ABQjournal: Las Cruces: Determined to Grow

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Sunday, September 19, 1999

Las Cruces: Determined to Grow

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES -- The city originally named after the final resting place of some unfortunate travelers on a north-south trade route from Santa Fe to Chihuahua would astound its founders today.
Doña Ana County, with an estimated 1995 population of 160,000, is projected to more than double in size to about 351,000 by the year 2020, according to a recent analysis by New Mexico State University economics professor James Peach and sociology professor James Williams.
Such growth is impressive for a town whose streets were laid out 150 years ago with a length of rawhide rope.
To understand Las Cruces' place in New Mexico history, you have to begin with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Indians' backlash against repressive Spanish rule forced Spanish settlers to flee south and establish a new home at Paso del Norte, or present-day Juarez.
In 1843, a few dozen settlers from Juarez moved north to establish a village at Doña Ana and launched farming with construction of a communal irrigation ditch.
With the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, however, Doña Ana found itself in U.S. territory. Under terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million for the right to annex all of New Mexico through to California above a line north of the 32nd parallel.
A group of Mexicans, preferring to live under the Mexican flag, moved south into what was then Mexican territory and founded the village of La Mesilla in 1850.
La Mesilla's citizens found themselves back inside U.S. territory in 1853, though, after the American minister to Mexico negotiated the purchase of desert land extending south to the present border, in part to provide an east-west railroad corridor.
Las Cruces sprouted because of crowding in Doña Ana.
In the spring of 1849, the Doña Ana mayor asked a U.S. Army lieutenant to lay out the beginnings of a new town a few miles south of Doña Ana, where crosses marked the graves of travelers killed along the north-south trade route.
Las Cruces began to swell with an influx of Union troops during the Civil War and continued to grow with increased economic activity spurred by the establishment of a railroad depot in 1881.
With an eye to the valley's need for educational opportunities, Las Cruces boosters secured the territorial Legislature's award of an agricultural college to the town in 1889. The New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, renamed New Mexico State University in 1960, graduated five students in its first class of 1894.
Over a century later, NMSU is a keystone of the city, employing 6,000 people, educating more than 15,000 students on the main campus and nurturing the city's cultural life, with a thriving literary scene and sports teams.
Another key to the region's economic health arrived with the completion of the 300-foot-high Elephant Butte Dam 70 miles north of Las Cruces in 1916 and, in 1938, Caballo Dam 25 miles downstream, which ensured efficient irrigation for the Mesilla Valley. The river feeds a green ribbon in the desert where farmers grow chile, cotton, onions, pecans, corn, alfalfa and other crops.
Las Cruces has seen steady growth, from barely 120 residents its first year to 2,900 by the turn of the century. Just 50 years ago, the city was home to 12,325 people.
In 1945, with the war in Europe ended but war against Japan dragging on, the White Sands Proving Ground was opened and became a worksite for German scientists who helped the United States develop its own V-2 rocket.
The range eventually grew in size and importance, employing more than 6,000 military and civilian employees by 1958, when it was renamed White Sands Missile Range.
Employment at the nation's largest military installation, 3,200 square miles, peaked at about 10,000 civilian and military personnel in the early '90s, and has declined by about one-third since then as a result of military budget reductions.
Local officials are aggressively pursuing continued growth. The city, which is still seeking to condemn El Paso Electric Co.'s local distribution network in a bid to lower electric rates and spark economic growth, has opened an electricity substation in the West Mesa Industrial Park and has lured two manufacturing plants.
Meanwhile, Doña Ana County officials are trying to establish a regional water and wastewater utility in order to smooth the way for longterm residential and industrial development north of the Santa Teresa port of entry.
As El Paso and Ciudad Juarez continue to grow, private developers hope to lure new homeowners, manufacturers and maquiladora suppliers to about 24,000 acres of largely undeveloped land west of Sunland Park.
Another gleam in the eyes of state and local officials is a commercial spaceport. New Mexico is one of several states bidding to win a deal with Lockheed Martin to house a spaceport and assembly plant that could employ as many as 3,000 people.