Las Cruces, New Mexico
Mountains of opportunity
Business View Magazine interviews Griselda T. Martínez, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, as part of our focus on best business practices of American towns and cities.
Las Cruces, New Mexico is located the state’s Mesilla Valley, roughly 45 miles north of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and 285 miles south of Santa Fe, the state capital. Las Cruces is the county seat of Doña Ana County, and serves as the center of commerce and culture for the southern New Mexico region. With approximately 102,000 residents, Las Cruces is a thriving community that has grown to be the second most populous city in the state.
Prior to the community’s founding, several Indigenous cultures lived in the area, drawn to the Rio Grande and the resources it provided. Present-day southern New Mexico was the site of several conflicts between Native Americans and Spanish conquistadors from the 1500s to the 1800s. The U.S.-Mexican War ended in 1848 and Americans flocked westward from Texas to California. Las Cruces was established in 1849. In 1854, the Gadsden Purchase between the United States and Mexico secured the southern portions of present-day New Mexico and Arizona as a U.S. territory, including Las Cruces and Doña Ana County. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad came to southern New Mexico, building tracks and a depot in Las Cruces in 1881. The community grew rapidly after the introduction of the railroad; new homes, churches, and schools were built at the end of the 19th century, and in 1888, Las Cruces College opened, which is now New Mexico State University.
Given the proximity of the Rio Grande, agriculture is an important feature of Las Cruces history. The construction of the Elephant Butte Dam allowed for more farmers to be more productive in the Mesilla Valley region. The Great Depression caused crop prices to fall dramatically and many did not recover until New Deal programs were put into place. White Sands Missile Range was established in the 1940s after WWII, and is still a major employer for the region.
Today, Las Cruces is intrinsically linked to both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. It is known for the expansive natural beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges, its strong neighborhoods, a thriving downtown with a public plaza, restaurants and retail, a rich cultural history, and pride in each one. Its most prominent natural features—both of which form key components of the area’s identity—are the Organ Mountains to the east and the Rio Grande to the west. Signature buildings in downtown include historic building, such as the Rio Grande Theatre and Amador Hotel, and modern architecture like the Las Cruces City Hall and Third Judiciary District Courthouse. The arts and cultural scene in Las Cruces is also vibrant with several arts and cultural groups calling Las Cruces home.
Las Cruces has continued to grow into the 21st century, and the community has assumed a dual identity as both a college town and an attractive destination for outdoor lovers and retirees. Part of what makes Las Cruces attractive is its climate and the surrounding natural landscape. In 2014, the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument was established, preserving opportunities for outdoor recreation on preserved lands flanking all sides of the city.
Major industries in Las Cruces include government jobs and military support, given its proximity to White Sands Missile Range, Fort Bliss, Holloman Air Force, and a NASA Facility. New Mexico State University, a New Mexico land grant institution, has grown to a student population of approximately 14,400 with strong areas of expertise including its engineering school, agricultural-related research, and academic programming, and its initiatives to support entrepreneurship regionally and statewide. Doña Ana Community College is part of New Mexico State University’s educational system. The city is also the headquarters for Virgin Galactic, the world’s first company to offer sub-orbital spaceflights. Spaceport America, the first worldwide purpose-built spaceport, is located 60 miles north to Las Cruces.
Griselda T. Martínez is the Director of Las Cruces’ Economic Development Department. Its mission is “to provide targeted business, tourism, and support services to businesses, residents, and visitors so they can invest in, live in, and discover a sustainable community that fosters business growth opportunities, innovation, and entrepreneurship.” The Department’s five major programs are: Visit Las Cruces, the city’s Visitors Bureau; Business Development, which offers a number of citywide initiatives to new and existing businesses; Destination Downtown, which offers business support and financing incentives for downtown development projects; Airport Development, which is concerned with the growth of the Las Cruces International Airport in the areas of aviation, aerospace, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS); and Land Management and Real Estate, which includes the management of the West Mesa Industrial Park, located south of the Airport and home to both a Foreign Trade Zone and federal Opportunity Zone.
“The Industrial Park was created in the 1990s,” Martinez notes. “The reason was to create opportunities leveraging upon the assets of the Airport and the activity from there related to aviation and aerospace for industrial growth. We have been working on a business retention/expansion program, which will launch within the next few weeks. Our focus will be to assess the needs of the businesses there, including supply chain opportunities and how we can help them be more successful.” Other industries that Martinez says the city wants to grow to the Industrial Park, going forward, include “digital media, healthcare, value-added agriculture, green industries, manufacturing, and, of course aerospace and aviation, including UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems).”
Over the last few years, the Airport, itself, has undergone many infrastructure updates. “We are about to finish the placement of its interior perimeter fence, which is about six miles in length covering 1,300 acres of land of the overall 4,900 acres for the entire Airport” Martinez reports. “We’re almost done with that. That will be a major difference in the safety and security that we can offer to potential businesses relocating or expanding within the fence or outside the fence with access to runways. We also are working on a full reconstruction of our general aviation apron. That’s one of our capital projects funded through the FAA for close to $3 million. We are expecting to complete that within the next month, or so. We’re very excited about that, because that will allow us to really market a brand new apron.”
“We’re also interested in finding investors who are willing and able to provide development opportunities,” she continues. “We currently have a shortage of hangar space – not only the smaller T-hangars, but also commercial hangars. So, we’re working on having shovel-ready parcels where development can occur. The Airport has been a big asset to our community, and now we’re being intentional about developing it to where it needs to be, and also attracting the companies that were envisioned for it 20 years ago.
“Another big project is the implementation of funding for landscaping, beautification, and a proposed Heritage Park to honor our local heroes. Last year, we received a $1 million appropriation from the state. Other improvements at the airport include security gates, drainage projects, and numerous maintenance projects. We want to make sure that the Airport, in addition to being a business hub with the industrial park, also invites the community and lets them know that the Airport is their airport. It’s also a way to encourage our youth to explore careers in science and technology. And for that we have a couple of strong partnerships. One is the Experimental Aircraft Association – they do programming for youth and the community. The other one is Las Cruces Flying Club. They are a not-for-profit organization that helps those who are interested in getting their pilot’s license. They assist with scholarships, and they also support a network of pilots and people interested in aviation. We also have a new restaurant going in at the end of August. This was a big business opportunity, because we have all the employees at the industrial park, tenants, and visitors at the Airport on a regular basis and transit traffic on Interstate 10, and we had a gap in food service. That was the number-one need we heard from the business community.”
Regarding support for businesses in general in Las Cruces, Martinez relates that the city is inviting 30 companies to participate in an eight-week program it is offering in partnership with the Arrowhead Center at Mexico State University, called BizSprint Las Cruces. “The purpose of that business accelerator is for local businesses to be able to adapt and pivot to new markets and e-commerce, which is something that local businesses may not necessarily have as a focal point unless they’re forced to do that,” she explains. “The current pandemic situation is an opportunity for those entrepreneurs to adapt to the new market opportunities. Hopefully, we’ll have a lot of successes from that, where they’ll expand into new markets, remain open, and keep their workforce employed.”
“We are also launching a program in mid-August for business assistance,” she adds. “We have partnered with a community development financial institution called LiftFund. They are going to provide technical assistance to local businesses with lot of financial education: accounting, marketing, e-commerce, etc. They are also going to deploy up to half a million dollars in loans to participants, plus additional funding available for business support through federal funds. We see that as a very key component to filling in access to capital in our community in the form of micro-loans. The goal is for those businesses to be loan-ready with the knowledge to be successful and be able to pay back. Based on the metrics that they capture, they have about a 93-percent repayment rate. That’s a really high number. Also, their customers are usually not bankable through the traditional financial institutions. So, that’s a really exciting component to it”.
“For business support strategy, we are partnering with Doña Ana Community College’s Career Development Services, the Workforce Connections team here in town, as well as a number of non-profit organizations to jointly put together a program and pursue grant funds through the Economic Development Administration CARES Act. We are aiming to cover the component of job seekers who were most vulnerable and have furloughed or laid off, and very likely, need to be retrained in order to access any new opportunities. We are going to focus on the top industries that we have targeted.”
Regarding Visit Las Cruces, Martinez says, “Under the current situation, tourism has been a bit of a struggle for us. We have had to pivot and adapt to the current situation to continue to bring awareness of Las Cruces while not encouraging travelers to visit us just yet. We launched a campaign to let visitors them know about our beautiful community for whenever we’re reopened for them to come and visit. We’re calling it: ‘We’ll Keep Our Sol Shining for You.’ Sol, in Spanish, means Sun. So, we will keep our sun shining for you all for whenever you can come and visit. We’re doing a steady campaign on social media; we’re doing 360 tours; we’re doing virtual tours driving through some of the attractions here in our community. That has been a very tricky area, because we still need to continue the awareness component while we manage expectations of tourists not being in high volumes in our state.”
Finally, there’s Destination Downtown. “About ten years ago, the city wanted to have a major change in downtown so master planning and a retail market analysis took place,” Martinez recounts. “A lot of different projects took place, and one of them was the creation of a public TIDD (Tax Increment Development District) to allocate monies from increment in general funding to this district that would allow for the increment of GRTs (Gross Receipt Taxes) to be used for public infrastructure. Through those means, and with the higher level of activity, we have been able to do a lot of different projects. One of the major ones was two-way conversion of the streets in downtown. That has proven to make a huge difference. Our main street was one way and the two streets around it were also one way. So instead of people stopping and interacting, it was just a drive-through. When we finished the two-way, with other strategies that we implemented with our downtown partners, we went from 200 businesses to over 300 in over 24 months. Another project that we have in the works: we’re completing a analysis on a parking garage to determine where would be the appropriate location for that and then what would be the right timing for us to build it, given the demand. We are actively looking for a public private partnership to help us accomplish our goal for more housing units in downtown”.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the usually fast pace of life, downtown, Martinez sees its return, eventually, and points out some of the things that make downtown Las Cruces an exciting and vibrant place: “In downtown, we have our farmers market, which has been recognized, nationally, as one of the best in the nation. We have food producers and craftspeople and it’s a great place for the community to gather. It takes place every Saturday on both sides of the street for five blocks. In addition to the farmers market is our downtown plaza, which was another project funded with the TIDD. Now, it’s a gathering place where people enjoy musical concerts, dance lessons, etc. We also have the Rio Grande Theater, which is a historical building that is managed by the city. We have programming there – movies and plays. That’s another great place for the community to gather.”
The official motto of Las Cruces, New Mexico is: “Mountains of Opportunity.” Based on its past successes and the current programs offered by the city’s Economic Development Department, it is safe to assume that many more opportunities for growth are on the horizon.
Click The Cover To View Or Download The Brochure
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Las Cruces, New Mexico
WHAT: A city of 102,000
WHERE: In Doña Ana County, in the southern part of the state
Arrowhead Center – arrowheadcenter.nmsu.edu
Arrowhead Center helps innovators, entrepreneurs, and small businesses succeed through a comprehensive network of services, resources, and connections.
- Promote Cradle-to-Career Entrepreneurship: The future of our economy
- Initialize Business Creation & Growth: A true economic engine
- Protect Intellectual Property: The critical ingredient of ideas
- Enhance Regional Economic Development: The City of Las Cruces and the Borderplex region