'Downtown was terrible': A look back at Las Cruces' transformation from ghost town to vibrant center - Albuquerque Journal

‘Downtown was terrible’: A look back at Las Cruces’ transformation from ghost town to vibrant center

Lane Towery strolls past the Rio Grande Theater on Main Street in Downtown Las Cruces. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

There’s a universal sentiment among long-time residents of Las Cruces.

Urban renewal, the concept of modernizing cities by updating “blighted” areas — often through seizure and demolition — marred the unique character of New Mexico’s second-largest city and set back its revitalization efforts by a generation.

“Downtown was terrible. Nobody went there. It was a ghost town,” said Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, a political officeholder for the past 30 years, about his recollection of the post-urban-renewal downtown area.

Climbing out of that hole has been difficult and expensive.

“At least 20 years now we’ve been working on the revitalization of downtown,” said Chris Faivre, deputy director of the Economic Development Department for the City of Las Cruces

A major turning point in the revitalization of Downtown Las Cruces came in 2008 when the Main Street area was designated a tax increment district, which would allow its revenue to be taxed and redirected into redevelopment projects that benefitted the area.

Since that point, said Faivre, “there’s definitely $25 million in TID revenues that have gone to downtown” and have given traction to the Las Cruces Downtown Master Plan, which was adopted in 2004, updated in 2013 with a new plaza design, then updated again in 2016, with “four intense days of exploring the hopes and concerns of residents, business people, elected officials and staff” during a public design workshop, the master plan’s executive summary states.

Compiling data from a residential market study, a retail market analysis, a hospitality market analysis and public input, the plan seeks to create “a more lively and prosperous Downtown” that incorporates “the adjoining historic neighborhoods of Mesquite and Alameda Depot,” the report states.

The heart of the city

One of the top priorities of the downtown plan was the reopening of traffic through Main Street. That happened in 2013. When the outdoor Plaza de Las Cruces was completed in 2016, it was hailed by many as the city’s most meaningful step to a fully revitalized downtown.

At that time, Mayor Miyagishima called the grand opening of the plaza a “historic day for Las Cruces” when he addressed the crowd. Later that day, he told the local newspaper that the plaza’s opening was “probably right up there with the incorporation, back in 1849.”

Today, he said he feels the same about the plaza and the downtown district that surrounds it.

“I grew up here, and downtown is the heart of Las Cruces,” he said, adding that when he first was in a position to influence revitalization, he and the city council decided: “If we are going to revitalize and change things in the city, we have to start with downtown first,” he recalled. “That is the heart. If the heart is not working, the rest won’t work.”

Businesses along Main Street say they believe the downtown plan is working, and that a new energy can be felt in the flow of shoppers visiting the string of shops in the central corridor.

Optimism brims

Patricia Jimenez, owner of The Little Shop on Main Street, said that revitalization planners “are emotionally involved” with downtown’s success, and that gives her confidence that the downtown area will succeed.

“They’re willing to have your back, and they’re trying to help you, you know, and I think it’s important,” she said. “It’s a big deal, what they’re doing. Downtown is alive now. When I opened up the store, there was no Main Street.”

Patricia Jimenez, owner of The Little Shop on Main, in Downtown Las Cruces, N.M., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

Now, she said, “everybody is more out and it’s like in-your-face business on the weekends because that’s when everybody’s coming … they’re walking around, going to the bars, going to the plaza, going to the farmer’s market.”

Karin Bradshaw, market manager for the Farmers & Crafts Market of Las Cruces, was walking along Main Street and stopped to give a quick rundown of the variety of vendors selling wares at the open-air market, which has more than 300 vendors stretching across seven blocks on Main Street every Saturday.

The Farmers Crafts Market of Las Cruces offers a variety of vendors selling wares in an open-air market downtown. More than 300 vendors stretch across seven blocks on Main Street every Saturday. About 3,000-6,000 people shop at the farmers market each week. (Karin Bradshaw/FCMLC)

“We have produce, we have plants, we have ranchers, we have farmers, we have microgreens, mushrooms, we have painters, we have jewelers, we have bath and body, we have home decor,” she said, and estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 people shop at the farmer’s market each week.

“But no cannabis,” she said. “That’s regulated and, with children out here, that’s not possible.”

At a central location on Main Street is a popular stop — The Grounded Lounge — a pizzeria with a selection of custom coffees and wines, a sprawling back patio and live music.

“We’ve been open for a year. Feb. 16 is our one-year anniversary,” said Sandra Espiritu, who opened the business with her husband Tony, a retired firefighter.

“It’s been good. We get a ton of college students and young professionals,” she said, adding that the clientele is a mix of locals and tourists who are eager to socialize.

“I see a change or a shift after the pandemic. People are ready to get out, people are ready to support local businesses and I think that’s really been helpful,” she said.

Owners and founders of The Grounded Lounge, Sandra and Tony Espiritu, with their daughter Kendra Espiritu, who is co-owner and general manager of the pizzeria in Downtown Las Cruces, which also offers a selection of custom coffees and wines. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

Espiritu, who’s been in Las Cruces since 1989, said she has seen the difference in the pace of revitalization of the downtown area.

“I’ve seen the city grow, and I saw downtown and I knew downtown before. It was all a shut-down street with just an outdoor mall. It just didn’t bring half the traffic that it brings down now.”

Melody Burns, who has lived in Las Cruces since 1993, and whose late husband Robert Burns co-founded the Las Cruces Music in the Park series in 1995 believes downtown revitalization “is at a high point right now.”

“That’s my opinion, just watching it over the years,” she said as she stood on a sidewalk on Main Street. “It’s been amazing to watch the transformation, really. With having Main Street back open and having more restaurants, more little coffee shops, lots of variety of businesses, I think it’s a good thing. Once the city finished the plaza, its been really great to have a downtown gathering place for people.”

The bigger picture

While downtown revitalization appears to be enjoying support from businesses and shoppers, there is wariness from the drafters of the Las Cruces Downtown Master Plan. They worry that national businesses and industry might be attracted to Las Cruces, but locate their operations in a place distant from downtown.

In their plan, they sounded this alarm. Citing its high “WalkScore” — a mathematical expression of the convenience for residents to walk to important community amenities — they warned that “numbers like those are likely to attract developers, including many who might prefer addressing that demand in outlying areas.”

Should that happen, the report states, “hopes for significant improvement in economic development and quality of life in the Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods could be delayed — or even dashed — for a generation.”

But the leaders in Doña Ana’s business recruitment sector have a different perspective.

A regional anchor

The strategy to build an economically robust downtown would be most effective if it includes the entire region, even those beyond the bounds of the Las Cruces downtown district, said Davin Lopez, president and CEO of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance, a Doña Ana County agency with an annual operating budget of about $1 million that operates in Doña Ana County.

The most successful downtown revitalization projects look at a series of contributors, he said, and among the most important is a lively downtown that assures potential new businesses that their workforce can have an enjoyable quality of life.

“When I recruit companies, it’s healthy for us to have a vibrant-looking downtown for them because it’s that perception of a community investing in itself and investing in its growth that helps with recruitment,” said Lopez.

“Those new dollars circulate several times over within all of our service businesses – mom and pop businesses, retail businesses — and that’s what grows the economy,” he said.

MVED’s latest annual report shows $246.3 million of new investments were brought into the Las Cruces region in fiscal year 2022 — a 320% increase from the previous year — and 777 new jobs were created, a 27% increase from 2021.

The MVED report also stated that six new industrial businesses opened in Doña Ana County — three of them in the Las Cruces area: Artico Cold Management, which a corporate press release stated will open in September this year after a $30 million investment; Saputo Cheese USA dairy company, which a company press release indicated will also invest $30 million in its Las Cruces facility; and Electronic Caregiver, a software and hardware provider for the telehealth industry that houses its corporate offices in the city’s tallest building and intends to “be the first Fortune 500 company from Las Cruces,” according to CEO Anthony Dohrmann.

These six companies, according to MVED documents, will create 937 new jobs and more than $105 million in new capital investments in Doña Ana County.

Lopez said Electronic Caregiver opened its facility in Downtown Las Cruces and “is growing exponentially,” with an additional 700 new jobs coming in over the next five years.

In October last year, Bitwise, a California-based company that trains web developers in underserved communities, announced it will be moving into Las Cruces, on Main Street. The Bitwise business model may fit well into the Las Cruces revitalization effort because, according to its corporate communications, it is designed specifically “to lift underserved populations.”

“Revitalization is at the heart of our brick-and-mortar locations. We dedicate ourselves to the underrepresented and underestimated, and that includes every building on each of our expansion campuses,” according to its mission statement. “There’s something inherently beautiful about seeing what was once an abandoned building on the corner of downtown become the headquarters for a homegrown technology startup — bringing fresh ideas and new opportunities to the surrounding community.”

Lopez said the Las Cruces region is seeing “more inquiries and more requests for proposals from companies that are more geared to advanced manufacturing” and tech companies, electric vehicle components, and advanced cold storage and food-processing automation.

With these types of high-tech businesses coming to the Las Cruces region, that will translate to more “residents with stronger earning power that are going to send more dollars circling through downtown, with all the products and services that are in the area, whether local restaurants or entertainment, and so that just helps a growing flourishing downtown area,” Lopez said.

“Once you have more spending power downtown, you have the potential where people want to live downtown, and then also the demand for housing, so it’s a good ecosystem that becomes possible.”

The border effect

Also feeding into the Las Cruces downtown would be employees from a new business sector taking root in Santa Teresa: Asian companies that are “reshoring” their operations because of the crippling effect of COVID-19 on the supply chain. As a way to circumvent logistical costs and issues from pandemic-like events, and as a way around the high U.S tariffs from the trade war with China, Asian companies are looking to set up operations in U.S. locations near such ports of entry as Santa Teresa, border business leaders say.

Jerry Pacheco — president of the Border Industrial Association, an industrial advocacy organization based in Santa Teresa — explains:

“Companies, in the past, used to think about what’s the cheapest way to set up a supply chain, so many of them produced in Asia. Well, now, because of what’s happened with COVID and because of what happened with the supply chain disruptions, they’re not thinking about the cheapest way to do it any more,” said Pacheco. “They’re thinking about security and being close to the end-user.”

“So, we’re seeing, in Santa Teresa, more interest by Asian companies that want to set up in North America. By placing the production here, it’s easier for them to have control over their supply chain,” he said.

The Organ Mountains loom over Las Cruces, which is reaping the benefits of a long-term effort to revitalize its downtown. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

With immigration hitting record numbers in El Paso, that may mean an increase in the business traffic going to Santa Teresa, which already plans to invest $70.7 million from state and federal funding for an expansion, according to a March 2022 report in the Journal.

Recruiting to the greater area “economic-based businesses and employers” that export products is a way to ensure a steadier customer flow to the Las Cruces downtown area, said Lopez.

“When you have something that exports outside the state, that brings new dollars into the local economy,” he said, and explained that those dollars are amplified in a way similar to how a healthy national GDP — gross domestic product — improves the U.S. economy.

When firms are able to hire more employees with good salaries, they spend more on local goods and services which, Lopez said, translates to more Las Cruces shoppers spending in the downtown area.

For such business-owners as Jimenez, customers in her store — whether from around the block, another part of the county or a different part of the country — means money in her register.

“It’s good to have a big workforce. They need stores to get the things they need, just essentials, anything. I’m here not just for the locals, but also for the tourists, for everybody,” she said.

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