Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
A recent $45 million state grant will fund the development or improvement of community centers, skate parks, rodeo grounds, outdoor theaters, sports complexes and much more throughout New Mexico.
That’s good news from Angel Fire, where $90,000 is earmarked for a playground, to Tucumcari, where more than $216,000 is slated to rehab a municipal swimming pool.
But, in Mora County, besieged and blighted by fire and flood last year, the $2.5 million designated for a recreation and community center is viewed by some as a ray of hope, a new start, another chance. Center plans call for a playground, a rock-climbing wall, a demonstration kitchen, a physical fitness area, a conference room and a technological unit – assets that can reassert a sense of normalcy in people whose lives have been unimaginably disrupted, and perhaps even provide them with a blueprint for the future.
“A lot of people lived off the land – loggers, outfitters, landscapers, people who grew Christmas trees, made latillas and sold rocks for landscaping,” said Mora County Commissoner Veronica Serna.
But the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire that started last spring and the monsoon-rain fueled flood waters that rushed over burn scars in the summer stripped the land of natural resources, sullied rivers and streams, strangled irrigation ditches, killed fish and robbed many of Mora County’s 4,500 people of their livelihood.
“We have a lot of people who want to come back, but need to work remotely,” Serna said. “We don’t have a lot of broadband in Mora County, but they can use (the center’s) technological incubator for that, or start businesses out of there. We have to seek alternative ways to use what we have left, like selling biochar product for fertilizer. Somebody even talked about creating biodiesel fuel out of wood slash.”
A safe place
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Department of Finance and Administration announced earlier this month the award of $45 million from the Regional Recreational Centers/Quality of Life Grant to tribal and municipal governments across the state. More than 40 projects got funding.
Serna thinks Mora County’s portion of the award can be a step to recovery, but she is not sure when the recreation/community center project will get started, let alone when it will be completed. She said that depends on final DFA authorization, approval of plans by the county commission and the duration of the RFP (request for proposal) process.
“Hopefully, work could start within the year,” she said.
She knows the center will be located in the 43,000-square-foot, two-story Mora County Complex in the town of Mora. Construction on that building started about a dozen years ago, but much of it has remained vacant over the years due to structural problems, and a lack of money to fix the defects and complete the project.
Serna said about a third of the complex, which was completed last year, is now being used by county offices, including the sheriff’s department. She said there will be space remaining in the complex, even after the addition of the recreation/community center facilities.
Serna is confident that every facet of the new center will be valuable to Mora County residents.
“The demonstration kitchen can be used to teach people with diabetes to prepare healthy meals, and the county extension agent can teach 4-H kids how to do canning,” she said. “There will be a playground outside. Mora County never really had playgrounds because people used the mountains for leisure activities, such as hiking, camping, fishing.”
But the fires not only turned the mountain forests into a charred no-man’s land, but also a continuing source of mental anguish.
“A lot of people are suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the burned trees give them flashbacks,” Serna said. “The center’s playground will be a safe, recreational area for all ages, for families.”
Tobias Lovato, 66, a rancher who lives in Holman, six miles northwest of the town of Mora, sold off his cattle before last year’s fires due to several years of drought. “Livestock ranching is big in Mora County, but we need hay production,” he said. “And without acequias (irrigation ditches crippled by flooding), we are not going to be able to produce hay. Hunting is huge here, but that’s gone. Lumber, firewood, Christmas trees all impacted. How does a community recover when all our resources have been impacted?”
He agrees with Serna that the recreation/community center’s technology hub can help.
“The technology center is huge,” said Lovato, who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It has always been important, but we have never before had the funding for it. We can capitalize on it and do things for the community as a whole. Or, if there is an opportunity for work at Los Alamos, for example, and we have qualified folks, they could do the job from here.”
Martin Duran, 52, ranches in Chacon, seven miles north of Holman. His family has been on that land for five generations. Last year, the fires and the floods took turns ravaging his pastures. He got no hay and sold off half his cattle herd.
But he is cheered by the prospect of the recreation/community center.
“I strongly believe it’s a great asset to the community,” he said. “I’m a huge advocate for youth. I sponsor a program to provide kids with backpacks for school, I coach Little League. I think the rock-climbing wall and the playground is a great thing for the kids. And people can make jams, jellies, cookies and burritos in the kitchen, and sell them to stores. They can’t make them at home and legally sell to stores, but they can do that in an approved community kitchen.”
Move Mora forward
Kristy Wolf, 63, is a Mora native who left the town for years before returning to own and operate a motel, RV park and café for 18 years. She sold her businesses just before the fires and has spent much of the time since then as a volunteer helping victims.
She said she does not believe any one part of the proposed community center is more important than another.
“We need a fitness place that is accessible to everyone,” Wolf said. “It’s hard to drive to (Las) Vegas every day to go to the gym. The kitchen gives people the opportunity to create their own small business. I’ve had people asking me for some of the things I used to offer in the café. A rock-climbing wall builds strength, self-confidence and self-esteem.
“And I think a lot of people here don’t have access to the internet. There could be classes (in the technology hub) for people to learn to use the internet, how to do résumés, business plans, marketing, websites, things to move Mora forward. There’s an opportunity for people to take classes that would help them move in a new direction, get away from doing rock and wood. The possibilities are endless.”
Mora County Sheriff Americk Padilla, 34, is pumped by the prospect of having a fitness center in the same building as his department.
“There will be locker rooms and showers,” he said “I could give the guys (eight deputies) an hour of fitness time, keep them physically fit and mentally focused.”
Padilla, a lifelong resident of Mora and a graduate of Mora High School, sees the recreation/community center as a place where friends and families could gather for picnics in the playground or just to visit and talk, a place where kids can hang out without getting in trouble.
And we have a lot of elderly people who may have a computer at home, but may not know a lot about using it,” he said. “They could get help in (the technology) center, especially with all this paperwork for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).”
A different world
Ella Arellano’s family has been in the Mora Valley for 10 generations, but recently she sometimes finds it difficult to recognize the place.
“The landscape is so changed now,” she said. “It’s a whole different world. It’s so windy in January because we have no forest for a wind break.”
Arellano, 67, lives in Holman. Her family raises alfalfa on land that stretches from there to near the Taos County line. Some 2,500 acres of their holdings were affected by the fire.
“Right behind us 300 acres is just gone,” she said.
She applauds anything that can help Mora County, but she’s not sure a community center with a technology hub is what the county needs. “We need water and we don’t have a watershed now,” she said.
Rancher Lovato notes that the county’s population has been in decline for decades. He said 14,000 people lived there in the 1920s compared to less than 5,000 there now.
“I don’t want to lose our population,” Commissioner Serna said. “I want those who are here to remain and those who left during the fire to come back. It has been 10 months (since the fire started) and some people have become complacent where they are.”
She hopes the recreation/community center will give people a reason to come back.
“I want to create a homecoming for them,” she said. “We have a responsibility to the residents of Mora County to be as creative as we can.”