How Las Cruces started winning the Downtown revitalization game

A combination of a farmer's market, a dedicated group, money, and time

Downtown became somebody's full-time job

Part two of a two-part series
Editor's note: Last Thursday we charted the remarkable transformation of Downtown Las Cruces in recent years from a failed urban renewal area mostly left for dead to an up-and-coming entertainment district with new retail and plans for more housing. Today, we get into the nuts and bolts of how they did it.

One: The base
LAS CRUCES -- The consensus here holds that the 1960s-era transformation of Main Street into a pedestrian mall was a complete failure, albeit perhaps a well-intentioned one. The changes slowly choked out the sort of retail and hospitality businesses that depend on customers who want to have a pleasant shopping or dining experience and left behind just a handful of shops with a clientele willing to go wherever their printer or musical instrument vendor happened to be located. There were plenty of vacant buildings in between, and the metal canopy that covered a much-derided "yellow brick road" pathway apparently did no favors for the mall's temperature. It still invites comparisons to a toaster oven.

But in a roundabout way, the destruction the project wrought also sowed the seeds of its own eventual revival, because while Las Cruces residents didn't generally care much for the new Downtown scene and ambiance, it did prove to be the perfect place for what became the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces.

"It was actually the creation of the walking mall that facilitated the creation of the market," said Karin Bradshaw, the market manager.

When it began in 1971, the market wasn't much of a revitalization or economic development tool. It was just a few farmers that needed to sell their produce, Bradshaw said, and the crafts didn't even come until later.

In those early decades, the market took up two or three blocks, but the last 20 years have seen more considerable leaps in popularity for the event, which now opens both on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

"At this point, our crowds fluctuate between 3,000 and 6,000," Bradshaw said. "I have seven blocks to fill for my market. I'm getting full."

Through Downtown's good and bad times, the market served as something more than a place to gather and buy stuff. Like ABQ Artwalk or the Downtown Growers' Market in Albuquerque, it stood out in the minds of city residents as one tangible bright spot in an area that was otherwise pretty grim. Bradshaw reckons that keeping some small Downtown flame alive helped immensely with the politics of revitalization - once the time for that was right.

"It gave them that base to start building off of," she said. "We are the reason there's still a Downtown."

Two: The organization
Base established, the next step was to get everyone on something loosely resembling the same page. Mike White, the owner of White's Music Box, remembers the origins of that effort as a big meeting in 1991 dedicated to brainstorming. But it was not the first.

"There had been several attempts to revitalize Downtown," he said.

This one, however, gained a bit of tentative traction. The years passed by and featured the occasional study or redesign document, the odd formal recommendation to city hall, some nudges from key political leaders, and plenty of basic awareness raising.

"It was all one big plan, but it had to be done incrementally," White said, adding that it involved "a lot of blood, sweat, and tears."

By the late 1990s, much of the group had congealed into the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership, which spent its first few years facilitating a lot of talking, planning, and arguing, said Jennifer Garcia Kozlowski, the group's executive director.
The Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces is celebrating 51 years in 2022. It kept the flame alive during Downtown's bad times and is thriving all the more now that things have improved. Visit Las Cruces
Plaza de Las Cruces began the 2010s as a drive-through operation for Bank of the West (photo). Money from a tax increment development district helped renovate it into a place for events. It also has a splash pad popular with the younger set and their parents.
More recent projects include a renovation of the historic Amador Hotel, on the southern edge of the Downtown area.
The DLCP's brief was - and still is - replete with variety. They are part promoter, part fixer, part event planner, and part dreamer. They are supposed to keep their finger on the pulse of Downtown, know what its various constituent parts are up to, and help beat a soft path for anyone who wants to join the party.

If you want to open a business Downtown and don't know where to start, you call the DLCP. If you want your food truck to participate in the annual Zombie Walk, they can help with that, too. Show your face around the district and they might well chat you up or get you in touch with a realtor or bank who can make your Downtown investment that much easier.

And as a New Mexico Mainstreet organization - like Albuquerque's Downtown Arts and Cultural District and the Barelas Community Coalition - they have easy access to outside expertise, further positioning them as thought leaders for the area.

As time goes by, "We have more things we can offer to help build the community," Garcia Kozlowski said. 

Three: The money
Slowly but surely, out of those thousands of conversations, something like a coherent agenda emerged. It included tearing down the canopy, reestablishing Main Street, building a new plaza, and converting the one-way streets that encircled the area (long derided as "the racetrack") to something calmer and bi-directional, the better to nudge people into doing something other than driving past Downtown as quickly as possible.

But to make it happen, they were going to need some money. Enter the tax increment development district (TIDD), a complex financing tool designed to pay for development or redevelopment (state regulations are here). Local authorities drew a line around Downtown Las Cruces and, working with state authorities, figured out how much gross receipts and property taxes were being collected in that area - a figure known as the "baseline."

As tax collections went up over time - something that in theory should happen even more with all the new investment and retail - 75 percent of the increase went straight to the new district, which used the money on a combination of operations spending and infrastructure investments, sometimes issuing bonds against the income in order to pay for big-ticket items upfront.

Begun in the late 2000s, the district was bringing in $2.2 million per year by 2014 and $3.5 million by 2018.

Revenue, which is heavily dependent on retail spending, took a dive during COVID. But just how much money such districts can bring in also depends on how big it is, what sorts of businesses are inside it, and how property valuations change over time.

The setup accomplished two main goals. First, it gave a major financial shot in the arm to all those expensive dreams, including the spruced-up Main Street, studies about other adjacent streets, the new plaza, bathrooms, landscaping, and the ongoing renovation of the historic Amador Hotel.

"Without the TIDD, 100 percent, we wouldn't have what we have now," said Chris Faivre, a top Downtown redevelopment official at the City of Las Cruces.

Second, the district effectively built something of a self-perpetuating Downtown redevelopment machine. The district's governing board - made up of the city council and mayor - meets quarterly to chip away at various challenges, but it does not need to mount extraordinary fundraising efforts and to a large extent it does not particularly matter who the mayor or city councilors happen to be. There are always extra grants and tax breaks to chase after, but the basic mission and the money to pay for it is already built in and routinized.

Las Cruces has achieved, in other words, something "For the Love of Cities" author Peter Kageyama told an audience at the KiMo Theatre it should shoot for in a June 1 keynote speech.

"Somebody should be focused on Downtown every day. Downtown is that important that that should be somebody's main job, especially in a city as large as yours," he said. "There should be somebody whose job it is every day to get up and be passionately engaged with thinking about how to make Downtown a better, more interesting, more loveable place. That would be my advice to you."
Where does Albuquerque stand on this tax increment financing idea?
The city and Mayor Tim Keller have in recent months expressed support for the idea in concept, most notably in the Downtown Forward Plan (page 14), but many key details of when and exactly how they would pursue such a thing remain unresolved.

Where exactly such a district would be drawn, for example, is an open question. And while the tax increment idea used by Las Cruces has received the most public attention, there are two other flavors of taxing district they could pursue instead or in addition to that, each with its pros and cons. Officials have even talked about getting the state legislature to tweak the rules around tax increment financing (DAN, 6/13/22) to effectively create a fourth possibility.

"Right now we're just evaluating our options," city spokeswoman Sarah Allen said.

It will probably be a few more weeks, she added, before the city is in a position to release details on how they would like to proceed.
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