‘We’re right in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing’

Questa looks to Rio Grande del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment to re­vive town af­ter mine closed

Albuquerque Journal - - JOURNAL NORTH - BY T.S. LAST JOUR­NAL STAFF WRITER

SANTA FE — The quaint lit­tle vil­lage of Questa in the scenic north­ern moun­tains of New Mex­ico is look­ing to re­cover from the clos­ing of the Chevron molyb­de­num mine three years ago by brand­ing it­self as the gate­way to the Rio Grande del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

The mine, which had been the eco­nomic driver in the area for the bet­ter half of a cen­tury, shut down op­er­a­tions in the sum­mer of 2014 and with it went about 265 jobs, a dev­as­tat­ing blow for a com­mu­nity of about 1,700 peo­ple.

“We didn’t have an­other in­dus­try to fall back on,” said the vil­lage’s mayor, Mark Gal­le­gos. “But know­ing that Rio Grande Del Norte had just come into ef­fect, we de­cided that prob­a­bly needed to be our fo­cus — to try to di­ver­sify our­selves to the out­door recre­ational com­mu­nity.”

The mine closed just months af­ter then-Pres­i­dent Obama des­ig­nated 242,555 acres of fed­eral land in Taos County a na­tional mon­u­ment. While Pres­i­dent Trump has called for a re­view of 27 na­tional mon­u­ments — in­clud­ing Rio Grande Del Norte and Or­gan Moun­tains-Desert Peaks in the south­ern part of the state — with an eye to­ward re­duc­ing some in size, there has been pre­vail­ing sup­port by lo­cal gov­ern­ments around the En­chanted Cir­cle, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and sports­men’s or­ga­ni­za­tions for main­tain­ing the north­ern New Mex­ico mon­u­ment’s bound­aries.

A study re­leased about a year af­ter the mine closed rec­om­mended the vil­lage take ad­van­tage of the eco­nomic pos­si­bil­i­ties that could come with the mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tion.

“Ac­tion: Make Questa the ‘Of­fi­cial Home of the Rio Grande Del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment,’” reads one rec­om­men­da­tion from a strate­gic plan­ning doc­u­ment com­mis­sioned by the

vil­lage.

The study — which took in­put from com­mu­nity mem­bers, data anal­y­sis and na­tional re­search on post-min­ing economies in ru­ral ar­eas into con­sid­er­a­tion — iden­ti­fied five ar­eas where eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment strate­gies could be em­ployed for the ben­e­fit of the vil­lage. The oth­ers were small busi­nesses and en­ter­prises, agri­cul­ture and food pro­duc­tion, arts and cul­ture, and hous­ing and construction. And while the vil­lage is in­vest­ing in eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ef­forts in those ar­eas, as well, out­door recre­ation and tourism ap­pealed to vil­lage lead­ers as a break­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity.

“Not so much tourism, where you’d have gift shops and stores, and stuff like that,” Gal­le­gos said. “We’re look­ing at more of an out­door ad­ven­turer clien­tele — peo­ple who are look­ing to be out­side in un­touched na­ture. We felt we could de­velop a niche for that group of peo­ple in­ter­ested in out­door recre­ation.”

Gal­le­gos says Questa al­ready has a great rep­u­ta­tion among peo­ple who love the out­doors. Op­tions in­clude hunt­ing, hik­ing, camp­ing, moun­tain bik­ing and horse­back rid­ing in the sur­round­ing San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains, and fish­ing, ca­noe­ing and kayak­ing along the Red River. Ea­gle Rock Lake, a so-called “fish­ing park,” is just out­side of town and not far away are op­por­tu­ni­ties for win­ter sports at nearby Red River and Taos Ski Val­ley.

Gal­le­gos says Questa has been a well-kept se­cret among out­door en­thu­si­asts, but now the time has come to mar­ket the vil­lage to a wider au­di­ence, “so that peo­ple can see that we’re not just a passerby com­mu­nity on the En­chanted Cir­cle.”

‘Com­mu­nity part­ner’

The En­chanted Cir­cle Scenic By­way — a rib­bon of roads ty­ing to­gether Questa, Red River, Ea­gle Nest, An­gel Fire and Taos — is per­haps the most pic­turesque 84 miles of high­way in New Mex­ico. About a half mil­lion cars pass through Questa along the loop each year.

“If we can get them to get out of their ve­hi­cle, we’ve got them where we want them to spend money in our com­mu­nity,” the mayor said.

And if they can get them to stay a few days as some sort of out­door ad­ven­ture, all the bet­ter.

But it takes money to make money, and Questa is try­ing to tap what fed­eral, state and lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment fund­ing is avail­able.

Just last month, the vil­lage was awarded a $1.2 mil­lion grant from the fed­eral Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­velop a busi­ness park.

“That’ll get us about half­way there,” Gal­le­gos said, not­ing that the vil­lage still needs to come up with match­ing funds, and that it’ll take about $4.2 mil­lion to build a busi­ness park with water, sewer, elec­tric­ity hookups, and “all the bells and whis­tles.”

The busi­ness park de­vel­op­ment is al­ready un­der­way and has one ten­ant. Taos Moun­tain En­ergy Bars — a good fit for a town pro­mot­ing out­door recre­ation op­tions — moved op­er­a­tions and ap­prox­i­mately 15 jobs to Questa in 2015.

Though it is clos­ing the last of its min­ing op­er­a­tions at Questa, Chevron Min­ing, Inc. isn’t en­tirely aban­don­ing the vil­lage. The com­pany, which do­nated 30 acres of land to build the busi­ness park, is pro­vid­ing $500,000 to match the fed­eral grant and, since 2014 and through 2023, is con­tribut­ing $320,000 an­nu­ally to the vil­lage’s eco­nomic re­cov­ery ef­forts. Of that amount, $200,000 goes to the vil­lage to spend on eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment projects and op­er­a­tions, and the re­main­ing $120,000 goes into an en­dow­ment, the funds to be re­leased when re­me­di­a­tion ef­forts are com­plete.

“But we’re look­ing at other pos­si­bil­i­ties to make the money avail­able be­fore then,” said Tommy Lyles, pub­lic af­fairs man­ager for Chevron, who ac­knowl­edged it will prob­a­bly be decades be­fore re­me­di­a­tion is com­plete.

Lyles said even if funds were re­leased sooner, Chevron will con­tinue to work with the vil­lage. “We know we’re go­ing to be a com­mu­nity part­ner with the vil­lage of Questa for a long time,” he said.

Chris­tain Isely, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment ad­viser for Chevron, said the com­pany is un­der no obli­ga­tion to help in this way.

“It’s not a part of any com­mit­ment,” he said. “It’s some­thing we de­cided to do to help the com­mu­nity tran­si­tion to a post-mine econ­omy.”

In all, the com­pany has vol­un­tar­ily con­trib­uted $4.7 mil­lion to the Questa Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Fund, he says.

The com­pany is ob­li­gated to pay for the cleanup that has left hill­sides stripped of veg­e­ta­tion. Last year, Chevron Min­ing Inc. agreed to a $143 mil­lion set­tle­ment with the state and fed­eral govern­ment.

Is­ley says Chevron is on board with the vil­lage’s ef­forts to be the gate­way to the mon­u­ment.

“Right now, the mon­u­ment has two visi­tor cen­ters: one in Pilar and the other at the Wild River Cen­ter, about a 25-minute drive from Questa,” he points out. “The de­sire is to get that one moved to Questa and give peo­ple an­other rea­son to stop.”

Chevron also owns 4,400 acres of land in the area and 1,400 acre-feet of an­nual water rights that may even­tu­ally end up with the vil­lage. “Those are sur­plus as­sets that we want to make sure are made avail­able for com­mu­nity use,” Lyles said.

Both the land and the water would ben­e­fit the vil­lage’s ef­forts to pro­mote farm­ing and ranch­ing as other ways to di­ver­sify the econ­omy. The eco­nomic strate­gic plan­ning study iden­ti­fied bar­ley and malt­ing as po­ten­tial op­er­a­tions that could sup­ply New Mex­ico’s grow­ing beer in­dus­try.

‘Great po­ten­tial’

Malaquias Rael pre­ceded Gal­le­gos as mayor and now serves as chair­man of the Questa Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Fund board. He’s lucky. His fam­ily owns sev­eral busi­nesses in Questa, in­clud­ing Questa Lum­ber, a hard­ware store and a tire shop, and wasn’t as af­fected by the mine clos­ing as many area res­i­dents. But he be­lieves the com­mu­nity is ca­pa­ble of re­cov­ery.

“I’m op­ti­mistic about the things we’re do­ing,” he said. “I be­lieve we have great po­ten­tial to be a des­ti­na­tion (for out­door recre­ation). There’s no way we can be like Red River or Taos, but we can still be a part of the En­chanted Cir­cle.”

Questa’s not like Red River, a ski and re­sort town, or Taos, known for ski­ing, but also its arts and cul­ture. But Questa can boast its prox­im­ity to na­ture and the great out­doors. Rael points out the vil­lage is bor­dered by the Car­son Na­tional For­est, with the Columbine Hondo and Latir Peak wilder­ness ar­eas not far away. A sign on the way out of town on N.M. 378 says the mon­u­ment is just 3.4 miles ahead.

“We’re in such a great po­si­tion,” he said. “We’re right in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing.”

Near the mid­dle of town is an­other relic the town takes pride in. It’s the newly re­stored San An­to­nio de Padua Catholic Church, a 150-year-old struc­ture that was con­demned by the arch­dio­cese, but re­stored by towns­peo­ple in what some say is an un­abashed “mir­a­cle.”

Mayor Gal­le­gos says if the town can re­vive the church, it can sur­vive a fu­ture with­out the mine.

“That’s the sin­gle best ex­am­ple of the vil­lage’s re­siliency,” Gal­le­gos said of the church. “We are not go­ing to give up.”

T.S. LAST/JOUR­NAL

The Vil­lage of Questa is look­ing to re­brand it­self in the wake of the Chevron molyb­de­num mine clos­ing three years ago.

The Chevron molyb­de­num mine near Questa closed in 2014, tak­ing with it about 265 jobs. Re­me­di­a­tion ef­forts at the site are ex­pected to go on for decades and Chevron is work­ing with the vil­lage to help its eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

T.S. LAST/JOUR­NAL

Questa was re­cently awarded a $1.2 mil­lion grant from the U.S. Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion to fur­ther de­velop a busi­ness park on the north end of town.

Mark Gal­le­gos, a busy man as mayor of Questa, Taos County com­mis­sioner and op­er­a­tor of the El Monte Carlo Lounge, says Questa can po­si­tion it­self as the “Gate­way to Rio Grande Del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment.”

A sign along the En­chanted Cir­cle Scenic By­way at Questa di­rects trav­el­ers to the Rio Grande Del Norte Na­tional Mon­u­ment.

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