Year included forest thinning momentum; development ire; and a still struggling job market

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Maybe it was the devastation wrought by recent forest fires elsewhere in New Mexico. Or maybe it’s the fear that climate change is going to wreak even more havoc in decades to come. But forest and watershed restoration efforts in Northern New Mexico have been energized by renewed interest and a whole lot of cash.

Most notably, the Rio Grande Water Fund is tackling the problem of overgrown forests head-on. The Fund seeks to unite governments, nonprofits and industry to significantly scale up restoration efforts. Generally speaking, many forests in the Rio Grande watershed are dangerously overgrown, and without treatment, these forests (and the water that originates there) are imperiled by fire, bug infestation and other catastrophes.

For Taos County, the fund has been a boon. Grants from the Nature Conservancy (the Fund’s primary organizer) are pushing projects forward and getting actual work done on the ground. That means more acres treated, and hopefully, more critical watersheds protected.

Whether the fund can hit its ultimate goal of treating hundreds of thousands of acres up and down the Rio Grande in the next few years remains to be seen. But plenty of people are already giving it credit for trying.

Similarly, many of the same groups are focusing their efforts on restoration wetlands. Taos-based environmental group Amigos Bravos has been hard selling its “Wetlands Gems” program, which encourages protections of delicate wetlands that act as sponges on the forest and ensure better water resiliency in uncertain times. A coalition of grazers, nonprofits, government agencies and corporation are doing similar work on the Comanche Creek watershed in the Valle Vidal. After decades of taking small but effective bites on a big restoration puzzle, Comanche Creek could see big money from the likes of Coca-Cola and Facebook, which could end up launching restoration work to a whole new level. 

Four-story hotel proposal draws fire

Almost any development proposal tends to spark controversy in Taos, but the town government’s plan to allow four-story hotels in certain areas drew a notable amount of outrage this year.

This summer, the town government floated a new zoning proposal that would make it possible to build unprecedentedly tall hotels at the town’s southern boundary. The tourism industry has been gaining steam in recent years, but the town argued much of its hotel stock was aging and in disrepair. To court new investors, the town hoped to lift its 27-foot height restriction.

The response was, predictably, divided.

Supporters of the idea argued it would make it financially feasible for developers to buy property in pricy Taos, and maximize their return by building up rather than out. Taller hotels are cheaper to operate than those with a sprawling footprint. Others noted a lot of corporate chains have cookie-cutter designs that couldn’t fit under the previous height cap.

But opponents, who showed up in force in public meetings, countered that allowing taller hotels would ruin vistas in some parts of town, and would irreversibly detract from Taos’ quaint charm. They argued the town government was trying the shortcut real economic development by kicking open the gates for investors who were more interested in making a quick buck than making a real investment in Taos.

At the center of the controversy was Jay Batra — an out-of-town hotelier who bought the distressed Hampton Inn property in June 2014. Batra says he’s turned that hotel around, and sees the potential to do the same with other properties. He agreed to buy the Hotel Don Fernando (also in foreclosure) and also bought five acres next to the Hampton where he wants to build a four-story Holiday Inn Express.

The proposal to lift the height restriction came after Batra's original development application was shot down.

Critics of the four-story idea questioned whether it would benefit Taos’ tourism market as a whole, or just a handful of out-of-town developers. Opponents of the plan also accused the town of pandering to Batra by making it easier for his proposal to move forward. The town denied it. Critics also suspected the change in height limit was a favor to Batra, who was encouraged by the town to buy the troubled Don Fernando property. Again, both Batra and the town denied any sort of tit-for-tat, instead arguing taller hotels are logical and necessary.

In the end, the town council approved the new height limit in a 3-2 vote. Whether the change will have any impact — good or bad — on Taos’ economy and reputation is yet to be seen.

Economy on a roll, but job market still struggling

This year saw record-setting economic figures for Taos County, though the windfall has yet to buoy stagnant workforce numbers.

First the first time ever, total economic activity topped $1 billion in 2015. Lodgers tax in the town of Taos also hit an all time high, suggesting the tourism industry had bounced back after the recession.

No doubt a couple of major projects — The Blake Hotel at Taos Ski Valley (at one point estimated at $60 million) and the $24-million expansion of the Taos Regional Airport — went a long way in lifting the economy. A big jump in gross receipts in the Questa area also suggests remediation of the now-shuttered mine is having an impact as well; the EPA-mandated clean up is estimated to cost up to $800 million over the next several decades.

All this economic activity meant significantly more revenue for local governments. Taos County saw an astounding 17 percent spike in gross receipts revenue. The village of Questa saw its revenue climb 14 percent.

While overall economic figures might paint a sunny picture of the Taos economy, other measures — especially those tied to employment and wages — suggest things are still stagnant, if not struggling.

In October, the unemployment rate was still at 8.2 percent — well above the state average of 6.7 percent (second worst in the nation) and national average of 4.6 percent.

Perhaps worse, the county’s civilian labor force continued to slide. According to federal figures, the civilian labor force in Taos County (the total number of employed and unemployed people) has dropped by 2,900 people (or 16 percent) since 2006.

Looking only at those who are working, there were 16,877 people employed in Taos County in 2007. But last year, just 13,378 people had jobs — a 20 percent decline.

“That tells me people are moving to where the jobs are, whether that’s in Albuquerque or out of state,” said Dean Archuleta, manager of the New Mexico Workforce Connection office in Taos, in an April interview.

If that’s true, Taos leaders still need to find a way to take advantage of the economic bustle to bolster the job market and stem the tide of fleeing job seekers.

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