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The Once-Upon-A-Time Outlet Mall Beside I-25 Is for Sale Again

By Susan Stiger
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    BUDAGHERS— Other than a squirrel and a reporter, the only life form braving the weather at ¡Traditions! on a recent Tuesday near noon was a small garter snake, hugging an empty storefront to stay out of the wind.
    Evidently the snake knew something the reporter hadn't realized— the only remaining businesses at the plaza are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
    There is a sign on the highway, of course, but who can resist a semi-ghost town once you've driven out there?
    The 30 developed acres of the site, with their clusters of fanciful wind sculptures surrounded by about 160,000 square feet of retail space, first set out to be an outlet mall, then a festival marketplace.
    Now it's for sale, perhaps looking toward a new destiny as a movie studio. There's no word on the price tag, but you could probably get the snake thrown in for nothing.
    These days, but for the occasional meeting of groups like the Behavioral Health Planning Council, ¡Traditions! looks more like an art school/wind farm with building murals and little green alien figures guarding the Flying Saucer Diner— one of a handful of places still doing business.
    Among at least 20 closed storefronts, there are five still operating: Camino Real Interiors, Native Beauty, Santos Religious Artifacts, Holiday Expressions, Details and Legends Museum remain, although the museum's doors were locked on a recent Wednesday.
    "Movie" was the first thing that sprang to mind on that lonely Tuesday, as the wind whooshed and the metal sculptures creaked and groaned with but one set of ears to hear them. It was spooky even at high noon. Possible plots: Alien bargain-hunters mistake shoppers for good deals on robots. The sole vehicle in 1,200 parking spaces was a white van whose spare tire cover bore a picture of the "Wizard of Oz" foursome headed down the Yellow Brick Road.
    Another soul who's thinking movies is John Garcia of Grubb & Ellis in his approach to selling the ¡Traditions! property for owner Jim Long. Garcia says ¡Traditions!' days as retail-festival-tourist attraction are over. He is talking to movie people— not the big movie people the new Albuquerque Studios will bring in, but smaller movie people. Movie people looking to do scaled-down projects, on, say medium-size money, rather than the big Hollywood kind.
    Garcia says visiting hopefuls are seeing the big picture as he presents it— a site situated between two labor pools— Santa Fe and Albuquerque, room enough for a small studio, a sound studio, training space, and vast, empty land for all that "back lot" stuff.
    "If you look west, there's nothing out there," said Garcia, in an unintentional underscore of the site's earlier miscasts, "a few telephone lines, but otherwise it looks like the West of years ago. And you have the Rail Runner coming right there."
    Garcia has been talking to one group out of California and one from New Mexico, as well as a few less serious contenders.
    "If we get the right people here, I think we can get a deal done maybe early this summer, and maybe be up and running before next snowfall," he said. "It's not hard to put up a studio."
    It was hard, though, for the site's brief lifetime as New Mexico Outlet Center, thanks to an outlet mall in Santa Fe. Even with names like Levi's, Bass, Hanes, Maidenform and Liz Claiborne, many of which still adorn the back doors of the stores. Santa Fe Factory Stores competed with Donna Karan, Brooks Brothers, Coach Leather, Cole Haan, Nine West and Jones New York.
    Betty Tafoya, who's running Details with a gift for schmooze and a strong knowledge of the merchandise, said she and Peter Jefferson, food and beverage director at the Flying Saucer Diner, know how to chat up tourists, turn the locals into regulars and keep up the spirits at ¡Traditions!
    "Business will pick up in summer and during the holidays," said Tafoya. "It dies after income tax time and after holidays."
    On a good day, said Tafoya, she sees a steady stream of people all day. All she has to do is get busy in the back, she said, and a customer will show up. Like Jefferson, she said she doesn't keep count of people, but not every day is a "good day."
    "Right now, I'm a horse pulling a cart with blinders on," said Jefferson. "I have one focus— graduation."
    A caterer and a restaurant man, Jefferson said he's booked 20 parties for a couple of months to cover various graduations, some on site, some delivered.
    Tafoya and Jefferson remain bullish on ¡Traditions!, proud of their efforts to land regulars, whether it's Tafoya's "people who just stumble upon us while traveling and then become repeat customers" or Jefferson's regulars from the pueblo or folks who drive from Albuquerque or Santa Fe just for his green chile chicken soup and half-pound burgers.
    "People have left when they found out I'd run out of soup," said Jefferson.
    ¡Traditions! people have heard the movie buzz too, but nobody is making a move to pack boxes to vacate the space. Oh, and the snake, they've heard of it too. Apparently it wasn't as lonely as it looked on that Tuesday. It has friends— one or two have even made their way into a store.
    The history— Source: Company spokesperson, published reports
  • 1993— N.M. Outlet Center opens, built by McArthur/Glen Group, based in McLean, Va., at a cost of $12 million to $13 million.
  • 1995— McArthur/Glen Group is acquired by Michigan-based Horizon Group Inc.
  • 1996— As many as 30 stores are open, including Liz Claiborne, G.H. Bass, Levi's, Samsonite, OshKosh B'Gosh.
  • 1997— Horizon signs deal with Chelsea GCA Realty, owner of Santa Fe Factory Stores just south of Santa Fe. Most major stores transfer to renamed Santa Fe Premium Outlets.
  • 1998— Management reverts to Horizon, which puts N.M. Outlet Center put up for sale.
  • 1999— Owners, unable to sell or lease it, hire Sperry Van Ness of Irvine, Calif., which auctions property for more than $2.5 million, owner not identified.
  • 2000— American Property Management announces it is the buyer, mentions possible uses including call center, administration location for tribes, distribution center or state government offices.
  • 2000— American Property, along with partners from the Budagher family, announce they will use center for N.M. artists and craftsmen. Renamed New Mexico Market & Cultural Center, then renamed again as ¡Traditions!
  • 2007— American Property Management announces attempt to find new uses for property.