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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  June 2012

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Too Much Red, Not Enough Green?

The abrupt shutdown of Proper Foods in Deming
leaves questions and disrupted lives.

 

Near the middle of May, Proper Foods in Deming shut down, putting 131 employees out of work.

The decision was sudden. Town authorities didn't hear that it was going to happen until May 1, and work was over for most by about May 15. There are now more people out of work in Luna County, where unemployment hovers at 20%, the highest rate in New Mexico.

In 2008 a well-publicized crisis at the plant occurred, and the town ended up using a $500,000 loan from state economic development funds to keep the food processor afloat. But the business couldn't hang on.

The inconspicuous white cinder block building is right on Pine Street, or Motel Drive, as it's called. I've often seen workers come and go there at the shift change in late afternoon.

Some of the same crowd who worked at Border Foods (where I worked a few months) worked there. But there is more English spoken at Proper Foods than at Border Foods, for some reason.

Proper Foods was the second-largest employer of manual labor in Deming after Border Foods. The latter hires many more people, but the number varies widely, depending on the season. During the chile season last year, Border Foods hired 11,000 people (including many temporary jobs), but during the off-season it usually hires between 100 and 200.

Proper Foods specialized in prepared Mexican foods, while Border Foods processes raw chile peppers.

While Border Foods employees swelter in the summer heat, Proper Foods is air-conditioned and even refrigerated for some positions.

Proper Foods has existed at least since 1995, as I can tell from my old news clips. No one from the office is interested in talking right now, and no one else knows the date it started.

A woman I know named Ana who worked at Proper Foods lives at a "women's transitional home" after getting out of prison about six months ago. The organization helped Ana get the job, and she was close to having enough money to pay for her own apartment. She is disappointed, but looking for more work.

 

I stopped by the plant a few days after most employees had already been laid off. Several stopped by to pick up their last paychecks and leave their white hard hats. Most were women.

The gist of what they said was that if they couldn't find work in Deming, they'd move away. No one sounded terribly worried, just a bit depressed.

"A lot of young girls are moving to Albuquerque," said Sandra Baca, who was already getting $133 a week in unemployment. She had applied for a job as manager of Wendy's in Deming.

A woman who'd worked there 11 years and didn't want to be named said, "There's no work here." She was considering moving to Hobbs, where she'd heard there's work in hotels and restaurants. She's single with two kids.

Candelario Gonzales, with a red bandana around his head and a black moustache, was still cleaning up the place. He had worked in construction and in the mines, and said he would go "wherever there's work."

A woman from Puerto Rico who lived alone said she might find work at Border Foods or at an onion shed in town.

As she spoke, an official-looking Anglo man with a moustache walked down the ramp toward us and positioned himself near us with his hands on the metal railing. He smiled broadly at me but said nothing. The Puerto Rican woman smiled wryly and left.

The man told me he could give me no information about the shutdown, and that I should call the company's main office in Ruidoso. "No one knows better than in Ruidoso," he claimed.

During the next days I called Proper Foods to be connected to Ruidoso. I left a few messages and no one ever called back.

I'm really not sure why the man was so defensive. The closing is unfortunate for everyone involved, it seems to me. I wasn't looking for dirt.

Luna County Commissioner Jay Spivey, in an interview at the courthouse, said, "They were probably embarrassed."

Spivey didn't know the exact cause of the closure. "They haven't mentioned bankruptcy," he said. "They've been serving their loans right along."

I had the impression that there would be several official players in Deming who would swing into action to rescue the plant. But according to Spivey, Linda Smrkovsky, Economic Development director for the county, is basically running a one-woman show. She's trying to find a buyer for the facility.

Spivey and I talked about how the schools would be affected, with families supported by Proper Foods employees averaging between four and five members, according to Spivey. Businesses will be affected, especially Walmart and K-Mart.

As county commissioner, Spivey was more involved in the issue of the Columbus stockyards that were closed down in April. He spelled out the effect of their closure, beyond the job loss for nine individuals, and beyond the $3 per head of cattle the county received, which Spivey said was negligible in the county's $45 million budget.

He described the ripple effect of businesspeople or cattlemen visiting Columbus who go to restaurants and stay at motels (supplying Lodgers' Tax funds), shop at the San Jose grocery store or have a drink, or have their flat tires fixed, and the gross receipts tax the town gets from the stockyards.

 

Things are up in the air right now in Luna County. Two businesses, one very important in employment capacity, have closed down, and nobody seems to know why in either case. No one even knows if these closures have anything to do with the recession.

Both the stockyards and Proper Foods may resurrect or reincarnate in a few months. But maybe they won't. The fate of many is being played out at this moment.

The current recession is not as visible as the Great Depression was. We don't have people selling apples in the streets, or hobos on trains, or even people lined up at soup kitchens. It's more as if someone has quietly pulled a plug on the hopes of thousands. There's just silence.

What's interesting is that several new local businesses started up in the past year despite the recession. Off the top of my head I can think of a restaurant, a stationery store, two nail salons, two dress shops, and an ice cream parlor in Deming, and a few greenhouses growing vegetables in Columbus.

Hope keeps bubbling up like little soda bubbles in an ice-filled glass in summer. It can't be stopped.

But it's also not enough to raise the economic tide in Luna County. That will probably happen only when the US economy grows again, whenever that may be.

 

 

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming. She also wrote about Border Partners in Palomas in this issue.

 

 



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