• Two Downtown core merchants want to roll out a welcome mat for a forgotten demographic: Amtrak passengers
  • Food hall owner buys former convent, will renovate into apartments
The marketing to tourists getting off a plane at the Sunport starts early and includes multiple kiosk-type displays and an information desk:
But visitors getting off a train Downtown are met with this:
At least two Downtown merchants want to change that picture. One even mocked up what it could look like:
Amy Baca Lopez opened her art studio in the Simms Building (Fourth and Gold) in June, but it didn't take long to notice an unexpected category of customer: Amtrak passengers.

Most buy smaller items like cards, but one even bought a full-sized painting. 

"They have a little 45-minute layover," Baca Lopez said. "People are coming off a train and they want to see some local culture ... they're a prime demographic for me."

Two blocks to the east, Patti Harrell Hoech has seen the same phenomenon for decades. Her business, Patrician Design, typically gets a couple of customers per week from the train. It may not be an overwhelming revenue stream, but she reckons it's a singular opportunity to make a sales pitch that could lead to future tourism visits.

"These people that are going from LA to Chicago don't even necessarily have Albuquerque on their mind," she said. Despite little to nothing in the way of direction, "they are brave souls and they venture forth."

What if, Harrell Hoech wonders, city and tourism officials made a concerted effort to market to these visitors. Train passenger traffic may be a rounding error compared to the Sunport, but she thinks that if properly nurtured it could make a big impact in the Downtown core.

"I have called it the gift that Albuquerque never opens," she said.  "It's got such a ripple effect possibility that's so huge."

What exactly that inviting atmosphere could look like is an open question. Baca Lopez envisioned a kind of vending machine for art in the train station. Harrell Hoech has gone so far as to hire an artist to mock up a drawing of a kiosk (photo above) that could be planted in the middle of the Amtrak station and perhaps staffed by volunteers. She thinks other wayfinding signs outside the station and a more inviting train platform - which is presently a study in function-over-form concrete - could help as well. The more it mimics the Sunport the better, she said, because the setup there "makes you fall in love with Albuquerque before you've even picked up your suitcase."

The city, which owns the station and rents space to Amtrak and Greyhound, sounds bullish on the concept.

"We'd be very interested in something of that nature," spokesman Johnny Chandler said, calling it a "great idea" while cautioning that it would have to be implemented in a way that did not favor any particular business.

"It's great to see Downtown business owners taking the initiative to market to this group of travelers," Visit Albuquerque CEO Tania Armenta added. The organization "has been involved in past efforts to provide visitor information at the transportation center, with mixed results. We would welcome the opportunity to revisit the conversation and brainstorm fresh ideas."

That a noticeable number of people would venture out of earshot of the "all aboard" call - presumably sometimes without their luggage may come as a surprise. They are indeed taking a risk, confirms Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. The westbound layover is scheduled for 50 minutes, and the eastbound is just 32, but should the train be running late (and it usually is), that can change.

"If we can get a 50-minute service stop done in 40, we'll do that," he said. "We can leave anytime after the posted departure time."

(Some layovers could, of course, be longer if the passengers is transferring between Amtrak and the Rail Runner or Greyhound.)

Still, there is a small tradition at a few train-servicing stops across the west of businesses popping up to serve explorer train passengers, including in Grand Junction, Colorado, and Shelby, Montana, where Magliari said a few passengers have been left behind at a local bar over the years for failing to return to the train on time.

Still, he too likes the idea of directing passengers toward local shops and attractions.

"The more interesting things our customers can do ... the better it is for everyone," he said. "We want people to carefully do some exploration."

In decades past, the train station was itself the site of a major commercial venture aimed at passengers. The Alvarado Hotel, which was torn down in the 1970s, featured a restaurant tailor-made for passengers, a museum, and a room where Native American artisans would give demonstrations of their work.

One holdover from that era remains today, albeit barely: Native vendors still set up tables along the platform, just a few feet from the train, selling everything from jewelry to textiles. In past years, north of dozen booths set up, but on a visit last month, just one remained.
Food Hall owner buys former convent, will renovate into apartments
The structure is presently boarded up and surrounded by a chainlink fence.
Mark Baker, the owner of the 505 Central Food Hall, concluded the purchase last week of a former convent at Seventh and Copper and aims to turn it into about 15 apartments.

The new building, which will be known as "The Villa," has a layout reminiscent of a dormitory, Baker told DAN, including a series of single rooms, communal bathrooms, and dining and living rooms. The plan is to combine the dorm rooms into smaller apartments while making larger units out of the bigger common spaces. That will make for a variety of apartment sizes, he said, including studios, one-bedrooms, and two bedrooms.

"Almost every floor plan is different because we're working with the existing walls," Baker said.

Construction is slated to last nine months, meaning the new complex could open in the fall of 2022.

Built in the early 1950s for the Sisters of Charity, the convent was used as such for 20 years before being converted into an assisted living facility. It's not clear when exactly it closed, but as of 2014 it appeared to be struggling to survive. It has been boarded up for some time and has suffered some vandalism. It is adjacent to Saint Mary's Catholic School and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Like many a new owner of a fixer-upper before him, Baker says the bones of the place are strong, as is the location.

"It sits right at that transitional point between the high-density of Downtown's core and the single-family neighborhoods," he said. "I think the location is wonderful and I really don't want to see boarded-up buildings Downtown."
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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