Taxpayer money, state endorsement fuels Meow Wolf expansion

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The arts-based entertainment company Meow Wolf continues to leverage public incentives and subsidies in its home state of New Mexico as it prepares to expand to major U.S. cities, winning approval for a half-million dollars in state job-training funds on top of recent awards that offset infrastructure costs.

The board of the New Mexico Job Training Incentive Program last Friday approved the $528,000 grant for the art production arm of Meow Wolf as the Santa Fe-based startup prepares to open a new venue next year in Las Vegas, followed by ventures in Denver, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.

At its “House of Eternal Return” exhibition in Santa Fe, Meow Wolf has coined a new brand of family entertainment that provides eye-popping psychedelic design work in a walk- and crawl-through exhibit of spiral stairs, catwalks and unmarked passageways, organized loosely around a riddle involving an abandoned Victorian home.

State spending on for job training at Meow Wolf comes in the wake of a $158 million securities offering in May — money from private investors that Meow Wolf is using to expand.

Meow Wolf board member Vince Kadlubek said state business incentives have helped build confidence in the company among private investors — and that Meow Wolf would likely make more requests for taxpayer money from the state.

“The (private) capital that we’ve raised doesn’t come from New Mexico, it’s coming from other states, other cities and investors who, you know, aren’t used to supporting a company that’s headquartered in a place like Santa Fe or a place like New Mexico,” Kadlubek said. “Having the support of the state … is something that really shows incredibly well to investors, like the ones we brought into our company, as to why we would continue to headquarter here.”

New Mexico has the highest rate of poverty in the western U.S. Its unemployment rate is higher than every state except Alaska and Mississippi. Eager to broaden the local economy, state lawmakers set aside $12 million in job-training incentives for the current fiscal year that began July 1.

The Santa Fe venue consciously lends itself to shared images and video on social media and has attracted more than 1.5 million visitors since opening in 2016. It’s now the backdrop for a bar, gift shop, evening live-music performances and other special events.

The grant awarded this month supports broad gamut of jobs, from an administrative assistant expected to earn roughly $22 an hour, to senior creative producer slated a $60 hourly wage. Meow Wolf currently employs 471 people, after hiring 189 so far this year, said Janis Bennett, the company’s human resources director.

Four previous job-training awards funded by the state for Meow Wolf were worth $910,000, according to the state Economic Development Department. The state and city of Santa Fe pledged $1.1 million to the company in 2017 to offset infrastructure investments at a one-acre (0.4-hectare) production facility.

The company’s growth in New Mexico hinges on success next year at the venture in Las Vegas, Kadlubek said.

“Give that a few months of run time — that will allow us and our investors and our board to have a really good understanding of our position moving forward,” he said.

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