RATON — On a summer morning at the Enchanted Grounds Espresso Bar and Cafe in this quaint but dilapidated Northern New Mexico town, owner Katie Feldman greeted her usual eclectic blend of customers. The Raton police chief and a couple of officers stopped by, as did the head of the local bikers’ club, a family of tourists and the Colfax County manager. Feldman’s father had worked there when it was a bar named the Silver Dollar; Feldman had studied at the coffee shop when she was in high school. She and her sister, Jessica Barfield, bought the business in April.

“A lot of people think I’m crazy for investing in Raton, but I think this is the perfect time,” said Feldman, 25, who returned to her small town after attending college. “I think Raton is about to explode and more people are going to invest here.”

She’s not the only one who believes this. In the last year, two other restaurants, an aviation training school, a yoga studio, a technical trades education center and a custom knife manufacturer have opened. A renovated historic hotel opened Oct. 28 across from the newly beautified train depot. A brewery is scheduled to open in 2017 in one of Raton’s many historic downtown buildings. An organic food cooperative is in the works. Established businesses, like Pappas Sweet Shop Restaurant and Solano’s Boot and Western Wear, survived the economic upheavals of the last decade and are seeing an influx of new customers.

While hardly an economic boom, it is reason for optimism. The town enjoyed growth without a real bust for a century, driven by coal mining and, for a time, horse racing. The town was once surrounded by eight coal mines, which employed more than 2,000 men and boys at the turn of the century. The number of coal jobs declined as coal-fired steam engines switched to gas, and then disappeared in the late 1990s as the Eastern steel mills that once relied on the region’s high-quality coal moved overseas to China.

For many towns, the disappearance of mining has proved a death blow. But Raton’s officials and town leaders have an economic strategy that doesn’t rely on coal, oil or natural gas — or cannabis, the crop that’s boosted economies just across the border in Colorado. Today, Raton is betting on a whole new type of economy, a mix of small manufacturing businesses, health care and specialty services, and hospitality for travelers. Raton may lack a college and expansive recreational facilities, but it has plenty of advantages: lots of water, high-speed internet, a major transportation corridor and cheap commercial real estate — all pluses for a town trying to attract new ventures.

Raton’s leaders also know what they don’t want: one or two big companies that would make the town dependent yet again on one primary source of revenue. “If we had 20 small manufacturers that each employed 20 to 30 people, that would equal the jobs lost when the mines closed,” said Ron Chavez, a Raton city commissioner.

It’s too soon to know if Raton’s efforts will succeed. Like many rural communities, its once-thriving downtown business corridor — South Second Street — is a parade of boarded-up buildings.

But this small town’s calculated revitalization might hold lessons for New Mexico and other states that are enduring a sudden, painful decline in oil, gas and mining revenues.

“What you find is when you don’t diversify an economy in the good times, then when your commodity goes south, you take a big hit,” said Raton’s solid waste manager, Jason Phillips. “You can wallow in it, but you can’t really change the course of fate. You’ve got to move forward.”

Raton knows. It’s been there.

Rise and fall

The town of Raton is cupped at the foot of a 75-mile-long volcanic ridge known as the Raton Range, at the nexus of New Mexico’s high plains and the eastern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was a stop along the Santa Fe Trail, born during the United States’ westward expansion in the middle of the 19th century. From the beginning, Raton was a town of immigrants. Italian, Irish, Mexican, Russian, Scottish, Greek and Yugoslavian miners flocked there to dig coal. “Most of us who grew up here, our ancestors came to mine coal,” city manager Scott Berry said. “You had a lot of coal mining towns that needed labor. We came from everywhere.”

The first coal customer was the railroad, whose steam-powered trains needed coal to climb the steep Raton Pass into Colorado. Later, Kaiser Steel needed the Raton Basin’s coal for its massive steel works.

City Commissioner Ron Chavez and most of his family, including his sister, his brothers and his father, worked for a coal mine. Chavez was a safety engineer at the York Canyon Mine, making good money like most of the workers. He retired and opened his own business. “When I left, there were 670 people working at the mine,” he said.

Mine workers could make $20 an hour with a high school education.

The town reflected its prosperity. In the 1980s, when the population was at its height of 8,200, there were more than 10 bars, a dozen gas stations and two fine dining restaurants.

“When I was in high school, the town was booming,” said Ann Marie Pappas,

a professor of business at Trinidad College, who is also trying to keep alive the Pappas Sweet Shop Restaurant her grandparents opened in 1923 in Raton. “You couldn’t find a parking place. There were always dances. Lots of stores. Now so many of them are closed.”

Horse racing was a major pastime for Raton locals beginning in 1946, and it also brought in Texas oil barons and tourists from around the Midwest. But horse racing died in 1992 when La Mesa track closed, and efforts to revive it over the years failed.

The coal mines closed one by one, beginning with Dawson in 1950. The final one to close was York Canyon, in 2003.

There’s still plenty of coal in the valley, but Berry and Chavez figure it’s likely to stay there.

By 2010, the population had declined to 6,100. Businesses closed, boarding up windows and doors. Savings ran out. Feldman’s parents tried for seven years to sell their home and move. “No one would touch it,” she said.

Today, one of the few places thriving is the county jail. “There’s a huge increase in the prison population, unfortunately drug related,” said Colfax County manager and longtime rancher Mary Lou Kearns. “Meth and heroin are bad right now. We’re having to take prisoners to other facilities because we are over capacity.”

All of it relates to Raton’s dwindled fortunes.

“Drug problems, poverty, abandoned buildings — it all ties back to the loss of the economic base,” Phillips said.

Changing tactics

Scott Berry didn’t plan on returning to his hometown after he graduated from high school. An engineer by training, Berry came back to Raton to help run the family ranch after his dad fell ill. He eventually opened his own business as a consulting engineer to coal mines. He was hired two years ago as city manager.

Tasked with turning the town around, he and the City Commission set about identifying how Raton could attract new businesses and tax revenue, examining models successfully deployed by other towns. They looked to form partnerships and work with the school district, businesses and the local hospital — a tactic used by Farmington and Hobbs, two New Mexico towns in the heart of oil and gas fields.

First, Raton had to be willing to accept more public money. For years, said Phillips, the town prided itself on funding its own way, largely through tax revenues from coal mining and auxiliary jobs that supported the industry. In the past two years, however, the town has applied for state funds to help rebuild its economy, including two New Mexico MainStreet grants. In October, Raton was awarded $320,000 to build road crossings, improve sidewalks, install streetlamps and finish building a park next to the Amtrak stop in the heart of the town. It’s an effort officials hope will help get businesses back into boarded-up commercial spaces.

City officials also know they need to get more people to drive into Raton and not just past it on their way to Denver, Albuquerque or Amarillo, Texas. A state Department of Transportation study found 19,000 vehicles a day drove Interstate 25 along Raton’s edges, many stopping at the town’s McDonald’s and Lemus Cafe or the nearby hotels. Jim Stearns, who is opening a brewery in town soon, figures “9.5 of 10 New Mexicans don’t know what we have here.”

“The toughest part about Raton is getting you here for the first time,” agreed Phillips. “Once people see the town, a lot of them fall in love with it.”

Identifying opportunities

Raton has one big advantage over many New Mexico towns: rights to millions of gallons of water stored at Angel Fire Reservoir and in Sugarite Canyon lakes. The city is one of only two in the state that dedicates a portion of its gross receipts taxes to maintaining the water system.

That aquatic asset is key to attracting some types of businesses. For instance, Stearns and his civil engineer wife, Karen Stearns, moved to Raton in 2014 from Albuquerque to open a craft brewery in an area with good water and a need for jobs. They are a few months from turning on the taps at the Colfax Ale Cellar, housed in a renovated stone building on the town’s main street.

But luring people to Raton has long been impeded by the fact that it’s one of the few towns its size in New Mexico that has no community college or university. Berry and former mining lawyer John Davidson knew they needed some kind of higher education center. “A university is a good economic development driver for your town that is fairly stable,” Berry said. “Las Cruces would be nothing without New Mexico State University. Socorro would be nothing without New Mexico Tech.”

Davidson, another Raton native, worked with the town and volunteers to form Sustain Raton, a nonprofit. With a donated building, donated funds and the state’s blessing, they formed a partnership with Santa Fe Community College. On Oct. 14, they opened The Center for Sustainable Community, where they’ll work with SFCC’s Trades and Advanced Technology Center to offer certificates in greenhouse management, solar energy and more. They are working on dual-credit courses with the high school and offering a computer lab and college counseling to prospective distance-learning students.

The hope is to train a local workforce in the skills that might in turn serve to attract new kinds of businesses developing in a “clean energy” economy and help make Raton self-sufficient in food and energy production.

Near Raton are two other amenities that the town is trying to market to visitors and new businesses: the National Rifle Association’s Whittington Center and the Philmont Scout Ranch. Both bring in more than 100,000 visitors annually to camp, shoot, take classes and enjoy the scenery. Those shooting and camping enthusiasts represent a critical influx of customers at local restaurants, hotels and other businesses, Berry said.

Chavez and Berry said town officials are spending a significant amount of time contacting companies that might be enticed to Raton. They want businesses that are invested in the community, entrepreneurs who grew up in small towns, understand the culture and want to stick around.

Legalized marijuana has been a boon to Raton’s historical rival, Trinidad, just across the Colorado border, which reaped a $1 million surplus from pot sales last year. But Berry is personally opposed to the drug’s legalization in New Mexico. “It’s a short-term option for revenues, but it causes long-term problems,” said the Raton city manager. “It would not be in my strategic plan, and it would be counter to some of our other economic plans.”

He said marijuana sales are only one reason Trinidad’s fortunes improved faster than Raton’s after the mines closed. Colorado has a lower sales tax and returns more of it to towns than New Mexico. “In Colorado, more local tax collections stay local,” Berry said.

On the plus side, Raton has the Miners’ Colfax Medical Center, which has its own dedicated fund at the State Land Office and the only mobile respiratory clinic for miners in the nation. The hospital provides long-term care for miners and critical care and primary care for the public, including the only obstetrics service between Trinidad and Santa Fe.

Hospital CEO Shawn Lerch and the hospital board have undertaken a five-year plan that started with building a new hospital two years ago. The hospital included space for outpatient behavioral health services, part of Lerch’s integrated health goal to provide both mental and physical care to patients. The next step is getting permission from the state to leverage $10 million of the hospital’s money into renovating the old hospital into a full-fledged inpatient behavioral health facility. Ultimately, he believes the integrated approach will save everyone money and lead to more effective treatment, and he expects the facility will create 150 more jobs. “Having an exceptional health care facility is key to bringing in other organizations and companies,” Lerch said.

Workforce challenges

But the road to economic rehabilitation will not be a smooth one. Just ask Mauricio Lemus, who was 15 when he fled war-torn El Salvador three decades ago for the United States. He had successful businesses in California before heading east to buy a restaurant off Interstate 25 in 2006. He recently bought the adjacent hotel, which he’s now renovating.

Lemus chose the location for its proximity to interstate travelers and for Raton’s laid-back reputation. He didn’t expect staffing to be his No. 1 problem. He says he has a 50 percent turnover rate. Some people show up for a day and never come back. Others call him a few minutes before their shift to offer a variety of excuses about why they can’t come to work. “Here, there is a joke that if you show up, that’s 75 percent of the job,” Lemus said, sitting in his restaurant. “It’s little things, like how to behave at a job interview and in a job. Here, you have people coming in to apply for jobs in their pajamas and no shoes. I kid you not.”

All of the city’s efforts to bring in companies and jobs won’t help unless there’s a trained, skilled and willing workforce, Lemus added. “The city manager can see the big picture on economic development, but sometimes I think we need to learn to take care of the smaller things first,” he said.

Lemus is not the only business owner who feels this way; two others griped off the record about the challenges of staffing.

Other businesses face different workforce problems.

Pappas has few issues with her 10 employees, except she can only afford to hire them part time. They all work full-time jobs to make ends meet and still help her keep the restaurant open.

Stearns can’t find professional tradesmen with specialized skills to finish work on his brewery. Hiring them from Denver or Albuquerque would be prohibitively expensive. “It’s taking a long time and a lot of finagling,” Stearns said, all of which slows down the opening date for the brewery, a business many think will help pull travelers into town.

The road ahead

On May 19, Raton residents turned out by the hundreds at the old Shuler Theater to welcome home native son Paul Modrich, who had recently been honored with a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

He represented so much of what small towns like Raton believe about themselves and what their children can achieve.

But Modrich didn’t stay home in Raton to win his prize. He built his career elsewhere. People like Berry, Chavez and Kearns want to see that change. “I want this to be a place where my children and grandchildren can return if they want to,” Chavez said.

Berry figures it will take five more years to know if all the efforts have paid off.

They want to build the opportunities to bring their brightest back and to bolster the entrepreneurs who take a risk and return, like coffee shop owners and sisters Katie Feldman and Jessica Barfield.

They are seven months into their venture and it’s going well. “We’re having fun. It’s always busy,” Feldman said.

The renovated park next to the train station, The Center for Sustainable Community across the street and the expanding hospital across town are all helping. Everywhere she sees signs that she was right. Raton is picking up steam. “It feels alive again,” she said.

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.

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