LAS CRUCES – Just a year as Las Cruces’ city manager, Ifo Pili has taught Pili the strategies and goals of building the city’s economy that are quite different from his previous job.
Pili was hired in 2020 with a mandate to combat economic development and the city’s high rate of poverty. He entered the job to promote previous accomplishments in Eagle Mountain, Utah, where he served as a city administrator for eight years. In this role, Facebook and Tyson Foods were lured into the city with tax incentives.
As city administrator, it was Pilis Bread and Butter to recruit new companies on the Adlerberg that brought new jobs. But the poverty rate in Las Cruces, estimated at 23.6 percent, makes Pili take a closer look at which businesses he’s looking to attract while saying his approach to economic development is broader than his job in Utah.
More:“If it’s under my supervision, it’s up to me:” City Manager Ifo Pili talks about a new job in an interview
“What I realized is that … in order to address this poverty problem, I couldn’t pursue economic development the same way I did economic development in Utah,” Pili said in an interview with Sun News. “It’s not just about creating jobs. It’s about creating jobs that will help improve the people of Las Cruces and this demographic in particular.”
Pili described walking into a town hall that was already full of informed staff and initiatives on topics such as housing and tourism. That goes for the church too, he said. He has found that many of the destinations that Pili has been hired for are already in town and on the move through outside organizations.
“I realized that I was not alone with this,” said Pili. “People have been knocking on the sidewalk for years and have been working towards that goal for years.”
Pili said his approach to economic development is three-pronged: increasing the availability of affordable housing, developing the Las Cruces workforce and recruiting new businesses that will put down roots.
The city’s approach to housing has already changed in an important way, Pili said. Housing and neighborhood services have been moved from the city’s community development department to their economic development department.
Pili spoke about finding a new EDD director after Griselda Martinez left in July. Deputy city director Ikani Taumoepeau is acting as interim director, said Pili.
An application window recently closed for the job, Pili said. He said he would be looking for someone who is familiar with economic policy, who campaigns for the fight against poverty, who is respected by the employees, who humiliates himself and who works with them on ongoing projects.
An external committee, made up of external company organizations, is planned to interview applicants and provide input to the city manager in selecting an applicant.
“An important thing for me is that this person is respected and respected by the economic development community, these entities to the outside world,” said Pili.
Related:Desert Hope opens, offering affordable housing to former homeless tenants
As the city prepares for the recent minimum wage hike in early 2022 – an event often disapproved of by many of the city’s prominent business owners – Pili acknowledged that El Paso’s lower wage penalizes Las Cruces in some ways.
But Pili also said he believes Las Cruces needs jobs that pay a living wage if he is to lift residents out of poverty.
“I don’t know if I want a company that won’t pay,” said Pili. “If (poverty alleviation) is really the goal, then I don’t want anyone paying their employees $ 4 less than everyone else in the country.
“I believe in capitalism. But I also think that those companies that come, that want to pay good wages, that want to look after their employees, are also successful companies.”
To better understand the experience of Las Crucens living in poverty, Pili, some of the city’s staff, said he attended a virtual training session in September to develop a more “poverty-conscious” mindset. The training was hosted by Donna Beegle, who founded Communication Across Barriers, an organization that helps customers understand and fight poverty. Beegle could not be reached for comment.
Pili said that training has changed his mind on the idea that hard work alone can lift someone out of poverty.
“To be honest, that’s how I grew up,” said Pili. “And although I grew up in a developing country, American Samoa, my father was a businessman. I definitely had privileges, but my father lived in poverty.
Pili’s father has since passed away. Pili said if he could ask him today, his father would write down all the resources and community members who have helped him.
“If we think that people live in poverty because they just want to be there or because they don’t work … (or) they don’t want to pay the price … that’s a misunderstanding I had,” said Pili. “There are individuals who want to get out but do not know how and do not have the resources or do not know how to get the resources.”
Michael McDevitt is the city and county government reporter for Sun News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, [email protected] or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.