Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The Española Lowrider Museum project is revving up again.
Switching gears from its original plans of being part of a proposed shipping container park at the former Hunter Ford car dealership, museum organizers recently signed a lease with the county for a spot on the former Cariños de los Niños Charter School campus.
The museum will be housed in a 3,600-square-foot cafeteria space. Due to necessary renovations, county and museum board officials did not have an estimated timeline for when the museum would open.
“I think things are going pretty good,” said museum board president Fred Rael. “We just need to get started on it,” he said. “We’re very anxious to get started on getting the exhibits in place.”
More than a year ago, the museum project received a Rural Pathway Project grant from the state Tourism Department for up to $50,000. The amount provided by the state must be matched by a local organization.
The spending deadline was originally June 30 of last year. Due to the Chicanos por La Causa-New Mexico’s delays with developing the Hunter Arts and Agricultural Complex on Paseo de Oñate, the state extended the spending deadline to Dec. 30. CPLC-New Mexico is a community development nonprofit also known as Siete del Norte, a nonprofit that it acquired a few years ago.
In December, with uncertainty on whether the project at the former car dealership site was going to move forward, the museum group locked down its current space. The county purchased the property after the school closed this past summer.
Around the same time it secured its location, the lowrider group incorporated as a nonprofit organization
According to Rael, the group has required cost estimates on exhibit- and infrastructure-related expenditures. But because the end of 2018 was approaching and with changes in leadership in state government, and the Tourism Department in particular, under a new gubernatorial administration, the grant deadline was pushed to June so the state has more time to approve reimbursements.
Española City Clerk and museum board vice president Melissa Velasquez said items the group has determined it needs to get started include security barriers and monitors, computers and software, lighting, and equipment for hanging photos and artwork. They’d also like to purchase a car frame featuring lowrider-style hydraulics and a small, custom pedal car that looks like a lowrider, she said.
“As soon as we get all the documentation that we’re approved to spend the money from the grant, we still have all of those purchase estimates and all that stuff so we’re ready to go whenever they approve it,” said Rael.
A spokesperson from the state Tourism Department could not answer questions about the current status of the grant funding as of press time.
Museum officials won’t have to start paying rent until they are able to move in, according to Rio Arriba County Economic Development Director Christopher Madrid.
Rio Arriba will provide a required match for the state money through its environmental assessment, remediation and other renovations to the facility, said Madrid. He said the county needs to install electricity, put in an HVAC system, fix the roof, and get the bathrooms up and running.
Madrid didn’t have a total estimate of how much improvements are going to cost – he did estimate installing electrical may cost around $16,000 – or how long it will take. But museum volunteers are helping move it along, according to Madrid, citing about 30 people with tractors and forklifts who recently came and cleaned out the space in one day.
“I can tell you its progressing nicely, but it’s not like we just have money we can throw at it,” he said. “It’s a bootstrap effort.”
To fix up the campus, Madrid said the county is putting aside money from a film company currently renting the old school. The county is also seeking $100,000 in capital outlay funds from the state Legislature for fixing up the old school building campus. For the museum space specifically, Madrid said the museum nonprofit is hoping to secure another $75,000 in capital outlay money.
The Lowrider Museum will be one tenant in what the county is hoping will become the “Cariños Community Hub.” According to Madrid, the local United Way chapter is committed to moving there, and the old gymnasium is already being used for local basketball leagues.
A committee is being formed to identify other potential uses for the downtown campus, which Madrid said will have representatives from the city, county, Northern New Mexico College, Española Public Schools and other local nonprofits.
“We’re not looking to go commercial and be landlords and make money, we’re looking to cover our costs and help those who serve our community,” said Madrid.
Hunter Ford project’s future unknown
When the museum coalition was originally awarded the grant, it was with the plan that they would be a tenant of CPLC-New Mexico’s Hunter Ford project, then estimated as a $4 million effort to remodel the existing structures and put 80 shipping containers on 28,000 square feet of land that businesses and the lowrider museum could rent.
The community development group had also agreed to provide the financial match for the museum grant.
When the estimates for the four-phase project came in closer to $8 million, CPLC-New Mexico CEO Roger Gonzales told the Journal last summer his organization was going to scale back the plans. He described a two-phase project that would include 23 containers within 14,500 square feet, remodeling an old garage and creating an outdoor event space. The first phase, which he said would cost a little over $3 million, was to include 6,500 square feet of container space, including for the Española Community Market and farmer vendors, in the old garage.
This week, Gonzales told the Journal his organization is currently evaluating the “feasibility” of the entire project.
“The concern has been if these reductions in design and construction would keep the same economic ecosystem intact,” said Gonzales.
He said a barrier to acquiring financing is the fact that CPLC-New Mexico has a lease for the car dealership site from the city of Española for 10 years, with the option to renew for another 10. Banks want a longer period of “site control” before they will provide affordable financing, Gonzales said.
He said the organization is currently considering whether or not it would make sense to try and buy the property, which was last appraised at $700,000, from the city.
If it decides against that and to not move forward with the project at all, he said CPLC-New Mexico and the city have the option to give back its $1.4 million grant it received from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration in 2015. Gonzales said that money has not been spent yet.
Gonzales said CPLC-New Mexico wants to be “good stewards” of the federal dollars.
“The last thing we want is construction done in communities and is not financially viable,” he said
Gonzales said he supports the lowrider museum’s decision to go elsewhere.
According to Rael, the old cafeteria at the school building offers more room than the container park would have.
“More space, more lowriders,” said Rael.