Local Economic Growth

Local Econ Growth Commentary 1-19-O Op-Ed

Op-Ed Growing New Mexico’s Economy Locally

Erick Aune, Lisa Pellegrino-Spear, Peyton Yates


Downtowns Matter

Driving through New Mexico’s towns and villages one wonders why some communities are able to maintain their identity of place and historic character, economic viability and quality of life, while others look like a hodge-podge of ever changing development?

Worse yet are the towns that suffer disinvestment in their commercial centers with deteriorating buildings and failing businesses, resulting in demolition by neglect. Why can we find a prosperous town center in one community and in the neighboring community, the commercial core a pale ghost of a once bustling downtown?

Beyond the important function of being an economic generator, downtowns are the heart and soul of New Mexico’s communities. On the outside the buildings represent the history and culture; the embodied heritage unique to a community’s economic roots and multiple generations’ aspirations for a good quality of life.

On the inside, downtown businesses represent the evolution of innovation that drives entrepreneurial vision and that serve the current needs of the community. The economic health of our village centers, courthouse squares and plazas are indicators of social and economic changes within the broader community.

Business recruiters know that in order to align relocation and new investment interests of a client, they need to highlight the current conditions of the community’s health care facilities, educational institutions and a drive-through downtown. Why downtown? Downtown’s vitality speaks to the community’s willingness to maintain its public infrastructure, a robust civic culture and the town’s ability to partner with private sector interests to enhance reinvestment and revitalize commercial and public spaces that bring the community and its visitors together.

The new generation of entrepreneurs, Gen X’ers and Millennials, will often add to that “must have” checklist, either a vibrant nightlife of brewpubs, theaters, internet cafes, restaurants or recreational opportunities within the region.

Those of us living and working in the Middle Rio Grande Valley all too often forget that New Mexico is a predominately rural state. Of the 105 incorporated municipalities only 12 are over 20,000 in population, with 81 towns and villages under 10,000 in population, and of that, 60 municipalities are under 5,000 in population.

New Mexico MainStreet serves a diverse group of communities based on region, demographics and population size. Its strategies and technical assistance is appropriate to urban commercial neighborhood redevelopment, however it particularly fits our rural communities. Over the last two years of the communities receiving NMMS services;

  • 10% were over 50,000 in population
  • 78% were under 15,000. And of those;
  • 24% were under 1,000 in population

A healthy New Mexico state economy is dependent upon larger corporations, major educational institutions, industry, manufacturing, military installations, and extractive industries. Some towns have the assets to maintain those industries, many do not. More likely our smaller communities depend on appropriate marketing of their heritage and culture and related artisan and cultural endeavors, and food and agricultural production most often located in the traditional commercial core. Retail and services are the predominant economic generators.

According to an article in Newsmax (April, 14th 2015), the top five major industry sectors providing jobs for New Mexico’s people, retail ranks second to health care. Following retail is accommodations and services (particularly tourism), then education and finally public administration. Rural and underserved urban neighborhood commercial districts require different revitalization strategies.


Developing Community Appropriate Tools

For the state to grow economically it will need to employ and ensure the availability of redevelopment strategies and tools that are community-appropriate and scaled-to-a-community’s existing assets. It also needs to invest technical assistance to tailor the correct toolbox for each community.

Asset-appropriate, light industry, small-scale manufacturing, creative industry and enterprise development are all good strategies to diversify and create resilient local economies. One of the strongest models for this form of community economic development has been instituted by the National Main Street Center (Main Street America). New Mexico has a long successful partnership with Main Street America through the 31-year old New Mexico MainStreet Program.

New Mexico MainStreet provides the professional expertise, which supports local capacity building to wield the right financial and revitalization tools for any community-based economic redevelopment project. In the last few years the New Mexico network of 54 local partners has remarkably achieved more than $44 of private sector reinvestment for every $1 of state funding from the legislature and governor.

Patrice Frey, President and CEO of the National Main Street Center, Inc. in a recent letter to Economic Development Department Cabinet Secretary Designate Matthew Geisel stated, “With great efficiency, NMMS spearheads work in communities across the state that catalyzes reinvestment, redevelops aging downtown infrastructure, implements placemaking as an economic revitalization tool, grows creative businesses and industries, improves quality of life, celebrates community character, and promotes equitable local economic development. With adequate and stable funding, the NMMS has been, and can continue to be, a gold standard for Main Street programs across the country.”

There is no magic wand to restore rural and underserved urban commercial centers just as there is no “one size fits all” type of economic development. Communities choose the appropriate economic policies that serve their economic goals whether that be community development, creative economy, downtown revitalization, asset-based economic development or classic e-based economic strategies. One of those comprehensive set of strategies for the 21st century has emerged from Main Street America.

Edward McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute, Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Chair of the Board of the National Main Street Center, has articulated what those working strategies are and how they differ from previous decades: Public/Private Partnerships; laser targeted rather than shotgun strategy for new business recruitment; high value rather than low cost positioning of business development; opportunities that encourage and train the next generation of business owners for high talent; infrastructure that is inclusive of and supports education; a focus on enhancing assets rather than what you don’t have; and work driven by vision rather than transactions.

Performance and Accountability

Making these comprehensive strategies work has been the primary goal of New Mexico MainStreet (NMMS). Many legislators have commented, “I can tell when I’m driving through a MainStreet Community.” However, it’s more than anecdotal observations.

In the last six years, with the in-field professional assistance of NMMS, local MainStreet partners have completed:

  • 1,063 building rehabilitations,
  • attracted 752 net new businesses,
  • created 3,271 new jobs

All this leveraged on $85,320,935 of commercial property redevelopment downtown.

Of the 105 municipalities in New Mexico only 28 currently maintain MainStreet programs in partnership with NMMS. How do we expand this successful community economic redevelopment program across New Mexico’s traditional commercial centers?

Vision and Planning

Successful local MainStreet programs depend on a public/private partnership of local government and a formal non-profit organization representing local community needs. With facilitation by New Mexico MainStreet, together they forge an overarching vision of redevelopment and revitalization based on the assets of the commercial neighborhood district. The focus is on capitalizing upon existing community assets rather than longing for what we lost, wished we had, or duplicating what we’ve seen in another section of the state.

The articulation of that vision requires a comprehensive planning strategy. MainStreet supports the formal development of a downtown district economic development master plan. The plan engages all the community including the local governing body, stakeholders in the district and residents. The plan is critical in identifying targeted economic revitalization strategies and projects and they enable revitalization tools and incentives necessary to reach economic goals.

The plan guides the public and private sectors to make targeted reinvestments that become the building blocks of economic growth. That is why New Mexico MainStreet has taken the lead in creating with its local partners more than 30 District Master and Metropolitan Redevelopment Plans over the past ten years.

Where possible, MainStreet invests in a Metropolitan Redevelopment Area (MRA) plan. New Mexico’s “anti-donation clause” severely restricts public/private partnerships. The MRA legislation eases those restrictions for specific economic redevelopment projects. Successful communities build their plans and adhere to them (including land use, transportation, tourism, real estate redevelopment) around the enhancement of their existing assets.

The Commercial District Master /MRA Plan process identifies where economic transformation can have the highest impact. There are many worthy projects. The MRA Plan targets the catalytic projects that drive further revitalization in the district.

Rebuilding Private Sector Confidence

A contributing factor in New Mexico’s depressed commercial real estate market, especially in rural areas, is often the result of lack of confidence by the private sector because of poorly maintained and deteriorating public infrastructure that if improved, would support commercial building improvements and entice new business ventures.

Public Infrastructure, utilities and streets in the district, need to be upgraded to 21st century commercial needs to prepare the revitalization district for private sector building upgrades and small business reinvestment. The last major rebuilding of downtown infrastructure in New Mexico often dates back to the late 1930s WPA era; the contractor stamps in the concrete curbs and sidewalks bear telling witness.

Despite these financial barriers to public infrastructure reinvestment in downtowns, communities have remained resilient adapting to new economic trends even in the face of declining populations and changes in key industry sectors. They deserve appropriate-scale reinvestment in their public infrastructure to ensure sustainability and retain economic vitality in their traditional commercial centers. That investment includes pedestrian safety improvements, alternative transportation, and business friendly upgrades that support commercial district economic vitality.

In recent years Federal Highway dollars have been prioritized to larger transportation systems such as the interstates. NMMS now has consultation agreements with NMDOT and the state’s Historic Preservation Division to assist in the downtown planning process and to identify potential sources of Federal and State Highway funding for MainStreet District street redevelopment.

With an eye on full construction funding, NMMS and its partners have been seeking funding solutions for local partners to keep rural and underserved commercial centers viable in the competitive application process. Whether through the New Mexico Finance Authority, MainStreet Capital Outlay or NMDOT funding, NMMS works with its local partners to move the necessary capital forward to complete the public improvements.

Community Engagement

Great Blocks on MainStreet, NMMS’s premier economic growth program, is providing a design, plan, and build construction-ready initiative for communities addressing their Public Infrastructure deficits.   Foundation partners such as the McCune and the PY foundations as well as the New Mexico Resiliency Alliance bring critical matching funds to our local MainStreet partners, especially to rural municipalities that often are cash-strapped and unable to access these funds.

Decades ago, municipal redevelopment agencies learned a valuable lesson about investment of public funds in capital projects and infrastructure. Simply implementing a redevelopment project doesn’t necessarily catalyze the private sector reinvestment around it. Where government does an incredible job at capital and public infrastructure, it isn’t well suited at addressing the follow up work with property and business owners. It takes a revitalization non-profit partner to move that next stage of redevelopment forward. There are many abandoned or under-utilized commercial buildings on Main Street that through an adaptive reuse program can transform those structures back to productive business activity.

While upgrading and replacing decaying infrastructure in New Mexico’s traditional downtowns is of key importance, the full power of the project is when the baton is turned over to the local revitalization partner; the MainStreet Program, the Frontier Community Initiative, the Arts & Cultural District organization or the Historic Theater restoration committee.

With the professional assistance and expertise of the NMMS team, the focus moves to leverage and synergize the public improvements through the local MainStreet Program. NMMS professional technical assistance is provided to the local revitalization partners to renovate commercial buildings and match property with entrepreneurs and business start-up ventures.

What makes one community’s downtown economically resilient and vibrant over other communities? Public/private partnerships (leaders from both the private and public sector collaborating), long term vision, effective implementation tools, targeted and strategic investment, building skills and expertise for the next generation of talented entrepreneurs. The Main Street America Approach accomplishes that and much more. In order for the State’s economy to thrive, the historic commercial cores of New Mexico’s communities must adapt, succeed and grow.


To learn more about Community and Rural Development strategies in New Mexico, please visit www.nmmainstreet.org


Erick Aune is President of New Mexico Resiliency Alliance, a 501c3 non-profit established to financially support local organizations in their community economic development work . Erick is a former Executive Director of Aztec MainStreet.

Lisa Pellegrino- Spear is President of the New Mexico Coalition of MainStreet Communities, a 501c6 non-profit established to advocate and educate for community revitalization and redevelopment. Lisa is a current Executive Director of Clovis MainStreet.

Peyton Yates is former President of the Artesia MainStreet program. Peyton is also former President of the Friends of New Mexico MainStreet.

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