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There’s been a lot of talk about the 50th anniversary of America’s moon shot.
Las Cruces, with its NASA installation, White Sands Missile Range, White Sands Test Facility and long history of work in space and astronomy, played an important role in the Apollo program.
While we were helping put a man on the moon, however, other decisions in Las Cruces in the late-1960s would not be treated so kindly by history.
I’m talking about urban renewal, the federal policy of the 1960s, created by social planners to revitalize city centers.
The first, and still most memorable casualty, was the demolition of St. Genevieve’s Church on Main Street in 1967. Mary Ann Lucero, who took a photo of the church the day before its demise, said, “We were married in that church. I became a Catholic in that Church. I went to the last Mass in that Church. I cried the whole time.”
Traffic was re-routed around Main Street. Metal awnings were erected for three blocks, with the goal of turning downtown into a pedestrian mall. Trouble was, we already had a pedestrian-style mall, Loretto Shopping Center. And the suburban Mesilla Valley Mall would arrive a little later, meaning there would soon be few businesses and few reasons for pedestrians to come downtown.
Low points of the 35-year decline included the arrival of X-rated movie houses and dozens of vacant buildings.
In the early 2000s, a handful of visionaries realized something had to be done.
A trifecta of decisions set the stage for a comeback: the renovation of the Rio Grande Theatre, pulling off the metal awnings and re-opening Main Street to vehicular traffic.
It was a glorious day in 2008, when the first block was re-opened, and classic cars drove in front of the beautifully restored Rio Grande.
Then something happened: The Great Recession, slow to arrive to Las Cruces, hit. And hit hard. The construction business and other exciting things that had been blowing and going for nearly a decade in Doña Ana County came to a standstill.
A few new businesses came, such as Zeffiro Pizzeria Napoletana, and survived. Others came, struggled and died.
Flash forward to July 2019.
All those things people envisioned in 2008 are finally happening.
Recently, I spent an evening and an afternoon at all four venues of the new Amador Live downtown. A few days later, I hung out at the new Rad Retrocade right next door to the Rio Grande Theatre. All of those places were hopping. People were happy, and there is a great variety at all of them.
There are retail businesses who took a calculated risk to move downtown, such as Zia Comics, for whom the move seems ideal, and who help attract younger people to the scene.
I particularly like the elder “states-buildings,” if you will, of Main Street. Ones that have been there for 48 years or more include White’s Music Box, the Rio Grande Theatre, the Branigan Cultural Center (at one time Las Cruces’ main library), Day’s Hamburgers and American Linens.
I mention those five because they represent the diversity I believe needs to be preserved to keep downtown thriving. The blend of retail, entertainment, cultural education, restaurants and businesses makes for a tighter fabric, foundation and sustainability. Everyone will be excited to see the new arrival of Matteo’s Mexican Food, and the growth of Sugie’s Diner, but those places’ most loyal customers will be the employees of longstanding businesses such as American Linens and Calculex, and newer non-retail outlets such as Desert Peaks Architects and New America School.
It’s vital to mention the continued popularity of the Saturday morning Farmers & Crafts Market of Las Cruces. Having people stroll downtown on a regular basis, while they’re in a great mood, kept Main Street on people’s radar, and showed we could develop a downtown habit. It can also serve as an incubator, for market businesses that might “graduate” to a brick-and-mortar location, the way Organ Mountain Outfitters did.
All of this is augmented by the creation of the Plaza de Las Cruces and the finalization of the street construction downtown.
Back in 2008, a lot of people said, “Build it, and they will come.”
They were right. And it only took a decade.