Raton tries to rise again

A former coal mining town takes measured approach to economic recovery.


This story is part of the State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Sparks fly inside the shop at Rocky Mountain Metals, a big warehouse building on the outskirts of this small town near the Colorado border. Men clad in welding masks, jeans and tattoos expertly cut, weld and sand smooth seams on hollow steel frames. It’s a Friday and the workers will knock off work at noon, part of the company’s tradition that gives their employees a little longer weekend. They make between $9 and $18 an hour and in Raton, where housing and living expenses are comparatively cheap, that money goes a lot further than in other New Mexico towns.

Rocky Mountain Metals has operated for nearly 30 years. It employs 40 men and women on average in steady jobs. They’re from all over Colfax County in northeastern New Mexico, but most are from Raton.

But it would take a dozen more businesses the size of Rocky Mountain Metals to make up for the 600 jobs lost when the town’s major employer - a coal mine - shut down 14 years ago. A third of the town’s population left and “For sale” signs went up in front of home after home. Other businesses closed as the customer base dwindled. Boards appeared on the windows of the town’s closed historic downtown commercial spaces.

In 2017, Raton is just beginning to recover from the economic devastation, much the same way the state as a whole has struggled to bounce back from the 2008 economic downturn and plunging oil and gas prices that left a sizeable hole in the state’s budget.

“Raton is kind of a case study for all of New Mexico,” said Raton city manager Scott Berry. “We had the rug pulled out from us. We’re trying. Some things will work. Some things won’t. And there’s a lot of frustration along the way.”

A worker at Rocky Mountain Metals grinds a hollow metal frame door. The company is more than three decades old, surviving through Raton's economic downturn.
Jane Phillips/Taos News

Raton’s rebirth has come in fits and starts in the last couple of years. Berry, other town officials and business owners are hopeful; they’re working toward a slow, stable recovery built by keeping existing businesses healthy and attracting new ones. Their measured approach to recovery holds potential lessons for other small rural towns seeking long-term, stable solutions to job woes. Town officials want tourists, but they also are banking on attracting mid-sized manufacturing companies, Internet entrepreneurs and small niche businesses.

What they won’t do, is put all their hopes on one industry again, like coal mining.

“In my opinion, if you base all of your workforce on one industry, in this day and age they can close, just like that,” said former mine safety inspector and Raton commissione Ron Chavez, snapping his fingers. “I’d like us to diversify it out to several smaller industries.”

Raton’s success and failures on the road to economic recovery are measurable. A year ago, a microbrewery was in the works and a historic hotel was under rennovation. Town officials were courting an aviation training company from Colorado and working with the local hospital on a plan to launch a residential behavioral treatment center that could bring 300 good paying jobs.

By September, the microbrewery was open and the historic hotel had been turned into a restaurant. Another project was underway with a multimillion federal grant to rennovate a historic mercantile on First Street across from the train station into apartments and another restaurant. L3-Doss Aviation had launched classes at the Raton Airport with plans to expand its military aviation training classes.

Raton was among 21 New Mexico communities that earned national Main Street accreditation for meeting downtown revitalization standards.

But a few other small businesses in town had also closed and plans to open the residential treatment center stalled after the hospital administrator spearheading the effort left for a new job.

One major challenge is preventing a more robust recovery and the ability to bring in more businesses, say several town leaders, residents and business owners – a reliable work force.

“Our biggest problem, and we’re a miniature of what the whole nation is facing, is we don’t have enough people with a work ethic,” said Mauricio Lemus, owner of Casa Lemus Inn and Restaurant. “To me this nation has two problems, and those are the same problems in every community. Number one is workforce. Number two is drugs.”

The people of Raton, New Mexico:

  • Enchanted Grounds, owned by Raton natives Katie Feldman and her sister, attracts locals and visitors.

    Jane Phillips/Taos News
  • Clas Thelin, owner and Ron Gonzales, manager, of Rocky Mountain Metals in Raton. They said its been important to set high expectations for their employees and support them with better pay.

    Jane Phillips/Taos News
  • Mauricio Lemus bought a restaurant and a hotel in Raton. He said the town needs to focus on providing services to travelers and training a local workforce.

    Jane Phillips/Taos News
  • Kathleen Hanson, owner of Doggie Stylz-by Kathleen in Raton, gets some love from great Dane Little Lyon and Lucy, a standard poodle. Hanson said her dog day care and grooming businesses has been booming.

    Jane Phillips/Taos News
  • Laurie Bunker retired from the U.S. Postal Service in Florida and bought the Raton Pass Motor Inn with her partner a couple of years ago. She's among the new business owners who believe Raton is on the verge of an economic rebound.

    Jane Phillips/Taos News
  • Wanda Miller, born and raised in Raton, volunteers at the Raton visitor information center.

    Jane Phillips/Taos News

Rebuilding, slowly

In the summer of 2016, Berry and the town council were in the midst of some ambitious plans for attracting new companies and some new small businesses bringing life to empty downtown store fronts.

Raton officials took a step a lot of towns miss – they inventoried what they had to offer businesses. Raton has inexpensive real estate, plenty of water, high speed Internet, a major interstate, a regional hospital, a railroad, an airport, lots of outdoor recreational opportunities and the National Rifle Association Whittington Center just outside town.

Town officials looked at what Raton lacked: a college, high performing public schools and weekend events to keep things lively.   

Then the town took measures to promote its strengths and work on its weaknesses.

The town won a couple of state Main Street America grants that pumped money into sprucing up downtown in an effort to make attract business owners to filll up the empty commercial space and visitors to shop at those businesses.

In the last year, the town formed partnerships with Santa Fe Community College and Eastern New Mexico College, opened The Center for Sustainable Living. They’re working on distance learning programs in renewable energy, greenhouse management and nursing among others.

Some of the new downtown businesses launched in 2016 are still were thriving, like Enchanted Grounds, the coffee shop started by two young local sisters. The Colfax Ale Center is open and encourages its customers to order food delivered from Bruno’s Pizza and Wings around the corner, a mutually beneficial relationship. Doggie Stylz by Kathleen, a canine day care and grooming business housed in a historic downtown corner building, is booming with everyone from the local tire technician to hospital staff dropping their pets off. A Domino’s Pizza moved into a building on the main strip off Interstate 25 left vacant by a Kentucky Fried Chicken. A Florida couple took over an old motel and turned it into a popular retro Raton Motor Pass Inn and they’re in the middle of renovating the next door café.

New events brought in thousands of visitors to hotels and restaurants over the summer. JP Rodman, a custom chopper designer with a shop in Raton, hosted the first Run to Raton with the help of the Raton Pass Motor Inn’s owners and classic car buffs Laurie “Bunny” Bunker and Jason Bennett. A few hundred choppers and classic cars roared into Raton for the weekend event, which featured an old style pin-up girl competition.

And town residents have pitched in to help promote their town.

When the state tourism department stopped operating the visitor’s center in Raton a year ago, the town pulled together. Since then the visitor’s center has been run entirely by the town and 40 volunteers, open seven days a week. “We’ve had over 20,000 visitors since Jan. 1,” said Melissa Unger, Raton’s tourism coordinator, and a former Raton school teacher.

Financially, the town of Raton is looking better than it did a few years ago. The town has boosted its cash reserves to triple that required by the state. And its last two independent audits produced no findings of financial weaknesses. “It actually made the auditor uncomfortable,” said Berry. “Typically an audit always lists a few findings. I’m sure we’ll have findings in the future.”

Filling empty spaces

Raton, like many small towns in New Mexico, still struggles to fill empty commercial spaces. “We’re working on an empty building ordinance that reminds the property owners of their responsibility to keep up the property,” said Berry. “Raton has a lot of non-resident property owners.”

The ordinance might require property owners to register a building as vacant and pay an annual fee. He thinks the town might have the ordinance in place in a year. “Vacant buildings become a magnet for bad things,” he said.

Berry and other town officials are talking to state lawmakers about the possibility of a “land bank” law similar to what other states have in place. The law allows municipalities or nonprofit organizations to turn vacant, abandoned or tax delinquent properties into residential housing or for some other public use. About 170 land banks are operating in the United States, the majority in the eastern half of the country, according to the Center for Community Progress. As of August 2015, only 11 states had comprehensive land bank legislation. New Mexico is not one of them.

But even if Raton is successful in attracting new businesses to the empty commercial spaces, lack of a skilled workforce could stall the town’s forward momentum.

Wanda Miller, a 73-year-old Raton native who volunteers at the visitor information center, said more good paying jobs would help the town’s fortunes. But, she said, “a lot of jobs won’t help if people don’t want to work.”

The old Marchiando mercantile, built in 1882, sat vacant for more than 30 years until recently. It was bought by a Raton resident who obtained a federal grant to renovate it into a restaurant and apartments.
Jane Phillips/Taos News

Workforce challenges

Lemus, who fled violence in his native El Salvador as a teenager and has since owned several businesses, is sometimes baffled by the applicants for jobs as wait staff, cooks and hotel help. “One woman showed up in her pajamas,” he said.

Another came for two days and then didn’t show up again. Another worked for a couple of days and then asked for a day off.

He figures about a fourth of his staff is new every year. The national annual range of turnovers – including quits, layoffs and retirements – ranges from 18 to 20 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017. The annual turnover in New Mexico for all jobs in 2016 was 21.5 percent, making it the fourth highest in the nation, according to Compdata Surveys. People quitting jobs in the hotel and food service industries in the West, including New Mexico, is higher than all other industries on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But in a small town with several hotels and restaurants, the options are limited, both for the pool of workers and what he can pay them. Lemus said he pays his workers between $8 and $10 an hour. More than that would mean he couldn’t keep his prices competitive. Lemus and others say the applicants cycle through again and again – they know businesses are desparate for help.

Lemus doesn’t think people in Raton are lazy. “I think many of them don’t understand how to work,” said Lemus, who was expecting his first child in October, giving him another reason to see the town succeed.

Ron Chavez, a Raton city commissioner and former mine safety inspector, agrees with Lemus. “One of our biggest drawbacks. Not just here, but in all small towns is we don’t have a work force,” Chavez said. “They would rather stay at home and watch tv all day and accept assistance from the state.”

“I am a firm believer that there are people who need a hand out, occasionally,” Chavez said. “But you don’t need a hand out all the time. Some of them are second or third generation doing the same thing.”

Raton isn’t alone. Business owners in Taos and other New Mexico towns report similar problems finding and keeping staff. Earlene Durand said she has gone through 109 employees in the last 2 ½ years at her small Taos café. Help wanted signs pop up regularly at Taos fast food restaurants and stores. But Taos isn’t the kind of town where people can live on a minimum wage job.

To fill his employment gap, Lemus has turned to foreign students visiting on J1 visas, who can work for three or four months and save up far more than they could in their home countries. They show up on time. They’re willing to learn. They rarely call in sick, Lemus said.

Katie Feldman, co-owner of Enchanted Grounds and Bunker of Raton Pass Motor Inn, agreed it can be tough to find the right workers. Feldman used to manage a hotel restaurant in Raton. “I know the struggle of finding really, really good people,” Feldman said. “It’s hard to find those amazing people who show up, every day, on time. It’s hard, but they’re here. Once you find them, they’re a gold mine.”

She’s had the same employees since she opened more than a year ago, she said.

Lemus has advocated with town leaders and other business owners to set up a training program  and offer certificates to workers who complete the classes. It would be akin to requiring server’s licenses for people serving alcohol. Businesses could pay the cost of the program for employees in training, an investment in their future workforce.

But so far, no one has offered to help make the training program a reality. Town officials acknowledge the training could be a viable idea, but it will take a group of business leaders to make it happen, they said.

Setting a high standard

The first time Ron Gonzales, manager at Rocky Mountain Metals, told his workers they had to have a drug test, he figured he would lose half of them. Drug testing was something Clas Thelin,  who bought the company about a decade ago, insisted on.

“The first time we did testing, we lost only five people,” said Gonzales, a Raton native.  “They were open to being tested, said it was good. I was thrown back by this.”

Thelin, who lives in Colorado and visits the manufacturing plant regularly, said he spent years managing large companies around the world before buying Rocky Mountain Metals. “I strongly believe that if you set high standards will get more people and will get people happier with what they are doing.”

“We’ve worked really hard at not compromising on our requirements. We’ve set a high standard when it comes to behavior and attendance and of course the drug issue,” Thelin added. “We’ve almost come to the point where we feel our core people appreciate this. They have a pride in working here. There are high expectations but they don’t mind, as long as everyone is measured with the same measuring stick.”

Gonzales added that paying them better than minimum wage for the tough, skill work they are doing, offering them chances to advance, and cross-training them in a variety of jobs, all have helped the company retain more employees. Most of their workers have been with the company longer than three years.

Unfailing optimism

Raton business owners and officials think the town feels a little more lively than it did a couple of years ago. It’s one of those intangibles that are measured less in numbers and more based on what they see around the town every day.

Still, “I do believe Raton is climbing out of the doldrums that it’s been in,” said Chavez.

Wayne McMurtry, a Raton raised former national stock car champion who retired from the National Hot Rod Association and moved back to the town, agrees. “The atmosphere is better,” said McMurtry. He recently bought the historic Marchiando mercantile building near Raton’s train station – shuttered by the owners in 1982 with all the goods still inside – and garnered a multi-million federal grant to renovate it; in exchange, he’s agreed to create more than 100 jobs though not all will be in Raton.  He plans to preserve as much of the building’s historic architecture as possible, turning it into a restaurant and upstairs apartments.

Raton native Feldman, taking a break from her duties as head baker and coffee maker at Enchanted Grounds, remains as hopeful about Raton’s future as she was a year ago when she was newly opened. “It’s not going to happen fast, but we have some core people coming back. We have new families moving in,” she said.

“I don’t think I could be anywhere else,” Feldman said. “Raton is going so many places and I’m investing my whole heart in this town.”