Until a few years ago, Central Avenue in the heart of Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb, was marked by closed storefronts, a run-down park and a gray, unwelcoming look.
Today, more businesses dot the street, the park is now inviting and wide sidewalks lined with lights and flowers draw walkers and bicyclists into the evening. Throughout the year, four events hosted by Los Alamos MainStreet liven up the downtown street. Restaurants and small businesses still struggle to stay afloat in this town in Los Alamos County, which is home to about 18,000 people. But the community effort to revamp the main street could encourage locals and visitors alike to stay and linger.
Los Alamos MainStreet is one of 16 such programs in New Mexico recently accredited by the National Main Street Center for protecting historic sites and revamping downtowns. Each community must annually meet a variety of standards in design, organization, promotion and economic vitality to remain accredited. “They do that comprehensively. They must be working in all four areas at the same time,” said Rich Williams, director of New Mexico MainStreet.
New Mexico MainStreet is a three-decade-old program, supported by state appropriations, to advise communities on how to best revitalize downtowns, protect historic structures and boost small-town economies. It is licensed and accredited by the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation. The state program has a staff of four and a host of professional consultants who provide technical advice, education and other services to help communities with main street projects such as remodeling old movie theaters, installing streetlights and sidewalks, widening roads and building parks.
“Many of our smaller, rural communities don’t have the staff to do this work,” said Williams.
Communities establish programs around the town’s unique needs and raise the money to hire an executive director. They rely on a board of directors and volunteers to carry out many of the projects, from planting trees to painting historic buildings. Each program is required to submit quarterly reports to the state detailing new businesses, jobs created and the number of buildings renovated or sold.
Over the years, support from New Mexico MainStreet has helped Las Vegas restore the historic Kiva Theater and save the first fire station in the state, rehabilitate an old grain mill in Mora and fix up a historic hotel in Clovis. Construction provides temporary jobs and communities bank on attracting customers and businesses to boost downtown economies.
“Our New Mexico MainStreet communities continue to perform at a high level and national accreditation recognizes their hard work in downtown revitalization,” said Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela in a statement.
While Los Alamos County is home to a national defense laboratory and top-notch scientists — and boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the state — it still suffers from some of the same problems as other small towns such as keeping local businesses alive and attracting new ones to provide jobs for people who don’t work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Many residents end up driving to Santa Fe or Albuquerque for shopping, dining out and entertainment.
In addition to the four annual events, Los Alamos MainStreet, which works with the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation and Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, also hosts a farmers market, striving to attract visitors and locals alike to downtown.
Since 2007, the program has received half a million dollars in capital outlay funding to improve the Central Avenue streetscape, install pedestrian lamp posts and redevelop a section of Canyon Rim Trail, said Suzette Fox, executive director of Los Alamos MainStreet.
In addition, the program provides $10,000 in matching grants a year to local businesses to help improve their storefronts and advertis3 events. “We measure success by a variety of ways, including a MainStreet Futures board made up of local business owners and county staff that monitor initiatives to move forward,” said Fox. “We rely on feedback from our businesses in the MainStreet district.”
Los Alamos MainStreet was a semifinalist for the Great American Main Street Award this year and was chosen as “one to watch” by Main Street America.
Since 1985, New Mexico MainStreet has created more than 3,400 new businesses and 12,000 new jobs in New Mexico, according to state officials and a study by PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development consulting firm. The New Mexico program has also put more than $290 million into projects and constructed more than 100 new buildings. According to the same study, for every $1 taxpayers have invested, the program leveraged $43 back into the state from private investment.
From July 2014 to June 2015, MainStreet programs statewide created 132 net new businesses, 649 net new jobs and generated $9,895,301 in private sector reinvestment, according to quarterly reports filed by the programs and compiled by the state.
New Mexico MainStreet has three other programs helping restore historic movie theaters that anchor downtown nightlife, fostering art events and working with frontier communities with populations of 7,000 residents or less.
The New Mexico MainStreet programs accredited this year are Downtown ABQ MainStreet, Artesia MainStreet, Carlsbad MainStreet, Clovis MainStreet, Corrales MainStreet, Deming MainStreet, Farmington Downtown Association/MainStreet, Grants MainStreet Project, Downtown Las Cruces Partnership, MainStreet de Las Vegas, Los Alamos MainStreet, Lovington MainStreet, Nob Hill MainStreet, Raton MainStreet, Silver City MainStreet and MainStreet Truth or Consequences.
Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.