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AZTEC – Improved parks, a planned solar farm, an automated airport fueling system, progress on the city's arterial route project, and improved roads and sidewalks were among the high notes cited in an address by City Manager Josh Ray on Thursday at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

But the picture isn't entirely rosy in the county seat.

Ray briefed members of the business organization on the highs and lows of 2015, delivered updates on completed and ongoing projects, and talked about new ventures and the bottom line.

Among the concerning elements cited by Ray are slumping gross tax receipts, a lack of "sufficient" economic development like new businesses and building construction, and engineering and design delays. He said there aren't many new businesses opening their doors in Aztec — a perennial frustration for city leaders who have said they have made efforts to attract such enterprises. They point to infrastructure and beautification projects the city has undertaken, along with "nonstop" overtures they have made to businesses and industry representatives, to make Aztec appealing.

Ray, who was hired as city manager in 2010, said the construction of the Microtel Inn and Suites — where Thursday's chamber meeting was held — two Dollar General stores, a Durango Joe's kiosk in the Westside Plaza and a planned O'Reilly Auto Parts store were all that the city could show for its efforts.

"New construction of buildings, that's all you have,"  Ray said. "That's a six-year period without sufficient new growth in economic development. That's a struggle. No community can continue to grow if you don't have economic development."

Ray said Aztec's struggles have been made more acute by plummeting oil and gas prices that have spread pain around San Juan County.

"2015 was a positive year for the city of Aztec, but it was loaded with many challenges, and those challenges are going to persist through 2016, 2017, 2018 and beyond, until we get some great news in (a) different industry or until we're able to expand our local industry," Ray told about 20 business leaders.

Of the city's successes, Ray touted the city's new seven-year power agreement with Florida-based Guzman Energy that comes with a 1-megawatt solar-farm built on city property that is expected to be operational by this summer.

The Aztec school district also is going solar, Ray said. A 128-kilowatt solar array — one-tenth of the size of the city's solar farm — will be constructed on the rooftop coverings where the district leaves its buses parked, he said.

Construction of the next phase of the arterial route — the city's long-sought bypass road that will divert heavy truck traffic east of downtown — will be 18 months in the making. Another phase will follow, making completion of the road unlikely until 2019, he said.

Financially, the city's total fund balance — $18.5 million — was an increase of $1.5 million than the previous year, Ray said.

But November 2015 marked a record low for city coffers, which saw revenue of only $278,209. Ray said that might be softened next month when gross receipts taxes that include the holiday shopping season arrive.

"From last year, we're down 15.6 percent in (GRT) yet ... we're still $1.5 million more in fund balance reserves than this time last year," he said. "How does that happen? It just happens in terms of fiscal management, it happens in terms of being able to make cuts and pick projects and try and be more financially responsible than ever with limited dollars."

Commissioner Roberta Locke, who is running for re-election, challenged Ray over the city's takeover last year of the Hidden Valley Golf Course. The course, which draws an average of only 19 players a day and has 135 members, ended the year $95,000 in the hole.

Locke said commissioners were told around September that the course had experienced a loss of $9,500. She said she was stunned to hear that the latest negative balance, which included cumulative numbers, had climbed to $95,000.

"I didn't expect it to be in the hole because all year it was to be break even," Locke told Ray. "I'm shocked. I'm stunned."

Vangie Neil, chamber vice president and a golfer, disagreed, saying the course is a venture worth supporting.

"I think those numbers were expected," Neil said. "The numbers are good. The visitation is good. I want to congratulate you on what you've done with what little you've had to work with."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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