The Sky Is NOT Falling
But Silver City needs to be smart to stay vital and vibrant.
The Mayan Apocalypse didn't materialize (and we promise that's the last time we'll use that phrase) and the nation didn't fall off the "fiscal cliff" (ditto). But as 2012 melted into 2013, many folks in Silver City felt as though the apocalypse was in fact now. Suddenly, it seemed, local businesses of every sort were toppling like dominos. We heard from several people, "Silver City is becoming another Lordsburg!" With apologies to our friends in Lordsburg, that was not intended as a compliment.
Within the space of a few weeks, two notable downtown restaurants, Isaac's and Café Un Mundo, closed. Located on the prime corner of Broadway and Bullard, Isaac's in particular left a gaping hole in the downtown landscape. Legacy Lighting, an upscale retailer on Hudson Street not far from downtown, also closed, although the owner will continue to sell her popular candle line sans storefront. Out on Hwy. 180, the town's only movie theater, Real West Cinema, announced plans to close after the theater operator's badly needed upgrade plans collided with the owner's desire to sell the building.
As if that weren't troubling enough, rumors flew that a slew of other downtown retailers were also giving up. One store on Bullard even resorted to posting a sign on its door, "No We Are Not Going Out of Business." (For the record, two neighboring retailers also confirmed to us that rumors of their closing were without foundation.)
Before breaking out the black crepe, it's worth noting that there are openings to go along with the closings. Downtown, the Murray Hotel is at last open, and Bullard now boasts another fine restaurant, Tre Rosat, and an upscale antiques store, Blackwell's. This month, the new River Ranch Market will open on Bullard. We continue to be hopeful, too, about the development of a Silver City branch of Palomas' popular Pink Store. And the Silco may start showing movies. Out on Hwy. 180, Tractor Supply Co. is new, with a major retail center planned for next door. Silver City even now has a Little Caesars Pizza outpost (though we continue to long for the return of Kentucky Fried Chicken and those secret herbs and spices).
The Hwy. 180 openings represent franchise or chain operations, which tend not to be as supportive of the community (though we'd be glad to be pleasantly surprised here), and of course do nothing for the downtown core. But they are evidence nonetheless that Silver City and Grant County are not about to wither and blow away in this spring's winds.
Still, we continue to believe that the area can do better in terms of economic development — specifically retail and tourism-related businesses. With the welcome hiring of a new executive director at the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce, Sherry Logan, the time is ripe to take a fresh look at efforts to recruit and retain local businesses.
One step Logan might initiate would be to improve coordination between the various organizations engaged, one way or another, in that endeavor. While each has a different mission, it does sometimes seem that the area has an awful lot of groups trying to boost business, the arts and tourism: the Chamber of Commerce, the Green Chamber of Commerce, the Arts and Cultural District, MainStreet, the Small Business Development Center at WNMU, even the Mimbres Region Arts Council in its own way. (As long as that list is, it's not even comprehensive.) At a minimum, the area would benefit from making sure each organization knows what the other is doing, and that all are pulling in the same direction. Reducing any overlap between these groups would also help maximize our limited resources.
Somewhere in that welter of worthy groups, we'd like to see someone step forward and take the lead in proactive new-business recruitment. There's certainly a role for seeking out major new employers, as SIGRED used to do; that's a long-term project, though, with often-evanescent rewards as the Stream call center proved to be. But at the same time somebody needs to be out there finding the next downtown art gallery, convincing retailers in Taos or Tubac that they ought to give Silver City a try, even figuring out how to get us a movie theater again.
This is important beyond the simple filling of one more empty storefront. There's a critical-mass effect that can build a town's businesses — or, if the accumulation of changes goes the other way, drag it inexorably downward. To take art galleries as an example, it's difficult for just a handful of establishments to attract enough art lovers to be an arts destination. No one is going to spend a "gallery hopping" weekend in a place with only a couple of places to "hop." On the opposite extreme, however, gather enough quality galleries and you get Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Silver City is at neither end of that spectrum right now, but we'd love to see a calculated, concentrated push toward more of a critical mass.
Tourism of all types benefits from reaching a certain tipping point. Grant County needs to have enough things to do, indoors and out, and enough attractive places to stay and eat to be worth at least a long weekend. (Places also need to be open when tourists are here. As small-business owners ourselves, we appreciate the strain of mom-and-pop businesses. But if you can't be open on weekends and keep regular hours, you can't complain about poor sales.)
We've heard about what a sorry state downtown Silver City was in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The ups and downs of the mining business were no doubt the most important driver of the local economy. But a small push in the right direction was the opening of A.I.R. Coffee in 1993. After Jacqueline Shaw, an escapee from the corporate rat race in coffee-crazed Seattle, brought her espresso machine to Yankie Street, something began to change. Newsweek ran a story on "cappuccino vs. cowboys, the new war for the Old West." The Washington Post ran another story, and the New York Times wrote up Silver City, with a big photo of A.I.R. Coffee.
Artists and other creative types moved to town, followed by a wave of active retirees from places like California and Texas. By the time we arrived, 10 years ago this very month, Silver City was a town on the move — yet with a funky charm all its own.
The relocation wave, of course, broke with the real-estate bust that helped plunge the nation into recession. Now we worry that the generation of creative folks who came here and contributed so much to the town's character is simply getting older (we feel their pain!) and thinking of "hanging it up." That's a bigger long-term concern than the coming or going of a business or two.
Who will replace the people who have made Silver City different from other small towns across the Southwest? More to the point, who is out there recruiting that next generation of creative people, entrepreneurs and colorful characters?
It's hard to imagine publishing Desert Exposure in any other town of this size — having enough interesting people to write about, much less getting the support we enjoy from the advertisers who make "the biggest little paper in the Southwest" possible. As we turn the calendar to our second decade here — April will be our 10th anniversary issue producing Desert Exposure — our fondest hope is that Silver City and Grant County continue to be special. Things will change, as they always do, and the town can continue to flourish just as it has since A.I.R. Coffee became Yankie Creek Coffeehouse.
But we hope that unique mix of cappuccino and cowboys never gets lost, and that those who come here next and open businesses can treasure this little town in the Gila Wilderness as those who came before them did.
David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.
PO Box 191
Silver City, NM 88062