Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – It’s no secret that COVID-19 has devastated New Mexico’s tourist economy, manifested by the various restrictions placed on hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses – as well as the number of unemployed people.
At Wednesday’s Legislative Finance Committee in Cloudcroft, Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes showed legislators unemployment rates in every county. Taos County led the rest, with a staggering 30% of its residents receiving unemployment benefits.
Officials from Taos County said the area’s economy relies heavily on tourists, and their absence has hurt local businesses.
Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, said it was “very alarming” to see the share of unemployed workers in Taos County. Bars and restaurants without patios, in particular, have been hit hard, he said.
“Our businesses are really, really struggling,” he said.
One of those businesses is Mountain Skills Rock Guides, which offers guided rock climbing tours, usually to tourists. Donna Longo, who runs the business with her husband, said the little help they’ve received has not gone very far.
They received a few thousand dollars from the federal government, which did little to address their mounting expenses.
“It paid one bill,” Longo said.
To keep their business alive, Longo and her husband have been using their unemployment checks to supplement lost revenues, as well as pulling from their personal savings. However, with federal unemployment set to expire in two weeks, it’s unclear how they will keep their business afloat.
“Now we have nothing left to feed our business,” she said.
County officials are now looking for ways to diversify Taos’ economy to make it less reliant on tourism.
County Manager Brent Jaramillo said there is an urgent need for new industries in the area, especially with more and more people losing their jobs. He pointed to a recent KOAT story about low food supply at the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque.
“We are having the same issues up here,” he said.
However, diversifying presents its own set of challenges.
Like many other tourist towns in New Mexico, Taos has historic preservation laws that limit where and what types of buildings can be constructed. The county also consists of large amounts of federal and state land unavailable to developers.
This, Jaramillo said, is the primary barrier to new industries coming to Taos County.
“It’s harder for us to attract a business because we don’t have that commercial space available,” he said. “The county can offer the same state incentives as other local governments, but one of our challenges is not having that infrastructure.”
Whatever businesses are able to come, officials and residents say the area can no longer live and die by a tourist’s dollar.
“The pandemic definitely shows that you can’t rely on tourism,” Longo said. “Snap of a finger, it’s gone.”
Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed reporting to this report.