Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
RATON – A progressive Denver entrepreneur has decamped, part-time, to southern Colorado, purchasing several properties in Trinidad and Raton, in his hope to economically link the historic, if struggling, towns.
Raton (population about 6,000) and Trinidad (about 9,000) are separated by 21 miles and a mountain pass, but coupled in their shared coal mining histories and heritage. Many pioneer families who founded Trinidad in the 1860s were from Mora.
Kayvan Khalatbari, 37, closed last week on the El Raton theater on North 2nd Street, the town’s whimsical version of a medieval Spanish castle movie theater that dates from 1930 (see sidebar article). The purchase price was $270,000, he said.
“It’s going to take a lot of money to get it where I envision it,” he said, including work on the marquee, roof, interior and window replacements. “I hope to employ some historic tax credits as part of this.” Most of his projects are self-financed, he said.
“When I walked in that building, I really fell in love with it,” Khalatbari said in a recent telephone interview. “I have a bit of an obsession with old buildings that require some more investment, some more love, maybe some new ideas to bring some new life to them.”
Khalatbari and family members, through a state grant in cooperation with, and approved by, the Raton City Commission earlier this year, have established Ramel Family Farms, LLC on city property. They plan to build a greenhouse producing fresh produce, and to raise crickets for pet food and use cricket waste for fertilizer.
Two months ago, Khalatbari purchased the Santa Fe Trail Traders building in Raton and he plans to open a grocery store there, as well as one on property he bought on Trinidad’s Main Street. He is also thinking of starting a film studio in Raton.
He envisions the Raton businesses providing 25 to 35 jobs, with hopes that grocery store employees will be in a “worker cooperative” model, with workers also being owners. Khalatbari said he used a similar approach in pizza parlors and other businesses he founded in Denver.
Khalatbari and Raton government leaders are enthused about the projects and the town’s future.
“I’m just really excited to be in Raton and then be part of a revival I think I see coming with the region,” said Khalatbari. “The people of Raton have been really, really incredible throughout this, not just the folks at the city, who have helped negotiate and approve these agreements, but also people in the community.”
Raton has prioritized economic development by hiring an economic development director, earmarked part of its gross receipts tax funds for economic development and hired a Utah firm that identified six focus areas for development, said city manager Scott Berry.
“An important one is downtown revitalization,” said Berry. “That’s critical in our town.”
For the local group that owned El Raton, “It really was a labor of love for them,” Berry said. “We are excited that a new group is stepping in; they will have a new plan for operations,” he said.
Khalatbari wants El Raton to continue showing movies, but he also has more ideas.
“Ultimately, I think the goal is … to keep it a movie theater,” he said. Khalatbari is also considering live music, possibly stand-up comedy, “and maybe even some (live) theater performances. I would love to have it more of a multi-offering space for these various creative outlets.”
The local families that previously owned the theater showed movies there until about March 2020 when the COVID-19 virus shut down operations.
There was concern “that an iconic building like El Raton will be shuttered; so, we’re excited that that won’t (happen),” Berry said. “I am hopeful that the change of ownership will lead to investments in that building and revitalization of the building,” he said. “It’s the centerpiece of our main street community … (and) it’s important to the psyche of our community.”
Notwithstanding the financial investments he is making, for Khalatbari, the projects are important to his own psyche. “Most of what I’m doing is independently financed … part of me investing in these small towns is breaking away from the big city and corporate America, and all things that kind of started picking away at my soul the past few years.”