By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Economic development, like charity, begins at home.
It’s up to the residents of rural towns and cities in New Mexico to support local businesses and boost local economies, according to Rich Williams, director of New Mexico’s MainStreet programs for the state’s Department of Economic Development.
Williams oversees the spending of about $1.25 million this year in economic development funds earmarked for MainStreet programs.
Williams visited Tucumcari on Feb. 26 as part of his tour of MainStreet cities in New Mexico. Tucumcari is among 43 communities in the state that have active MainStreet programs, and Tucumcari’s Train Depot renovation is one of the state’s showcase MainStreet projects, Williams said.
Mark Lake, Tucumcari’s MainStreet director, said the depot project has now entered its third phase, development of a railroad-oriented museum. The first two phases were setting up the depot’s main room, which can now serve as an event hall and large meeting facility, and adding concrete and décor to the depot grounds, including concrete forms, and decorative railings and street lights.
About $2 million has been spent on the rail depot project so far, Lake said, and only about $70,000 has been in cash from local tax rolls. The rest, he said has come from “in-kind” donations of city staff and worker labor and materials, a $1.4 million capital outlay allocation from the state of New Mexico, a $400,000 in state Department of Transportation funds for some repaving and road work, and a $157,000 allocation from capital outlay funding for state MainStreet programs, Lake said.
A MainStreet report mentions other Tucumcari MainStreet projects, including its Paint the Town program in which volunteers have painted four buildings on Main Street to reflect their original use as gas stations in the 1950s and 60s. In addition, the report mentions a micro-loan program that has assisted with building façade restoration and building maintenance.
The report says that since MainStreet Tucumcari became active in 2007, the downtown area has seen 19 new businesses, 45 jobs created, and $205,700 in private investment has occurred.
The depot can now serve as a central gathering place and an anchor point for further downtown development. The new development, in turn, should attract new businesses that will encourage local customers to spend money right at home and boost the local economy, Williams said.
These investments, he said, are meant to support a philosophy that local consumers should shop at local businesses as a first step in boosting local economies.
“Of every $100 spent locally,” Williams said, “about $86 stays in town.” That helps to keep local economies vibrant, he said..
So does cultural development, he said, including the restoration of historic buildings like the rail depot and restoration of gathering places such as local theaters, and arts and cultural centers.
Even with the declining economies that many rural New Mexico communities are facing, he said, there are some staples “that everyone spends money on” that downtowns can develop.
“Everyone needs a place where they can go out and have a meal,” he said, “and a place to go for some entertainment.”
In rural downtowns, these are businesses that can thrive, even in down times, he said.
In addition, he said, in a declining economy, “people are more likely to spend money on what they need, first.” Helping them do that with stores that provide basic needs in pleasant surroundings, he said, can keep a lot of money in town supporting local merchants.
“It’s something that Walmart and Target have discovered that local mom-and-pop merchants can learn to do,” Williams said. Local businesses, he said, need to learn better how to adapt what they sell and how they sell it to changing conditions.
MainStreet’s job is to help downtown areas, especially in rural towns and villages, recover their role as the hub of community commercial activity.
In Tucumcari, the Main Street program has plans beyond the Rail Depot’s renovation. The next project, Lake said, is likely to be to restore the Princess Theater, located at 710 E. Main St.
In addition, Williams said he would like to see stronger links develop between the downtown area and the businesses along Historic Route 66.
Lake said cooperation between MainStreet and Route 66 businesses is what resulted in Paint the Town.
Problems like the Sands Dorsey building rubble that mars downtown’s scenery are not uncommon in rural New Mexico, Williams said. Funds at both the local and state levels for demolition have disappeared as tax revenues have decreased, Williams said.
While he said that the Sands Dorsey building’s location is at a critical point — a main intersection downtown — it is a problem beyond MainStreet’s scope.
“There are no magic bullets,” Williams said of downtown revitalization efforts. “It takes a lot of hard work, not flavor-of-the-month projects. It takes long-term efforts using tried-and-true methods, and building partnerships one at a time.”
The eventual payoff, however, can be very significant, he said. For every dollar spent on revitalization efforts, he said, $44 returns to local economies.
It is also important, he said, for community leaders to be united in purpose, an apparent reference to division on the Tucumcari City Commission.
“You can’t have arguments and backbiting,” he said. “Funders are looking for partnerships. They want to see collaborative efforts.”