr. Studer is very strong financially. He knows his finances. Larry Nichols has just really turned our permitting department around. He’s in charge of community development.
Just to let you know, for years, I would always get so many complaints from businesses about how hard the city is for getting a permit. Since Stuart put Larry in there, I haven’t had a complaint in over a year. It’s been great. People love Larry.