Middle Rio Grande Economic Development Association provides blueprint to guide Sierra County out of its “desperate” economic predicament

by Debora Nicoll | January 18, 2021
6 min read
New initiatives to boost job creation might include a ranchers' co-op that would help Sierra County beef producers develop local markets. Source: Sierra County Farm & Livestock Bureau

An assessment of the economic development needs of Sierra and Socorro Counties, conducted by 25 community leaders late last year with the assistance of the Middle Rio Grande Economic Development Association with the assistance of Community Economic Labs of Albuquerque, has prompted interest in revitalizing the Sierra County Economic Development Organization. 

The assessment determined that the two counties will need to create a total of 1,920 jobs (1,008 in Sierra County) to recover from a decade of economic contraction, compounded by pandemic-related business losses and closures, to reach full employment. 

Stating that the two counties face “dire social and economic consequences” if they continue to operate without “fully funded, cohesive economic development efforts,” the assessment recommends that, as a first step, leaders in each county begin “recruiting and engaging a planning and management group, and begin advocating for State and Federal and Private Sector Funding.”

MRGEDA will use this assessment, which has not yet been made available to elected officials who did not participate in its creation or to the public, to guide its efforts to help Sierra and Socorro Counties meet this goal within five years.

Sierra County Manager Bruce Swingle, who chairs MRGEDA, provided the Sun with a copy of the assessment (which can be read in full by clicking on the “Download” button below). At the Sierra County Commission’s December meeting, Swingle informed the commissioners only that the assessment was complete and that elements of it would be implemented over the next few years.

In an interview with the Sun, Swingle said that he is writing a resolution for the commission to consider approving in February to restart the Sierra County Economic Development Organization. Swingle said that the county needs, in addition to the regional MRGED effort, a more locally focused economic development program. “We need some skin in the game,” Swingle said. The hope is to get local stakeholders like banks, utilities, local governments and larger companies to use the information developed by the MRGEDA assessment participants to improve Sierra County’s economic growth.

At last week’s Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting, Commissioner Frances Luna gained informal approval to act as the “city’s representative” in inviting participation from local stakeholders in a revitalized SCEDO.

The assessment participants concluded that Sierra County’s “economic development predicament is desperate but hopeful.”

The county’s slow economic decline accelerated with the recession of 2008 that started with the subprime mortgage lending crisis. In the two decades preceding the recession, unemployment in Sierra County ran between 3 and 6 percent, according to FRED, the online economic research database of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (which is the source of the following unemployment data). During the recession, unemployment in the county jumped to a high of 9.8 percent, where it stayed until 2013, when the rate slowly began recovering. It stood at 6.8 percent by 2019. The pandemic has seen those gains disappear. In November 2020, the unemployment rate had again soared to 8.5 percent.

Not all of the economic news in Sierra County has been bad. According to the 2020 Economic Base Report for Sierra County published annually by the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University, the per capita income in the county grew from 2014 to 2018 at a faster rate (12.88 percent) than for the state as a whole (11.91 percent). Per capita income in the county is just below that of the state ($38,984 versus $41,609). Also, the rate of employment in the county grew faster from 2014 to 2018 than that of the state (4.11 percent versus 2.93 percent). On the other hand, the population of the county decreased by 2.65 percent during that time, while the state as a whole increased by 0.24 percent.

Sierra County’s base industries—industries with the highest percentage of total local employment—are state and federal government, agriculture and tourism, which includes lodging and food services, as well as arts, entertainment and recreation. In 2018, these base industries accounted for 1,432 of the total 5,036 jobs in the county. According to the Economic Base Report, any base-sector job added in the county could be expected to generate 3.5 non-base sector jobs.

Funding for the MRGEDA assessment to determine where the region stands and what base industry jobs can be created to reach full employment came from state Representative Gail Armstrong of District 49, which includes Socorro County. Sierra County leaders who contributed to the assessment included (in addition to Swingle) Kim Skinner, Elephant Butte council president pro tem and chair of the Sierra County Recreation and Tourism board; Linda DiMarino, executive director of MainStreet Truth or Consequences; Katherine Elverum, a caseworker with Olive Tree Integrated Community Center in Truth or Consequences; and MRGEDA board member Steve Buckley. 

In five Zoom workshops of three hours each held last October, the participants first looked at population projections, demographics and unemployment rates to calculate the total number new jobs needed to reach full employment.

The group then estimated how many potential jobs could be created in the base industries by ramping up existing economic development programs and launching new initiatives. In addition to agriculture, government and tourism, they considered the potential for job growth in four additional industries: retirement, extractives, remote work and film/digital.

They calculated that, if Sierra County continues in a “business as usual mode,” only 555 new jobs will be created. However, with increased cooperation between local stakeholders and coordination of economic development programs, Sierra County could create as many as 955 new jobs. While that number would fall short of 1,008 new jobs goal, it would begin to reverse such adverse trends affecting Sierra County as rising unemployment, population loss, tax revenue contraction and government services cuts. 

The group concluded that the industries with the greatest potential for generating new jobs were extractives (375 jobs), tourism (150), remote work (140) and retirement (125).

MRGEDA Director Keller said in an interview with the Sun that she has begun working with each of the chairs in the organization’s six industry clusters to identify projects that might be accomplished within a year or two. For example, the agriculture cluster is working on developing a ranchers co-op. Given the difficulties of getting beef to market during a pandemic, a co-op might open up opportunities for marketing beef products locally. As a step in this direction, at tomorrow’s Sierra County Commission meeting, a resolution supporting reestablishment of the state meat inspection program will be introduced.

The MRGEDA tourism industry cluster is working on finding assistance in the form of grants to help hospitality, retail and service businesses through the pandemic, as well as encouraging them to figure out ways to operate remotely. 

The participants concluded that achieving Sierra County’s job creation goals will be heavily dependent on the success of Spaceport America and the start-up of the Copper Flat Mine, whose re-opening has been stalled for years by local citizens concerned about the mine’s projected high water usage rates, potential to contaminate the watershed with toxic tailings, and the limited economic benefit to be derived from a cyclical enterprise with a projected short lifespan.

Economic development will also be dependent, Keller explained, on increasing broadband accessibility and quality throughout the county, and construction of the needed infrastructure is underway (see “Related” stories below).  The assessment factored in the creation of 140 remote jobs, some of which will provide jobs for the current Sierra County residents, with others expected to come from new residents attracted to the area by internet accessibility.


Debora Nicoll covers the Sierra County Commission for the Sun.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.


Broadband Network to Connect Underserved in Sierra County
by Kevin Robinson-Avila | November 23, 2020

A $6.1 million federal grant will allow Sacred Wind Communications to deploy a 271-mile fiber-optic network to connect about 1,600 Sierra Countians who live in...

Rural Sierra County’s future broadband provider will draw on its experience bringing telecommunication services to the Navajo Nation
by Debora Nicoll | December 3, 2020

The venture is a “ground-breaking” model of cooperation. This is the first time in New Mexico that an electric cooperative and a telecommunications company have...

1 thought on “Middle Rio Grande Economic Development Association provides blueprint to guide Sierra County out of its “desperate” economic predicament”

  1. Isaac Eastvold, CDC President

    We should question the way local officials are going about this. Who could possibly follow, much less attend, all these sessions with funny acronyms attended by many of the same self-important people? The windows should be opened to let in lots of fresh air. How about a widely noticed Open House (on Zoom?) with a moderator taking oral and written comments from ordinary citizens? Then a plan could be developed that included, and responded to, ideas offered by people who care about their communities and their environment.

    That draft plan could then be made available online and in a printed version for further public review. A final meeting, perhaps before a non-intimidating panel of receptive elected leaders (not elevated in bright lights on a dais!) could allow everyone to ask probing questions and personally advocate for their economic development ideas.

    A final document that went through this route with public input would make citizens feel at least like they were being listened to as part of a fair, inclusive process. Democracy is perhaps the messiest, most drawn-out form of government; but it is far better than government by an oligarchy of acronyms. (This process assumes a reliable, easy-to-use Zoom, not like we have had recently at Truth or Consequences City Commission meetings.)

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