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NM Economic/Rural Development Committee Meets in Raton

 By Bill Donati – KRTN News   The Economic and Rural Development Committee of the NM Legislature heard reports, proposals and funding requests from a wide variety of organizations and entities when they met at Raton’ s Shuler Theater on Monday and Tuesday, September 28 and 29.

Chaired by Senator Benny Shendo, Jr, the committee met for two days of presentations and testimony concerning current needs and rural initiatives for the State of New Mexico. The presentations included PNM and utility infrastructure and upgrade of the grid, water issues in Northern NM, broadband access to under and un-served portions of New Mexico, tourism, NM Small Business Development, Dept. of Workforce Solutions, and NM MainStreet.

Projects specific to Northern New Mexico that were presented included the Four-County Ground Water Initiative. Colfax County Commission Chairman Bill Sauble of Maxwell addressed the Committee along with Justin Bennett, Chairman of the Union County Commission and Dr. Kate Zeigler. The Colfax, Harding, Union and Mora County Commissions along with Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the counties and several other associations and municipalities have signed a Memorandum of Understanding banding together to seek funding for an aquifer mapping endeavor to better understand the groundwater resources of our area. Because the four county area is largely groundwater dependent, an accurate assessment is crucial to any future economic development. The funding sought would be for $1.7 million over a three year period. lt brought several positive comments including from Senator Pat Woods and Representatives Rick Little and Dennis Roch, who both praised the initiative and pro-active attitude saying that usually it’s a disaster or critical situation that they deal with after the fact, instead of this sort of plan. Sauble said that one of the water samples that were tested showed to be 9,500 years old, meaning that there wasn’t much recharging occurring. The question of how the water system in Maxwell was doing was asked and Mayor Richard Galli gave an update to the committee.

Also on Monday, Brenda Ferri and Diana Sanchez with Raton MainStreet gave an update on the status of current projects and progress made in Raton. Sanchez informed the members of the committee about the Great Blocks Program that seeks to improve the First Street area from Cook to Clark Avenues and with an engineering/architectural grant from NM MainStreet is now “shovel-ready”.  Rich Williams, Director of NM MainStreet was also part of the first group’s presentation and used that positive report and other successes with NM MainStreet to urge legislators to approve a $5 million request for next year’s legislative budget.

Although no actual money is committed or allocated during the Economic and Rural Development Committee meeting, it’s a step in the process to find support and common ground for many solid and needed projects.  The projects can be unique and specific to a certain area, but many times similar problems can also be noted in other areas of the state.

Representative John Zimmerman (Dona Ana, Grant, Sierra) noted that because of the low prices in the oil and gas industry, projections are very bleak for much, if any, additional Capital Outlay money coming from the NM Legislative session next January.

The broad range of economic topics also afforded the opportunity for many other economic subjects and philosophies to be discussed with several recurring themes. One of the themes that popped up more than once included the fact that NM has great resources, but forces outside of the state are dictating what we need to do for New Mexicans and what makes sense for us.

Another recurring theme was that there are entirely too many regulations and because of that, the willingness and ability of investors to invest in small rural communities is being hampered. Senator William Sharer, San Juan County, noted that in reinvesting in older buildings in a downtown district, many times all that is needed is paint and cleanup, but regulations make the new owner “build a bathroom that could fit a truck”.

Mining, and specifically coal-mining, was addressed more than once during the proceedings. PNM’s presentation concerning future utility rates and services and upgrading of the grid,  reported that the partial closure of the San Juan Generating Station is cutting their generating capability in half, which prompted Senator Ron Griggs to say that “NM is blessed with many natural resources and we need to look inward to help solve our problems.”  Senator Sharer noted that NM has tremendous reserves of rare-earth metals, but because of regulations, does not mine a single one. He also noted coal is a great resource and “ jobs are important, and we’ve lost balance.”

Liquor licenses in NM were another subject related to economic development and, though not specifically on the agenda, was discussed at length on Monday. Representative Zimmerman noted that “we’ve created a monopoly, and everyone in the state is impacted”. It was reported that some liquor licenses in small towns have been sold to bigger cities for as much as ¾ to a million dollars.

Senator Griggs, whose mother graduated from Raton High School in the 50’s, also asked the question about the horse racing in Raton. Raton City Manager Scott Berry addressed the question by saying he felt the overwhelming portion of the community would still favor a racetrack, and the ideal situation should be that Raton be awarded the license because of its location and history and then it would be up to the City and the State to jointly find a qualified investor.

Many of those attending commented on the good impression Raton gave them.  Senator Sharer commented that he was very impressed by the friendliness and said Raton would be a model for how guests should be treated.

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