T or C City Commission approves “Riverwalk” study, despite public opposition

by Kathleen Sloan | November 18, 2021
7 min read
San Antonio's Riverwalk inspired the ambition of former City Manager Morris Madrid, who commissioned the study, to develop T or C's riverfront. Source: roadtrippers.com

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.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.
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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.


“Riverwalk” economic feasibility study recommendations unveiled
by Diana Tittle | November 14, 2021

Two years in the making and likely to be endorsed at Wednesday’s Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting, the study calls for a public investment...

“Riverwalk” ideas get thumbs down from community
by Kathleen Sloan | July 2, 2021

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...

2 thoughts on “T or C City Commission approves “Riverwalk” study, despite public opposition”

  1. Typically, the myopic view of city government to real community needs fails in favor of maintaining the status quo. Little if any discussion of operational cost reduction has been heard for decades. “More revenue” is touted as the solution to the city’s problems, while efficiency, conservation and proper management of existing assets is ignored. One foolish and expensive plan after another are adopted in the “hopes” that something will work. Examples abound, from Hot Springs Landing Development and Motorplex to the Spaceport Visitor’s Center, to trash transfer instead of landfill, modular municipal courthouse vs. use of Magistrate Court facilities and, finally, smart meters—all in all. increasing expense, disenfranchising the unheeded citizenry and making the attraction of new people into the community difficult. Given the “New World” reset playing out globally, it is time for changing direction and making this community move away from Pie in the Sky and toward logic and reason.

  2. During the past couple of summers, when the river was running and people were flocking to our community to raft down it, I wrote letters imploring our city commission and “Main Street” to act. I asked them to recognize the economic benefit that this ride down the cool river would bring. I asked them to cater to these folks, who were telling us what they wanted, by painting over the graffiti on the bridge, providing trash containers and to periodically show a police presence to reassure the safety of vehicles left behind.

    There was no response, no acknowledgment other than the usual excuses: no funds, no personnel and “not our jurisdiction.” It took private business to build up river rafting as an economic benefit.

    Now we are looking to a Riverwalk to save our economic asses. Does Wilson & Company run our city or do the citizens? A car bridge to get more traffic on the east side that is already out of control with the ORVs and tweekers? Sole benefit to the land owners, more detriment to the environment.

    It would be nice to have a footbridge across a semipermeable dam, perhaps some re-constructed wetlands and an effort to restore the river’s ecosystem. Where are the hackberries that once were part of this system? Where is the money we do not have going to come from? For either project? More debt we cannot pay?

    I feel our leaders have lost touch with reality . . . where are the tourists going to come from when gas hits $5 a gallon and restaurants cannot get enough food to serve or you can afford? We are going to have our hands full just taking care of those in our community as inflation (food, heat) goes through the roof. It is time for our leaders turn off mainstream media, get their heads out of the sand and begin to take steps to safeguard the community. We are not going back to the way things were. The new normal will be survival.

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