Shortly before last year’s city elections, I divided the candidates into two sides favoring either private- or public-sector interests. I did not think that these sides were purist, all-or-nothing, in their approaches, but I did think that the pro-business side had narrower, unbalanced views of the purposes or priorities of government than did the pro-citizen side. Without offering any endorsements, which we columnists for the Sun-News may not do, I provided a rough guide to the differences between the sides.
The differences seemed clear enough then, but recent instances make the differences less clear now. One, the presumably pro-citizen, pro-environment City Council chose to make a public-relations, not a good-faith, offer for the Las Cruces Country Club. Its below-market-price offer seems a covert way to let private developers get the land. A pro-business City Council would have spared the public the theatrics of this pretense, abundantly documented by oral and written promises to protect the property and preserve it for public use, all the while letting the trees die.
Two, the fiasco at Brown Farm, with its incompetent execution of the state’s flood-control plan, its wanton destruction of habitat and wildlife, its creation of a dust bowl and an eyesore, and its City Manager’s broken promises and dishonest representations could not have been greater under a pro-development, rather than this self-purportedly, environmental-friendly, City Council which tolerates both poor performance and dishonest personnel.
City planning, such as it appears in the city’s implementation, seems incoherent. On the one hand, the city is trying to revitalize downtown; on the other hand, it is extending development on its perimeter. Doing both makes it likely that the millions spent on the renovation of Main Street to help revitalize the “inner city” are likely to be a waste of money. So long as the City Council approves annexations, developments, and rezonings to accommodate residential and commercial expansion remote from the city center, so long will it discourage people from driving ever longer distances to the downtown area. A few blocks of a recovered street with parking and sidewalks is not going to revitalize much of anything, only revive hopes likely to be disappointed.
The real issues about growth are what kind, where, and how fast. Everything depends on a crucial decision about what Las Cruces wants to be or become tomorrow. Today, it is increasingly a retirement destination for well-off, well-educated seniors, with a need for residences, health facilities, domestic services, retail outlets, and golf courses and other diversions. Such an orientation requires little change in Las Cruces, its population, or its economy. One group remains retirees, and business, education, and health professionals; another remains those poorly educated at all levels: non-graduates in no- or low-skill jobs in construction, agriculture, and domestic services; high-school graduates for low- or medium-skill jobs in building trades, commercial sales, and institutional staffing; and a few college graduates who find suitable jobs locally. Major employers remain in labor-intensive health and education fields.
In this Las Cruces, pro-growth and slow-growth advocates can do little to increase the rate of growth. Growth will pace itself to demand from those relocating, a demand depending on economic conditions elsewhere more than anything else. Some promotional activities can keep Las Cruces competitive, but a build-it-and-they-will-come approach can have only a modest influence on relocation decisions. In short, growth will likely be moderate but steady regardless of which side controls City Council. Las Cruces will continue to be what it is now, only more so.
If Las Cruces wants to be attractive to businesses other than those mainly serving education, health, and retail needs, it must offer opportunities for high-technology entrepreneurs who have choices of locations and often base them on lifestyle and the quality of life. Those who are young and single, want a social opportunities; those young and married want a good education for their children. Scattered residences, a town “which gets dark early,” a poorly educated workforce, and poor schools, both public and private, are not going to attract such entrepreneurs or their partners. Accordingly, if both sides want significant growth, their most important efforts should be to address the educational deterrent to economic growth and to influence local schools and colleges to improve the quality of education. If successful, they will have to expect that such newcomers will demand major changes in the the way Las Cruces governs itself—perhaps not something which either side really wants.
Whichever scenario proves more attractive, Las Cruces should develop downtown, for density offers economies of scale for government and business, and attractions for retired seniors and young adults. Within walking distance, both groups can have, in mixed-use, multi-story buildings, more of everything: housing, restaurants and bars, entertainment centers, retail stores, and offices. Seniors can extend their independence from automobiles and postpone admission to assisted-living facilities; young adults can have a better mix of business and social life. What’s not to like in such a downtown?