More than a dozen residents spoke out yesterday against the “Riverwalk” economic development feasibility study during public comment at the Nov. 17 Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting—to no avail. The commission approved a resolution adopting the plan’s recommendations, anyway. The resolution also endorsed funding the recommendations “whenever possible,” setting the city on a course to open up development on vacant land on both sides of the Rio Grande.
The idea of making money for city government from commercial and recreational development along the river and its environs originated with previous City Manager Morris Madrid. He aptly named the concept Riverwalk, envisioning the cash-cow outdoor mall San Antonio, Texas, created downtown along the San Antonio River.
Madrid received the city commission’s approval to proceed with an economic feasibility study in May 2020. The engineering firm of Wilson & Company was paid $60,000 to conduct the study, with all but $10,000 of the expense underwritten by a grant from the New Mexico Finance Authority’s grant.
Though still in draft form, City Manager Bruce Swingle asked the commissioners for the study’s endorsement during their Nov. 17 meeting because the officially approved and completed study is due to be delivered to NMFA by Nov. 30. If this deadline were to be missed, the City of T or C would have to pay for the study’s entire cost.
The community first became aware of potential environmental and other impacts looming behind the study’s recommendations on June 24, when an “open house” to present a draft concept map for public comment was held by Wilson & Company at city commission chambers.
The local residents and businesspeople in attendance were all opposed to any development across the river, mostly out of concern for damage to desert wildlife and habitat and other environmental impacts. About 20 people spoke. All agreed that a footbridge providing access across the river to new and existing dirt trails would be welcome, but not a vehicular bridge.
Wilson & Company’s Paige Wolfrom gave the company’s presentation on the study on Nov. 17, as well as on June 24. Despite feedback received at the open house and from a residents’ survey, the study’s recommendations went largely unchanged except for the fact that a vehicular bridge is now included. A Wilson & Company schematic proposes that the span be 46 feet wide to accommodate two lanes of traffic, a bike lane and a pedestrian walkway. Water and wastewater pipes will be pinioned on the underside to enable utility hook-ups across the river. The cost of the bridge and utility lines is estimated to be $4 million or one third of the study’s envisioned $12 million public investment in outdoor recreational amenities and access to them that will be needed to encourage private proposed development along both sides of the river.
As a concession to those residents worried about the hot springs, wildlife and habitat, the study also now suggests environmental studies should be done. San Antonio’s Riverwalk, it was recently discovered, has spawned water pollution, with E-coli and other bacteria making the river and its creeks unsuitable for swimming, according to the San Antonio River Authority.
A bike trail, a camping ground and a new park and sports fields are plotted on Wilson & Company’s concept map as attractions the city could build to encourage private investment in retail, restaurants and residential projects, although the study does not provide a dollar estimate of the value of the developments or the revenue streams they would create for the city. “Build it and they will come” seems to be the unwritten strategy at the heart of the study.
Neither the concept map nor Wolfrom’s two presentations provided any detail about land ownership along the riverfront other than to acknowledge that some of the study area is private property. Fully 11 of the 15 residents who protested adoption of the study recommendations yesterday pointed out that they favor “developers” and “special interests” and “the few over the good of the many.”
Manager Swingle was less circumspect than Wolfrom, openly stating that he receives frequent calls requesting that the city “open up the other side of the river to development.” He added: “The city has been discussing economic feasibility studies for years.”
Swingle was also forthright in explaining his support for the Riverwalk recommendations. “With the economic situation of this community and its infrastructure problems,” he said, “they have to be paid for. This plan is not just for special interest groups, but the whole community. If we want to maintain just the basics [of running the city], we must generate revenue. This is one of many projects we need to grow revenue. Again, this is not just for special interest groups, but for the whole community.”
Swingle named and thanked “steering committee” members who worked on the plan. Of the 17 or so members, four were city staff: Manager Madrid, Assistant City Manager Traci Alvarez, City Parks Manager Ryan Lawler and Community Services Director O. J. Hechler. Merry Jo Fahl, who won a city commission seat on Nov. 2, was also on the committee. State Representative Rebecca Dow, National Parks Service Outdoor Recreation Planner Attila Bality, Elephant Butte Mayor Pro Tem Kim Skinner, Riverbend Hot Springs owner Jake Foerstner, Truth or Consequences Brewery Company owner John Masterson and Southeastern Council of Governments Director Jay Armijo were on the committee, as well as two other SCOG employees.
Swingle said Alvarez, Hechler and Lawler had been subjected as steering committee members to a “lot of personal attacks” from residents, incited by misinformation, such as a “polarizing” article that he did not identify but claimed contained a depiction of high rises along the river.
“All in all, it’s a great document,” Swingle said, praising Wilson & Company’s work.
The study, nevertheless, is bereft of any financial analysis of how the city will make money from any of the proposed developments, let alone recoup its $12 million investment. Instead, the study notes that Utah and Colorado—and to a lesser degree New Mexico—are seeing increased revenue from outdoor recreation. But this 30,000-foot overview lacks the detailed analysis needed to show the economic feasibility of the study’s proposed developments.
Comments from the 15 members of the public who spoke yesterday were more down to earth, practical and precise.
Chris Devlin, recognizing the city’s hot springs as an existing economic engine that could be damaged if further development on both sides of the river is allowed, asked the city to do a more “inclusive study” before proceeding. “We don’t want development if it is at the cost of the hot springs,” Devlin said.
Ariel Dougherty pointed out the taxpayers are still paying the city’s legal expenses for a case having to do with the Hot Springs Land Development’s unmet need for water and sewer utilities. The city didn’t plan sufficiently before approving that development surrounding the city airport or the residential development across the river, approved about 20 years ago, she said, which also needs sewer and water.
Patricia Kearney, Duke Shepherd, Jan Thedford, Lillis Urban, James Bush and MainStreet Truth or Consequences all said the city’s downtown is being ignored and needs help, not competition from new development. Further development will deflect resources that should be conserved to fix T or C’s ailing infrastructure, they said.
Urban and Bush also pointed out that Wilson & Company gave an “unfair summary of public feedback” by claiming 97 percent of the 324 who responded to the residents’ survey included in utility bills approved of “some development.” They noted that the majority of respondents were “not in favor of a vehicular bridge.”
Before the study went to a vote, Swingle and Wilson & Company’s Mario Juarez-Infante emphasized that, without the plan’s approval, the city could not apply for grant or financial aid to begin on any of the developments suggested, since a preliminary engineering plan is a prerequisite.
Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister minimized the import of the study, claiming nothing in it was “written in stone” and that the “community is confused—these are just concepts that could possibly happen.”
Mayor Sandra Whitehead agreed. “This is just a feasibility study,” Whitehead said. “It will take more environmental studies, but at least we could apply for money [if the plan is approved].”
City Commissioner Frances Luna explained why she endorsed the study. “The commission before us and especially this commission have been criticized for not having a vision.” Claiming the study provided the needed big picture, Luna concluded: “We need opportunities for growth and development and that opportunity is across the river.”
When the vote was taken, there was unanimous approval.