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Arts upstart Meow Wolf says jobs up after public investment

In this Nov. 2, 2018 photo Vince Kadlubek, co-founder and board member of the offbeat arts and entertainment company Meow Wolf, speaks at a Democratic political rally at a Meow Wolf venue in Santa Fe, N.M. Kadlubek now says that Meow Wolf has surpassed hiring goals attached to a 2017 economic development grant worth $1.1 million from New Mexico and the city of Santa Fe. Kadlubek is stepping down as CEO amid plans for an aggressive business expansion by Meow Wolf into Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Offbeat arts adventure and entertainment company Meow Wolf says it has surpassed hiring goals outlined in a $1.1 million economic development grant from New Mexico and the city of Santa Fe, amid plans for an aggressive business expansion into Denver, Las Vegas and other major U.S. cities.

Meow Wolf co-founder and board member Vince Kadlubek said the addition of 290 employees since 2018 puts the company ahead of employment requirements under the 2017 grant award for building renovations.

The agreement called for Meow Wolf to create 250 jobs at an average salary of $46,000 a year by the end of 2021, with the opportunity for a $100,000 bonus if 300 jobs are created.

The New Mexico Economic Development Department that monitors the grant agreement could not immediately verify employment figures and average salaries on Tuesday. Agency spokesman Bruce Krasnow said it appears that “Meow Wolf has exceeded its job creation goals for state economic assistance.”

More than 1.5 million visitors have visited Meow Wolf’s kaleidoscopic walk- and crawl-through exhibit space in Santa Fe since it opened in a converted bowling alley in early 2016.

The company’s labour practices have come under scrutiny after two former employees filed a lawsuit this year complaining of unpaid wages for overtime and discrimination based on gender. Meow Wolf denies the charges. Court records show the company is seeking to move proceedings to arbitration.

In May, Meow Wolf announced a company-wide $17 hourly minimum wage — or roughly $35,360 a year for fulltime work. Santa Fe’s current minimum wage is $11.80 an hour. Meow Wolf’s executive compensation rates are not public.

Kadlubek, who helped broker the infrastructure award from New Mexico’s closing fund, announced last week in a blog post that he will step down as the company’s CEO to focus on improving his own business skills and taking better care of his personal health.

Going forward, the CEO post is being shared by three Meow Wolf executives, including a former creative director for Disney and a former vice-president at Lucasfilm who worked on business spinoffs from the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” film franchises.

The 2017 award from New Mexico’s closing fund for emerging businesses was used by Meow Wolf to purchase and renovate an art and video production facility on the south side of Santa Fe, in a warehouse previously owned by construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. The state committed $850,000, and the city of Santa Fe pledged $250,000.

“At this point, we are packed to the brim at that facility, having literally run out of parking spots and space to operate,” Kadlubek said in an email. “So we are, in addition, renting out another 15 locations around the city to accommodate our workforce. It’s amazing.”

New Mexico also previously awarded Meow Wolf $450,000 through a jobs training incentives program to create 33 jobs.

The taxpayer funding is dwarfed by the company’s $158 million securities offering in May — borrowed money from private investors that Meow Wolf is using to expand. Permanent exhibitions are planned for Las Vegas, Denver and Washington, D.C. — along with a hotel-related project in Phoenix.

Morgan Lee, The Associated Press