The City of Truth or Consequences will abandon its idea of encouraging commercial development of the riverfront—if it listens to the 30 or so community members who attended the “open house” held by city staff and the Wilson & Company engineering firm on June 24.
All the possible development concepts for Rotary Park, Ralph Edwards Park and other prime riverfront locations presented in a five-minute PowerPoint narrated by Wilson & Company Transportation Planner Paige Wolfram were wholly rejected by the open house attendees.
Wilson was hired last July by then City Manager Morris Madrid to do an economic feasibility study of riverfront development. The contract, or “task order,” was signed by Madrid on July 21, 2020.
The project’s scope of work, described in the Wilson contract, did not come before the city commission for review and discussion. The commission’s involvement was limited to approving the city’s application for a grant to fund the study on July 24, 2019, and then approving the grant award on June 10, 2020, according to commission meeting minutes and documents.
The New Mexico Finance Authority awarded the city $50,000 to prepare a “City of Truth or Consequences Riverwalk economic development plan,” and the city contributed a $10,000 cash match, all of which will go to pay Wilson & Company. The project will be closed out in late November 2021, as required by the grant.
The Sun obtained Wilson & Company’s “task order” via an Inspection of Public Records request. The document states the study’s purpose is to “[c]apture the growing outdoor recreation market,” with the intent of assisting “the City of Truth or Consequences to properly plan future infrastructure investments and also tie into regional economic development and recreational opportunities.”
If Madrid and staff and the city commission had sounded out the community first, the grant money and engineering efforts might have been used to aid and enhance a concurrent river corridor planning project that began at the grassroots level and has built significant community support.
The citizen-led Turtleback Trails project, in contrast to Riverwalk’s intent to attract business to the river and identify the needed infrastructure expansion, is proposing to extend foot trails, build footbridges, improve or create new put-ins or take-outs for paddlers and tubers and restore the small wetlands providing habitat for birds and birdwatchers that was replaced by the creation of Rotary Park around 2008. (Read more about the history and objectives of Turtleback Trails planning effort in this Sun feature story.)
Like Turtleback Trails, Wilson & Company and city staff formed a steering committee for the Riverwalk project that has met twice—last October and this April. At the April meeting the Riverwalk steering committee was asked to comment for the first time on Wilson & Company’s concept map, which had been available to city staff since the fall of 2020, according to documents obtained by the Sun via an IPRA request. The 13 members of the steering committee include three city staff members, two local business owners and four state and regional economic development planners, among others. Note that some of the members’ names are highlighted in the attached list, with no explanation.
Several steering committee members pushed back against the study’s emphasis on “traditional real estate development,” one committee member told the Sun, but the Riverwalk concept map that was presented to the general public for the first time at the June 24 open house was only minimally changed from the fall version.
Among the Riverwalk steering committee’s suggestions was a request that Wilson & Company coordinate with the Turtleback Trails planning effort. The June 24 PowerPoint presentation dutifully incorporated numerous pictures of outdoor recreational activities, but the concept map’s top-down focus on partnering with businesses to erect restaurants, camp sites, roads, kayak rentals and other stores along the river remained unrevised.
After presenter Paige Wolfrom explained that “stakeholders” had come up with the concepts, several open house attendees asked who the stakeholders were. After the fourth query from the audience, Traci Alvarez, T or C’s community development director, grants coordinator and assistant city manager, said “16 or 17 people” had been consulted. They included herself and T or C’s Community Services Director O. J. Hechler, people from the “Village of Williamsburg and Elephant Butte and then businesses and John Masterson [owner of the Truth or Consequences Brewing Company and a leader of the Turtleback Trails project].”
The Sun submitted an IPRA request for the list of Riverwalk “stakeholders” and received instead a document naming the Riverwalk steering committee members, which did not answer the question of precisely who authored the Riverwalk concept map that the steering committee did not see until three months ago.
Wilson & Company Engineering Manager Alfredo Holguin was also present at the open house. Holguin, who has occasionally been asked to come to city commission meetings to summarize dozens of projects the company is working on as the city’s on-call engineering firm, advised the open house attendees not to compare or to confuse the Turtleback Trails and Riverwalk projects. “This is a totally separate project,” he said. “We think we can co-exist.”
Co-existence was not in the minds of anyone in the audience. Not one member of the public wanted more infrastructure to be built near the river beyond foot trails and footbridges that are closed to vehicular traffic to make it easier for hikers and runners to cross the river.
Traci Alvarez, who prepared the grant application for the Riverwalk study, did not pick up on the mood in the packed city commission chambers, where the open house was held. Alvarez confirmed the commercial impetus for the Riverwalk study, reporting that she gets many calls a week from people “wanting to build and purchase over there [across the river].” The city “needs to know if it is feasible to put in infrastructure,” she said.
The land on the east side of the river across from Rotary and Ralph Edwards parks is currently platted for a residential subdivision, according to the Wilson & Co. PowerPoint document. The city’s zoning map states the area is zoned T-1 or “transitional.” On the Riverwalk concept map, it is designated for commercial development and “opportunity areas” for recreation.
Local real estate broker Sid Bryant informed the gathering that the owner of the land is Mitch Brown. According to the Sierra County Assessor’s online parcel database, Brown’s Rio Vista Land Company LLC is based in Hawaii, where he currently lives.
Once informed that Brown’s land could be developed and that the city is considering how to provide the necessary water, sewer and electric services, the open house attendees began hammering on the undesirability and unsustainability of development across and along the river.
T or C resident Jan Thedford said water is “scarce” and questioned how a “whole new development would affect our limited water.”
Kimberly Jewell, a popular T or C baker, said: “I’m most concerned about the hot springs.” The hot springs resource “is very limited, sacred and fragile,” she said, pointing out that the underground springs would be adversely affected by earth moving and construction on either side of the river. “This is not very well thought out,” Jewell said, noting that the hot springs and other environment issues had not been considered in Wilson & Company’s concept plan.
June Jewell, Kimberley’s daughter, said environmental concerns should be “considered first” before deciding on locations for development and businesses.
Noting that the community did not want a development similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk, she urged Wilson & Company to listen to public input. The design should “improve the environment” and take into account not just the impact on the hot springs, but also on the Rio Grande as a migratory-bird flyway.
T or C civic activist Ariel Dougherty suggested the city purchase and preserve Brown’s land as open space and restrict the use of bridges spanning the river to foot traffic. The city’s comprehensive plan stresses in-fill development, Dougherty pointed out, not new development. She noted that T or C is still embroiled in a lawsuit with Hot Springs Land Development over the city’s failure to provide water and sewer capacity to HSLD’s holdings in the northern part of the city.
Klaus Wittern, a developer, observed that purchasing Brown’s property for preservation purposes would be expensive. Wittern asked Wolfrom if she had contacted Brown. No, Wolfrom replied, explaining that, since the study is in preliminary stages, it would be premature. Wittern said: “Then you won’t get buy-in [from Brown] for the plan.”
Pat Guerard, a relative newcomer to T or C, reported that her former state of Connecticut had let private individuals buy up most of its shorefront property, with the result that the public “can’t get to it.” She urged: “To preserve the river—now is the time.”
Linda DeMarino, executive director of MainStreet Truth or Consequences, argued that, given all the empty storefronts and vacant lots downtown and uptown, new development “should not take away from anything else.” A restaurant down by the river, serviced by a road, water and electricity, will attract other development, she said, “before you know it.” She questioned: “Do we have the infrastructure capacity for a thriving downtown and uptown and a new development?”
Writer and yoga instructor Patty Kearney summed up the prevailing sentiment of the audience when she asked: “Can you prevent any building on the other side?”
City Manager Bruce Swingle tried to assuage attendees’ fears. “It will be years before this happens, if it ever materializes. Unfortunately we are seeing negative reactions on Facebook, showing high-rise hotels, which is ridiculous.”
Wilson’s Alfredo Holguin had asked time and again of the attendees: “Any other ideas?” The repeated response was “no development.” At the end of the open house, Holquin asked the question yet again, raising doubts about whether he had taken in the audience’s utter rejection of riverfront development.