With upcoming changes to the Historic County Courthouse in Taos plaza, at least one business is left to close its doors for good. The building that houses Smoke Signals, which sells consignment crafts and art from Taos Pueblo artists and Native Americans around the country, will be demolished in the courthouse's redesign, and owner Dean Johnson said he has nowhere else to go.
The plans for the Historic County Courthouse overhaul began back in 2013, and will help bring the courthouse back to its original appearance, said Richard Sanchez, Taos County project manager. He explained the project has been planned in phases, and the first phase consists of adding an elevator and making the building ADA accessible - something the County has been sued over in the past.
In order to accomplish this, one storefront plaza will be taken down - Smoke Signals. Eventually, in another phase of the project, the store on the eastern side of the Historic County Courthouse will be taken down as well, and the courthouse will become a freestanding building with alleyways on either side - the way it was originally designed, Sanchez said.
Johnson acknowledged that he was aware of the plan to demolish his building, but said the official notice was too short. "I got a letter from the county attorney ... and then they also came by my shop and taped a manila envelope on my door with information that I had to be out by the 6th of June, which is 30 days from when they gave me the letter," he explained. "I was kind of hurt when they only gave me a month."
The county said he had ample warning, and noted their original redesign of the courthouse included Johnson's shop. "[Smoke Signals] was going to go back in," explained Sanchez. "The [County] Commission said 'yeah, we'll construct it, but we'll put the elevator and the entrances will be from the back to the elevator and the ADA fire exits and make it ADA compliant."
However, he added that when overhauling buildings that are on the historic register controlled by the State Historic Preservation Division, and that their final version did not include the Smoke Signals building. "Any building that's already on the historical registry, you're not allowed to do whatever you want … when the State Historic Preservation [Division] saw that and did all the research, they said 'we don't want that shop going back in, it's not part of the original courthouse,' which it isn't."
Both Sanchez and Taos County special projects manager Anissa Arrambide said that aside from Johnson, the backlash has been minimal, "Everybody wants to be in the courthouse … they're looking forward to public restrooms and are looking forward to the elevator, because people want to get upstairs," said Sanchez.
Arrambide added that though Johnson does technically still have first pick of the revamped courthouse, it will be "at fair market value … it's going to be really expensive for retail to go in there," she admitted. "Not because we want the money, it's just the state statute." She explained that the market rates are determined by the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration (DFA).
Unfortunately it's not as simple as offering Johnson a spot for his previous rent amount because "the anti-donation clause makes it impossible for him to have a discounted building. DFA demands that the units go for fair market rates," said Arrambide.
All of this means little to Johnson, who feels regardless of what accommodations could be made, he would still be between a rock and a hard place. He said after a pandemic that shuttered people indoors and an extremely slow winter, he was already on rocky footing. "It broke me. It broke my bank account, it broke everything … and now I can't buy anything from my people because I'm stuck," said Johnson. "You can't live on $0-100 a month and have to pay rent with the county."
Johnson said that the closing of his store is not just tough for him, but will be tough for the 28 families he supports through his shop, "who have been out of work for the past year, except for what I've been buying from them."
He said he finds the timing all the more troublesome because business is finally starting to pick back up. "It's been a tough run. And now it's summertime and I'm super busy," he said.
His tentative plan is to relocate to his gallery in Albuquerque, if he can find a trustworthy employee to run it. He's rented a U-haul and started to pack, but said splitting his time between his home on the Pueblo and his gallery in Albuquerque might be too much to handle.
When discussing possibilities for future business, Johnson said sustaining his ABQ gallery "is the only other option." He also hopes that his website nativepeacepipes.com will help him in some way. He's trying to remain optimistic about the future, but is struggling to find any solace in the situation.