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May-29-2011 00:28printcomments

Little Santa Fe and Big Trailer Town

Despite economic crisis, Dona Ana County is expected to reach a population somewhere between 309,000 and 350,000 people by 2040.

New Mexico
New Mexico, enchantment and diversity.

(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) - Editors’ Note: Today’s article is a continuation of Frontera NorteSur’s occasional New Mexico Centennial of Statehood series that reflects on the past, present and future of the southern New Mexico borderland since 1912. This piece is the second installment of a three-part mini-series on the economic history of Dona Ana County. The article looks at contrasts in housing, community and business development, as well as the living circumstances of different groups of immigrants that found their way to Dona Ana County in recent years.

Every spring, the British flag flutters over the old Mexican village of Mesilla in Dona Ana County, New Mexico. Ringing the historic plaza, classic and antique British cars attract hobbyists, sight-seers and tourists who gather around models such as a 1949 Roadster, a 1968 MGB-GT and a 1958 Jaguar with a fluffy leopard doll hanging out the passenger’s window.

In addition to locals, the annual spring-time show of the British Motor Car Club of Southern New Mexico draws a sprinkling of out-of-towners who give a small boost to New Mexico’s $5 billion tourism industry. “Last year, we had one guy who drove all the way from Washington state,” says car club member Ed Townley.

Mesilla’s yearly version of the “British Invasion” is just one of many to hit this small community over the years. Settled by Mexican refugees from the US conquest of New Mexico in 1846-48, Mesilla had grown to an estimated 800 inhabitants by 1850. Three years later, the refugees were forced into the US with the Gadsden Purchase.

In the succeeding decades, Mesilla endured Confederate invaders, the Butterfield Overland mail route, the trial of Billy the Kid, the regulars at Sam Beam’s saloon, and the German and Italian prisoners of war set to work on nearby farms during the World War Two era.

More than 100 years after the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang, the old, historically-registered court house is now a commercial gift shop with an ATM machine.

For thirty cents a pop, customers can purchase black-and-white postcards of vanquished Native American leaders, assassinated Mexican revolutionaries and woolly Wild West personalities.

Color postcards of iconic creatures of the Land of Enchantment like the roadrunner are also available.

Surrounding the plaza, which is a National Historic Landmark, the village lay-out of preserved adobe buildings, art galleries, cafes, jewelry shops and a Nambe ware outlet have helped give Mesilla the nickname of “Little Santa Fe.”

Reflecting the sensibilities of the times, outdoor smoking is banned in the square fronting San Albino Church. Adopted in 2004, Mesilla’s comprehensive plan emphasizes its rural and historical character and the Spanish Pueblo and Territorial architectural styles.

On land where small farms once sprang from Mother Earth, gated subdivisions clutch the rich loamy soil. Homes in the $700,000-plus price range are for the velvet taking, as is a good acre in exchange for $100,000.

Despite its new veneer of wealth, the village of 2,196 residents (2010 Census) has also faced challenging times during the Great Recession of the early 21st century.

A transplant from southern California, entrepreneur Michael Mason took the risk of opening his Real Man store on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2010. Mason says his snazzy hats and cool threads are examples of the comeback in men’s fashion he detected by studiously reading business trend publications.

Mason’s biggest seller is what he calls “resort wear,” but stresses his store offers “everything from head to toe.” As part of his business strategy, Mason says he made the decision not to appeal solely to tourists. While he admits that business has been tough at times, Mason says he’s optimistic for the future. “I feel good. I’m at a point now where each month is a little better than the month of the previous year,” Mason says.

Almost next door to Mason, the Solamente Salsa store is likewise riding out the Great Recession-high on the saddle. Owner Janyce Leone reports that recent sales have “broken records.”

A former realtor, Leone is capitalizing on the enthusiasm for hot and ethnic foods. Her store offers visitors samples of delicious salsas- pineapple, tangy apricot, roasted raspberry chipotle sauce, roasted mango and a devilish hot sauce for only the most fortified intestines. A product called frog jam and tortillas are among other items on sale.

Leone says her business attracts plenty of tourists, but also many locals and “wonderful, faithful customers from El Paso” who keep her store racks stocked, spiced and rocking and rolling to the bank. Leone readily acknowledges that she has one advantage in a sluggish economy. “I also sell a product we don’t deny ourselves, and that’s food,” she says. Arguably, though, the hottest commodity of recent times in and around Mesilla and Dona Ana County has been the land itself.

Overlooking Mesilla are the West Mesa and East Mesa of Las Cruces, dusty domains of the Chihuahuan Desert where jack rabbits, quail, rattlesnakes, horned lizards, roadrunners and coyotes were the reigning residents not too long ago.

But in the sunset of the last century, Las Cruces began rising from the Rio Grande Valley and creeping into the high desert. Middle and upper-middle class subdivisions, some gated, sprouted like wild flowers from the land and bloomed names like “Desert Mirage II,” “Sonoma Ranch,” “Bellagio Villas” and “Picacho Mountain.”

Nowadays, many homes sell in the $300,000 to $500,000 price range; some even fetch a million bucks or more. A view of the craggy Organ Mountains to the east is the marketing pitch for mesa living. “Amazing” or “unobstructed” are adjectives used to describe the vistas from desert dwellings built in adobe, Santa Fe and hacienda styles.

The land rush also scooped up undeveloped and agricultural land. In the Hatch Valley on the north end of Dona Ana County, farm acreage that sold for $2500-$5000 in 1992 doubled in price to $5,000-$9,500 in 2001 and commanded as much as $13,000 or $14,000 by 2011.

In Dona Ana County, an acre with coveted pecan trees goes for $100,000-$125,000.

Scattered across a county the size of Rhode Island, the far-flung subdivisions and lots were physical testaments to the boom that first overtook and then subsided in Dona Ana County during the past few decades. By the mid-1990s, the desert county on the Mexican border was ranked among the ten fastest-growing counties in the US.

Statistics compiled by the City of Las Cruces show that residential construction “significantly outpaced” population growth between 2000 and 2006. According to a city report, there was a 27 percent increase in housing units compared with an 18 percent increase in population growth during the six-year period examined.

Housing stocks shot up from 32,380 units to 40,990 in only six years. According to the City of Las Cruces, the average selling price for a home within city limits was $209,048 in 2006 and $215,013 in 2007. In retrospect, a bubble was forming not only in prices but in existing supply. Even as the historic housing market boom began subsiding, the City of Las Cruces issued 1,159 residential building permits for 2007.

In 2011, three companies accounted for two-thirds of the real estate sales in Dona Ana County, according to an industry report. In order of importance, the firms were Steinborn and Associates Real Estate (42 %), Re/Max Classic (15 %) and Exit Realty Horizons (9%).

Out-of-state retirees searching for a land of sun and serenity helped fuel the local realty market. Affluent transplants from places like California were able to sell high at home and buy comparatively low in the greater Las Cruces area-sometimes with cold cash.

“In many ways, this is a more attractive area than a place like Phoenix and Tucson,” says New Mexico State University economist James Peach. “We have most of the urban amenities, but we don’t have the urban problems.” In 2006, the American Association of Retired Persons declared Las Cruces the best place to retire in the United States. On the national airwaves, radio ads barked about the availability of “cheap” land in New Mexico.

The push to lure retirees to New Mexico was reminiscent of the campaign to colonize Dona Ana County’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District about 100 years ago. In both cases, people from out of state were viewed as essential players in economic development and cheap land was held out as the attraction. But like the rest of the US, greater Las Cruces was slammed by the Great Recession of 2008. For starters, Dona Ana County lost $250,000 in investments when Lehman Brothers collapsed, according to a special issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin.

As the economy melted down, the first four months of 2009 witnessed a 20 percent drop in home sales compared with 2008. Then the helping hand of government reached out-at least partially. Realtor Gary Sandler was quoted crediting the federal government’s short-lived First Time Homebuyer Tax Credit for “significantly” boosting local home sales in the period from May to October 2009.

By November 2009, Dona Ana County had issued 739 new residential construction permits for the year-nearly the same number as much bigger Bernalillo County (Albuquerque) to the north, which approved 773 similar permits in the same time frame.

Nonetheless, the realty markets settled in for an uncertain future. Hundreds and hundreds of unsold units crowded glossy property listings, and prices declined somewhat. Similar to the boom-bust in the foreign-oriented real estate market of Puerto Vallarta and other Mexican resorts that competed with Las Cruces for the snowbird clientele to a certain extent, higher-end properties sat vacant as sales of homes below $200,000 became the moving action.

Meanwhile, as comfy castles and potential land fortunes arose and then tottered in the mesa sands, an entirely different housing scene took root in Dona Ana County.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of New Mexican statehood, almost half of the county’s population of more than 209,000 people resided in 37 federally-designated colonias, or low-income communities that initially lacked paved roads, sewage hook-ups, electricity and other basic markers of development.

In the newer colonias, mobile homes quickly became the model of architectural fashion; some could even be glimpsed erected below pricey new houses. Frequently, families or extended groups of people crowed into sometimes dilapidated fire traps.

According to the proposed One Valley, One Vision 2040 comprehensive plan for Dona Ana County, 24 percent of all housing units in Dona Ana County were mobile or manufactured homes in 2006-2008; the percentages were even higher in the adjoining New Mexico counties of Sierra and Luna. Statewide, mobile/manufactured homes accounted for 12 percent of the housing stock.

The colonias expanded in the shadows of the formal housing market, when small lots were profitably parceled up and sold to low-income buyers- many of them low-paid Mexican immigrant farmworkers- throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. >From to 1980 to 2010, the population of Dona Ana County colonias grew significantly. For example, Anthony increased in population of 2,200 people to 9,360. Sunland Park shot up from 4,313 inhabitants to 14,106. Between 1990 and 2010 Berino jumped from 885 residents to 1,441 while Chaparral, tucked away over the treacherous hill that winds up from Anthony, boomed from 3,625 people to 14,631.

Outside the region, few probably had any inkling of the semi-underground housing boom. When asked by a reporter in 1994 about the settlements, Republican gubernatorial candidate Gary Johnson quipped: “What are colonias?”

As New Mexico governor in 1995, Johnson found out the answer to his question when he toured the Vado colonia south of Las Cruces.

The two-tier housing market reflected very distinct population segments that emerged in Dona Ana County as the 20th century drew to a close. On one side of the sociological scale were the more affluent newcomers and retirees, whom University of Texas at El Paso anthropologist Dr. Guillermina Nunez-Mchiri calls “the new immigrants,” and on the other end were many younger and financially strapped Latino families, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico residing in the colonias. In 2010, Dona Ana County’s ethnic breakdown consisted of about 65 percent Latino and 35 percent non-Latino.

Nunez-Mchiri says a mixture of new money, wealth and philanthropy even witnessed the emergence of a “Dallas class” in Las Cruces. In a word, “gentrification” had come to Dona Ana County, she says. In a study, the City of Las Cruces found that soaring housing prices made the area increasingly unaffordable for both renters and homeowners.

While rents increased statewide by five percent from 2000 to 2006, they jumped 14 percent in both Las Cruces and Dona Ana County during the same period of time. Based on US Department of Housing and Urban Development criteria, the analysts concluded that nearly six of ten county renters were “cost-burdened” while about one in four homeowners with a mortgage was in the same boat.

However, city analysts discovered that hosing costs were even more unaffordable in neighboring El Paso, Texas, which was primed for an economic uplift from the expansion of Fort Bliss.

Squeezed by costs, the Texas border city provided the largest source of new residents for Dona Ana County between 2002 and 2006. The Phoenix and Los Angeles areas were the next biggest places of origin for newcomers. Nunez-Mchiri, who’s done extensive research of Dona Ana County, argues that a symbiotic relationship binds together the affluent, generally Anglo newcomers and the younger, mainly Latino and far less well-off residents.

For instance, “A lot of immigrants are care-takers of the elderly,” the border scholar says. Responding to community betterment efforts by first the Roman Catholic Church’s social action ministry and then citizen groups like the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council, government agencies gradually rolled up their sleeves to improve infrastructure conditions in the colonias. As the years wore on, the bigger colonias even began resembling small cities.

In 2010, Anthony joined Sunland Park as the second incorporated colonia in Dona Ana County. Located at the southern end of the county on the New Mexico-Texas border, the new city’s outward appearance conveyed the pulses of an economy dependent on the billfolds of truckers and other working stiffs. A quick turn off Interstate 10, the Flying J Truck Stop revealed a Denny’s, a barbershop, a lounge with a flat-screen television, video games and a convenience store. Across the freeway overpass, a row of fast-food joints awaited hungry travelers and locals.

Deeper into town, a small strip mall hosted three different pay-day-like lending companies luring the poor. In 2011, the hot topic of economic development was the controversial proposal to place an off-reservation casino owned by Jemez Pueblo in Anthony, three hundred miles south of the tribe’s ancestral land. If approved, the casino was expected to compete with the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, the border community’s largest employer. Two decades ago, the biggest local employer was the now shut-down Old El Paso Foods plant, which canned chile peppers and was a pioneer in the Mexican food boom that went eventually left for greener economic pastures elsewhere.

Although colonias like Anthony and Sunland Park experienced important strides in infrastructure development, the affordable housing crisis stayed unresolved. Low-income housing advocate and developer Rose Garcia, whose Tierra del Sol Corporation has built 6,000 units (two-thirds in Dona Ana County) since the 1970s, says the Great Recession has clobbered the communities she serves. According to Garcia, four hundred people were on Tierra del Sol’s waiting list for affordable housing in 2011.

Garcia characterizes her clients as “good, hard-working folks” who nevertheless find themselves unable to obtain conventional mortgages due to their low-income status and history of working whatever jobs they can patch together. “These jobs aren’t civil service. They’re not solid. These jobs change according to the market,” Garcia says. “It’s almost impossible to get financing. Mortgage owners won’t lend.” A related problem, she adds, has to do with predatory lenders who charge interest rates between 12-18 percent for mobile homes.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the housing market, the cash flow has also proved problematic.

As an uncertain economic recovery trails the Great Recession, numerous empty lots and earth-tone homes stand with “For Sale” signs on Las Cruces’ East Mesa. Under the stony gaze of the Organ Mountains, many unsold properties sit quietly on tranquil streets as if waiting for a desert symphony to stir them to life at along with the chirps of little birds at sunrise. In the future, the spatial ecology of Dona Ana County could look very different from the sprawling contrasts of today. Hammered together by various business, professional and community representatives, the proposed Vision 2040 regional plan currently accepting public comment is generally focusing on in-fill development says City of Las Cruces Senior Planner Paul Michaud.

If Vision 2040 is approved by the county’s assorted governmental bodies, the county’s future growth and population distribution should shift from a 54% to 46% municipal vs. unincorporated ratio to one heavily weighted in favor of municipalities. Both the growing city of Las Cruces and smaller colonias would become “more dense,” and mid-sized high rise buildings in the City of Crosses would give the county hub a greater urban flavor.

Despite economic crisis, Dona Ana County is expected to reach a population somewhere between 309,000 and 350,000 people by 2040, according to different estimates cited in the Vision 2040 plan. “Let’s grow within our existing boundaries at this point,” is how Michaud describes the consensus. “People are concerned with growth, the cost of growing out,” he says.

For a glimpse of Dona Ana County’s possible future and a schedule of upcoming public meetings, interested persons can read the proposed Vision 2040 plan:

Frontera NorteSur’s New Mexico Centennial of Statehood series is made possible in part by grants from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, New Mexico Humanities Council, National Endowment for the Humanities and the McCune Charitable Foundation. The author is solely responsible for the contents of the articles.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.