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A Conversation With Dan Mourning

Guest Blog by Cynthia Serna

On a clear and beautiful New Mexico morning, I recently had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dan Mourning. His mood was bright and sunny as the day, as he greeted me with a smile and an expansive gesture toward the view outside the office window. “This is my view every day! When I started working here 13 years ago as Deputy Manager, the Fairgrounds really needed some love and attention. And now look at it! I love every piece of this place, every tree, every building, every bench.”

Dan admits that back in 2011, he didn’t really expect to be here this long. With an extensive background in the hospitality industry and real estate development, taking on a leadership role for a facility the size of EXPO NM (236 acres and dozens of structures) meant learning a whole new craft. Not that improving and promoting community assets was entirely new to him; he was a founding member of the Albuquerque Downtown Action Team and served on its board for 15 years.

EXPO NM is a state agency, though most people don’t realize it’s one of the few public entities which functions as an Enterprise Fund, rather than drawing from the state’s General Fund. That means EXPO has to raise all the money to support its operations through events and facility leasing. They do receive some State capital outlay funds for construction improvements.

EXPO employs 120 staff - closer to 500, according to Dan, during the State Fair. “Best staff in the country,” Dan proclaims. “I’d put my hat on that. They cannot be matched in their commitment to our mission, to each other, and to the people we serve.”

While EXPO is best known for the NM State Fair, Dan is quick to point out that they were recently visited by representatives from 40 of the top fairs in the country, drawn by EXPO’s array of highly rated events. And, declares Dan, the Fair itself is “no longer just corndogs and concerts.” This year’s theme, Generations of Fun, celebrates the important role of the State Fair in our state’s past, present and future. “No event represents so much of the culture of New Mexico’s diverse communities. It’s the best opportunity for people to come together and celebrate as one, to break down silos.”

Dan’s enthusiasm and just plain joy for this place keeps amping up as we speak. “Tingley Coliseum has been serving up entertainment since 1956 - including Elton John, Elvis Presley, and performers that appeal to every taste. We’re evolving and becoming more aggressive in pursuing unique events like the Chocolate and Coffee Festival and the largest Pow Wow in the world.”

Dan zeroes in on my comment that EXPO is a sort of “island” in the midst of a dense residential and small business community. When the Fairgrounds opened in the current location in 1937, these neighborhoods didn’t yet exist. As the City has grown around them, EXPO NM has adapted to their changing role. Dan notes that COVID showed him they needed to be front and center as part of the community. EXPO serves as the emergency evacuation staging grounds for Albuquerque and the surrounding area. They worked with FEMA during the devastating wildfires and stand ready to work with partners including the Red Cross and the Downs of New Mexico to provide food, shelter, and care if needed. During COVID, EXPO was severely impacted being unable to hold events and generate revenue so they immediately pivoted to focus on taking care of people. EXPO staff were on the ground during mass testing and later vaccinations conducted there.

“These are the safest 236 acres in New Mexico,” Dan asserts. “Last year we hosted 470,000 people over 11 days at the State Fair, with only four misdemeanor arrests.” They work closely with the State Police, APD, AFD, BCSO, Homeland Security, State Fire Marshal, Environmental Health, and many other agencies. There is 24-hour security on the grounds. Dan is excited about the sophisticated new Evolve system, with cameras monitoring internal and external activities, that’s coming soon. Stay tuned!

Dan is emphatic that ideas are just talk unless there’s real action taken to implement them. One of those ideas arose from a vision he was quick to credit to Governor Lujan Grisham. They’re working with NM Veterans/Military Affairs, NM National Guard, and the NM Military Institute to create a Job Challenge program for at-risk youth, providing them with structured opportunities to create a better future. This is no small undertaking, involving rebuilding dorms to provide housing, a year-round commercial kitchen, and a training center for trade careers in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, etc. Dan anticipates the program launching sometime in 2025. “Changing the course of a young person’s life - it doesn’t get any better than that,” he tells me.

So what’s next? An update to the EXPO NM master plan, shepherded by the 7-member State Fair Commission, is underway and will likely take a couple of years.

“This place is constantly in motion; it changes every day. We’re just getting started!” And with that, we head outside for a quick photo opp before Dan is off and running to keep this place he calls “home” moving and improving.

Thanks to Cynthia Serna for contributing her interview as our first “Guest Blog.” Cynthia is Board President of Revitalize San Pedro Partnership Inc.

The Revitalize San Pedro Partnership Inc. (RSPP) is a non-profit corporation and designated NM MainStreet Accelerator program. RSPP's mission is to work with the adjoining neighborhood associations, businesses and community partners to facilitate opportunities for improvement, growth, preservation, and promotion of the San Pedro Drive Corridor between I-40 and Central Avenue in Albuquerque NM. For more info, visit https://www.sanpedroabq.org/.
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