Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
RUIDOSO – For one glorious weekend in early March, during spring break for many Texas schools, everything was humming for Joe Madrid and his Ruidoso jewelry business, Apache Trading Co.
“Those three days of that weekend, man, we knocked ’em dead,” Madrid said. “We were so busy.”
Then COVID-19 reached New Mexico, and everything slammed to a halt. Apache Trading Co. closed its doors for two months. Even when the store reopened, and visitors began pouring back in from Texas and Arizona, sales didn’t recover to pre-pandemic levels.
Madrid estimated the store is down $40,000 in sales so far this year, a consequence of the lengthy closure as well as nervousness about spending money in an uncertain economic climate.
“The town fills up on weekends, and people come in, but they’re not buying,” Madrid said.
It’s been a roller coaster year for the southeast New Mexico mountain town. After popular casinos closed and the famous Ruidoso Downs Race Track stopped selling tickets for races, the village suffered through a difficult spring season.
As the weather warmed and the state government relaxed restrictions on businesses in May, Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford said visitors returned in force to the village as they do every year, even with casinos and other amenities still closed or limited.
“We want that kind of activity, but we were getting run over,” Crawford said. “There was no social distancing – it was unsafe.”
With COVID-19 cases rising in the Southwest and with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s most recently unveiled restrictions aimed at limiting visitation from outside the state, shop owners reported that the number of visitors is down again this month.
On a sunny afternoon on a recent Monday, just a handful of visitors lingered in the abundant outdoor patios along Sudderth Drive, the village’s main street.
While there were plenty of cars on the streets, only a few had license plates from Texas, a state that, in better times, is home to more than half of the village’s visitors.
Ruidoso faces an uncertain future during what normally would be the heart of its summer tourism season.
“We’re just trying to figure out how long we’ve got to hold our breath for,” Crawford said.
Rural areas hit hard
Few New Mexico industries have been hit harder by the pandemic than tourism, as it prompted businesses to close and tourists to cancel their trips.
The state’s leisure and hospitality sector, which includes most tourism and tourism-related employers, shed nearly 38% of its jobs over a 12-month period ending in May, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. During the depths of the pandemic, the occupancy rate at New Mexico hotels dropped to as low as 22%, according to a presentation from the New Mexico Tourism Department.
As rough as the pandemic has been on the entire state, there’s evidence that it has been hardest on New Mexico’s rural communities, many of which rely heavily on tourism spending.
Cody Johnson, spokesman for the state tourism department, said the agency identified eight New Mexico counties, including Ruidoso’s Lincoln County, where direct tourism spending supported at least 20% of the county’s workforce. These counties were deemed “at risk” during the pandemic unless they’re able to diversify their local economies.
In Taos County, home to Taos Pueblo, Red River and other famous tourist destinations, 30% of the workforce is receiving unemployment benefits, according to a recent presentation from the Legislative Finance Committee.
Sandoval County, which contains parts of Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve and other destinations, also has more than a quarter of its workforce seeking benefits, according to the presentation.
Not many New Mexico communities rely more heavily on tourists and second-home owners than Ruidoso, a village of around 8,000 residents that routinely sees 30,000 visitors on busy summer weekends.
When the weather warms up, visitors from all over the Southwest flock to the community, nestled in the Sierra Blanca Mountains more than 6,900 feet above sea level, for golf, gambling and relief from the heat.
As a result, Ruidoso and Lincoln County have been hit particularly hard by the downturn in tourism. During a 12-month period ending in May, only Taos County saw a larger jump in its unemployment rate than Lincoln County, according to the recent report from the state workforce department.
Even established businesses are worried about the future. Noisy Water Winery owner and winemaker Jasper Riddle, who operates a tasting room in Ruidoso and a production facility in nearby Alto, said he’s worried about the region giving up its hard-won gains over the past several years.
“I get that the whole world is going to slide back a little right now,” Riddle said. “I just hope that we don’t go off the cliff.”
Visit, but not now
To date, Lincoln County largely has been spared from direct health impacts of the coronavirus. As of Thursday, the county has recorded just 29 cases and zero deaths, giving it one of the lowest per capita rates in the state and country.
Crawford said Ruidoso was proactive about creating a road map for businesses to operate safely. The village created Ruidoso Safe, a series of guidelines for businesses to reopen and operate safely, and it ratified a 72-page county plan with specific guidelines for various types of businesses, school districts and other entities.
Crawford said the village has taken more direct steps to assist its residents as well, including delivering groceries, offering residents rides and setting up day care for frontline workers.
Justin Huffmon, director of tourism for the village, added that Ruidoso opted to suspend its normal advertising campaign for tourists early in the pandemic, in what would normally be the lead-up to the hectic summer season. Instead, Huffmon said, the village rolled out a unique marketing campaign, titled “Discover Ruidoso … Later.”
“We wanted to stay top of mind, but we also wanted to be informative and to let people know that this just wasn’t the right time to visit,” Huffmon said.
In spite of the messaging, Huffmon said more visitors felt emboldened to travel to Ruidoso in June, after the state relaxed restrictions on businesses. With fewer indoor destinations to choose from, Huffmon said visitors flooded into nearby lakes and village parks.
Timothy Dodge, village manager for Ruidoso, said the crowds got so big that the community had to limit access at the popular Grindstone Lake to visitors with reservations.
“We had a tremendous amount of people showing up,” Dodge said.
Still, some businesses in the community are bracing for a challenging rest of the summer. At the beginning of July, Lujan Grisham announced that all visitors traveling to New Mexico from other states must self-isolate for 14 days in response to a spike in cases across the region. At a later news conference, the governor asked out-of-state tourists, particularly those from Texas, to visit another time.
“We don’t want you to take the virus to El Paso – we don’t want you to bring the virus from El Paso,” Lujan Grisham said.
Huffmon said roughly 55% of Ruidoso’s tourists come from Texas, making it by far the largest inbound market for the village. Many tourists have opted not to come, and businesses are feeling the effects.
Michelle O’Brien, owner of Michelle’s Ruidoso, a clothing store in Ruidoso’s Midtown District, said business at her store has dried up considerably after a promising late June.
“I would almost compare this to October, or early November,” O’Brien said.
The loss of visitation could have long-term ripple effects for local businesses. O’Brien said many Ruidoso businesses rely heavily on summertime tourism to offset losses during less busy times of year.
“In Ruidoso, literally we do 60 to 70% of our business in this four-month period,” she said.
Huffmon said in recent years the village has worked to encourage tourists to come during spring and fall by adding events, including concerts and motorcycle rallies, to the calendar. However, most of those events have been canceled this year because of the coronavirus, denying businesses an opportunity to recoup some of their losses.
“Little ripples in a small community have a big impact,” Huffmon said.
With out-of-state travel limited and international travel almost impossible, Ruidoso is trying to find more visitors in its own backyard. In a typical year, Huffmon said, tourists from other parts of New Mexico constitute just the third-largest share of visitors for the village, behind Texas and Mexico.
While Huffmon said the community has made gains in recent years, he acknowledged it can be challenging to lure visitors down from Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
“People don’t think to drive south to go to the mountains, typically,” Huffmon said.
Some businesses are just trying to survive until the end of a challenging year, but others are trying to adapt with the times. Riddle said Noisy Water has expanded distribution in Texas and Arizona earlier than the company anticipated after seeing retail sales plummet 80% in May.
At its tasting rooms, servers limit contact with guests and provide cleanable or disposable menus to limit transmission in the event of an outbreak.
Riddle said one small advantage of operating in a mountain town is that many businesses have more room to spread out and socially distance than those in larger cities. He said it’s just a matter of keeping businesses afloat long enough for them to implement the necessary changes.
“I do think now we’re at the point where the economic implications and other implications are staring us right in the face,” Riddle said.