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Statehood Economy 1945-now

When World War II ended, Kirtland Air Field became a scrapping point for deactivated planes. Then the Cold War and the Korean War gave the base new work.

In 1945 Robert Oppenheimer reorganized Los Alamos Laboratory and moved Z Division to Albuquerque’s Sandia Base. From this rib the government would create Sandia Laboratory in 1948. A year later it became a separate organization, managed by Western Electric and then AT&T. The lab then had 1,742 employees. Meanwhile Kirtland gained a new mission – weapons storage – and the Army added another installation, Manzano Base in 1952.

The economic impact for Albuquerque was huge. By 1944 an estimated 8,000 newcomers were competing for housing and a building boom began. New subdivisions began spreading toward the mountains. In the four years between 1946 and 1950 the city’s area tripled.

In 1946 electric utilities in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Deming merged to form Public Service Company of New Mexico. The architect of the merger and PNM’s first president was Arthur Prager. The company then had 58,679 customers and 914 miles of electric line. The gas operations were sold to Southern Union Gas Co. in 1949.

Between 1940 and 1950 the population had more than doubled, from 35,449 to 96,815. Homebuilders scurried to meet demand. Sam Hoffman built the Hoffmantown Addition north of Menaul and east of Wyoming. In 1953, Ed Snow's Snow Heights Addition followed directly south. Harvey Golightly built the Bel-Air subdivision between Carlisle, San Mateo, Menaul and Candelaria. In 1954, Dale Bellamah's added the 1,600-home Princess Jeanne Park, named for his wife, between Lomas and Indian School from Eubank to Juan Tabo. Bellamah also built the Kirtland Addition just west of the airport.

West Side development also took root in the 1950s. Homebuilder Leon Watson in 1951 bought land from Florencio Baca, and the development between Central and Bridge near Coors became Los Altos. In 1949 the Black family, which owned the Seven Bar Ranch on the West Mesa, sold 8,000 acres to Horizon Land Corp. The Blacks in 1947 also built a general aviation airport. (The airport later became the site of Cottonwood Mall.)

By the mid-1950s Sandia employed more than 4,000 people and was the city’s largest single employer. The population reached 175,000.

The Chamber of Commerce realized in the 1950s that Albuquerque couldn’t remain dependent on the base and organized the Industrial Development Committee to recruit new industry. Gulton Industries, which opened in 1954, became one of the city’s first high tech industries. The government contractor made monitoring and remote-control devices for missiles and satellites.

Commercial building kept pace with new housing. In 1949 R.B. Waggoman completed the Nob Hill Business Center, Albuquerque’s first shopping center. In 1953 the brownstone Albuquerque Commercial Club made way for the 13-story Simms Building, which then became the city’s tallest skyscraper.

In 1959 Wright’s Trading Post was leveled to build the Bank of New Mexico building. In quick succession more tall buildings joined the city’s growing skyline. Two more federal buildings and City Hall went up. At San Mateo and Central the 17-story First National Bank Building became the city’s tallest in 1963. In 1966 the 18-story National Building (now the Compass Bank Building), at Fifth and Marquette became the tallest. In the same period, the Bank Securities Building at Lomas and Second (now the Wells Fargo Building), the PNM building, and the 13-story federal building were also built.

As Route 66 delivered more tourists to the city, Old Town became a tourist attraction and in 1951 was finally incorporated into the city.

The post-war years also saw the rise of two individuals who would have a big impact on local tourism. In 1945 Bob Nordhaus formed La Madera Co. and built a T-bar ski lift that was the longest in the nation. In 1957 Ben Abruzzo became ski area manager and a year later bought half the assets from Nordhaus. In 1963 they added a double-chair lift and a mountain-top restaurant and changed the name to Sandia Peak Ski Area. A year later they began building the Sandia Peak Tramway. When it was finished two years later, it was the longest single-section tram in the world.

In 1960 Albuquerque was heavily dependent on Kirtland and Sandia, and that year the base’s employment shrank. Realtor Gene Hinkle thought the city needed to diversify and rounded up a handful of like-minded people to form Albuquerque Industrial Development Service, to recruit new industry.

In the 1960s new companies included Sparton Southwest, Boeing’s Aerospace Division, EG&G, Levi Strauss, and General Electric.

In this decade Kirtland’s research lab planted the first high-tech seeds. The base then had some of the nation’s top laser experts. Their work spawned the city’s optics industry, which evolved from government contractors to an independent industry segment whose activities include laser, sensor, component and instrument manufacturing.

By 1960 the population reached 201,189, more than double the 1950 census. Shopping centers proliferated to serve new neighborhoods. In 1961, Winrock Shopping Center opened. The same year Dale Bellamah built the Northdale Shopping Center in the North Valley and the Eastdale Shopping Center in the Northeast Heights. Elmer Sproul built Indian Plaza at Indian School and Carlisle. Coronado Shopping Center opened in 1965. They were popular, but it was the beginning of the end for downtown retail.

Activity also increased on the West Side. In 1961 Horizon Land Corp. began developing Paradise Hills. Taylor Ranch and Eagle Ranch followed in the 1970s.

New companies continued to appear. In 1970 the Singer Co.’s Friden Division used the city’s first industrial revenue bond to build a plant on north I-25 to produce business machines. Singer soon employed 1,300 people in Albuquerque but in 1976 closed the division and left Albuquerque. That year Digital Equipment Corp. moved into the plant.

Computers and software – the industry that would later be called information technology – began to take shape. Along with corporate giants Singer and Digital, startups made their mark. Albuquerque was the birthplace of the first personal computer. H. Edward Roberts, a former Air Force engineer, made the first practical, affordable home computer – the Altair. His Albuquerque company, MITS Inc., dominated the new industry. In 1975 he hired two young men to write software: Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who started Microsoft here. Roberts sold his company in 1977. Gates and Allen moved their company to Seattle.

By then the first wave of electronics companies began exiting California. One of the first to choose Albuquerque was GTE Lenkurt. It opened a massive plant on the city’s East Side in 1971 to make electronic communications devices. By 1982 the company had 1,400 employees.

Other new companies in the 1970s included Amity Leather, Elastimold, BDM, Motorola, the Social Security Administration data operations, and a second Levi Strauss plant. Also building a second plant was Sparton Southwest, which in 1977 opened an operation in Rio Rancho to assemble circuit cards for computers and memory-storage equipment. (That plant moved to Albuquerque in 2004.) Sandia became a national laboratory in 1979.

The 1970s would deliver the biggest boost to tourism since the railroad arrived. In 1972 Sid Cutter organized the first hot-air balloon rally in New Mexico. The next year Albuquerque hosted its second Balloon Fiesta in conjunction with the first World Hot Air Balloon Championship at the State Fairgrounds, with 138 balloons flying from 13 countries.

The 1970s were not good to railroads. The Santa Fe closed its Albuquerque shops, which had employed over a thousand workers for decades. And it turned passenger operations over to Amtrak. (The depot burned in 1993.)

The 1980s saw new changes in the downtown skyline: The First Plaza complex on Second St., PNM’s Alvarado Square, the 11-story city-county building, the 15-story Marquette Building, and the Sunwest Bank Building. Construction began in January 1988 on Albuquerque Plaza, a 22- story office tower and neighboring 20-story Hyatt Regency Hotel. The office tower remains the tallest building in New Mexico.

As the 1980s opened, a second wave of companies expanded outside of California. (Albuquerque Industrial Development Service changed its name to Albuquerque Economic Development in 1986.)

The two biggest high-tech catches were computer chip makers Intel and Signetics. Other major developments included Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Ethicon, a maker surgical sutures and devices; Sperry Flight Systems Defense and Space Systems Division, a maker of aircraft flight control systems; General Dynamics; Olympus Corp., a Japanese electronics company producing fiber-optics equipment; Plastech, a maker of plastic component parts for local electronics plants; Roses Southwest Papers Inc., a maker of paper products; and Honeywell, making energy-saving devices.

The city also drew the first back-office operations, including two J.C. Penney operations (credit-card processing center and a catalogue center), Citicorp Credit Corp., and Baxter Healthcare’s billing, collections and financial services.

Signetics, Sperry and Motorola anchored a new high-tech concentration in the North I-25 Corridor. Motorola built an 89,000-square-foot plant in 1981 to make communications components and devices. Signetics built a 467,000-square-foot plant to produce semiconductors for the U.S. domestic industry. (The name changed in 1992 to reflect its parent company, Royal Philips Electronics.) Ethicon Endosurgery built a 230,000-square-foot plant on the city’s south side. In 1987 Digital Equipment Corp. designated its Albuquerque plant a showcase operation. By then 1,000 local employees produced workstations, video monitors, high-volume printed circuit boards and cables and harness assemblies.

The early 1980s also saw a worldwide downturn in the computer industry, which prompted Intel and Signetics to delay their plant openings. When Signetics opened its doors in 1982, it had 5,000 applications for 400 jobs. GTE laid off 450 workers, and Pertec Computer Corp. closed its plant.

In the 1990s, major companies locating here included General Mills Inc., which makes 100 million boxes of cereal a year; U.S. Cotton, which makes cotton balls and cosmetic supplies; Sumitomo Sitix Silicon (now called Sumco USA), which makes silicon wafers; and Xilinx, which makes programmable logic chips. Goodrich Corp. acquired Gulton Industries Inc. in 1997. And Southwest Airlines opened a call center. However, Siemens (the former GTE) and Digital closed their plants. In 1993 Lockheed Martin Corp. took over management of Sandia National Laboratories from AT&T.

By this time the biomedical and biotechnology industry, which had started in the 1980s, had become a sizable segment involved in everything from pharmaceuticals and medical technology manufacturing to bioinformatics (specialized software used in drug discovery). Many of the companies were startups or spinoffs from Sandia or UNM.

New companies since 2000 include Sennheiser Electronics, which makes communications devices; The Gap, which opened a services center; and Tempur-Pedic, which will open its 750,000-square-foot mattress factory in 2006. However, Philips Semiconductors closed as did one of Honeywell’s two operations. Eclipse Aviation Corp. chose Albuquerque for its headquarters and manufacturing plant and will produce a six-seat commercial jet, the Eclipse 500.

Albuquerque enjoys a diverse economy with a stable government sector, healthy manufacturing and call-center segments and a budding aviation industry. It’s home to a growing number of high-tech companies that include aerospace, biotech, electronics, information technology, micro- and nanotech, and optics.

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