Todd López

 

How do we solve the economic-development puzzle in New Mexico? Some say it can’t be done, comparing our situation to that of the Third World and arguing that federal dollars are all that we can ultimately rely upon to fuel the state’s economy. Others claim that breaking our cycle of poverty is nearly impossible when families and children are confronted with economic burdens, barriers to educational success and few prospects for high-paying jobs. As a native New Mexican, I must disagree. However, solving this riddle comprises cultural, historical and social variables that may be unique to New Mexico alone.

Rural economic development is an incredibly complex issue, one that occupies entire federal departments, thousands of employees and consumes millions of dollars annually, and I am certainly not going to suggest that I have discovered a radical new solution or developed a brilliantly innovative approach that will singlehandedly crack the code. In fact, I would like to suggest just the opposite and propose that, rather than looking to someone or something to guide us, we should simply rely on our greatest assets—the strength, creativity and resilience of our communities. Working together is, in and of itself, the answer to the problem.

My name is Todd López, and it is my privilege to administer Siete del Norte, CDC, one of 38 independent community-development corporations originally funded under the Title VII Act to combat poverty. Siete has been working for over 40 years to improve the economic well-being of low-income residents of northern New Mexico while seeking to preserve the area’s unique cultural, historical and social traditions and ways of life. Siete provides services in economic and business development, affordable housing, health care, programs for the elderly, youth education and workforce training, land and water preservation, and community ownership of local resources. Under the leadership of my mentor and predecessor, Amos Atencio, Siete’s programs and investments have resulted in the creation of more than 1,000 jobs and provision of services and training to over 15,000 low-income residents of rural New Mexico.

Siete is currently engaged in a variety of projects, but for purposes of this article I will focus on the Northern New Mexico Food Hub (NNMFH), a regional partnership designed to support rural agricultural entrepreneurs and the development of our local food industry. The United States is experiencing an exponentially expanding market for local food—an industry that has grown from $1 billion to nearly $40 billion in the last 20 years. In New Mexico, 97 percent of our food is currently imported, and local food sales constitute less than 1 percent of the value of food purchased. An increase in overall sales to 10 percent would equal nearly $1 billion in new wealth for the state, and it is our intention to aggressively support this growth in the local food market.

The following strategies are being implemented as part of the NNMFH project and associated regional economic-development initiatives: 1) public-private partnerships; 2) cooperative businesses; and 3) capital investments.

Public-private partnerships. None of our work would be possible without the widespread collaboration of partners across sectors, across issue areas and even across state lines. Siete’s primary affiliate in all activities is Chicanos por la Causa (CPLC), the nation’s third-largest Hispanic-owned nonprofit, with a broad array of programs that serve more than 190,000 clients on an annual basis in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. With CPLC’s support, Siete secured a five-year, $759,374 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Community Services (OCS) to establish the NNMFH. In the last 18 months, Siete has leveraged a public-private partnership in furtherance of this effort, gained the direct support of more than 40 agencies and organizations across 10 northern New Mexico counties, attracted over $600,000 in additional resources, provided more than $100,000 in small-business loans and supported the creation of over 20 jobs including 10 small agricultural enterprises. Strong relationships with the public sector and our elected representatives are absolutely essential to the success of our economic-development efforts, and the leadership and staff at the city of Española and the county of Río Arriba have been instrumental in attracting partners, redeveloping community assets, equipping facilities with necessary infrastructure and generally moving this initiative forward. With the support of its public partners, Siete has acquired a long-term lease of the Hunter facility on Main Street in Española and a lease of the former Sostenga commercial kitchen at Northern New Mexico College in order to house a central aggregation and distribution center for local produce and to provide opportunities for our farmers and ranchers to manufacture value-added products.

Siete is actively partnering with organizations across issue areas in order to bring diverse perspectives and capacities to bear on a common project. For example, Siete will establish the Hunter facility as a community center for the arts and agriculture and, more specifically, is supporting Moving Arts Española in its expansion of a preprofessional training and performing arts school; creating a centrally located storefront for the Española Community Market; developing a year-round indoor/outdoor mercado, providing a venue for sales of locally grown produce and crafts; providing a site for community events, workshops and educational outreach; and acting as a catalyst for the economic mobilization and revitalization of Española’s Main Street corridor.

Cooperatives. In order for any economic-development strategy to be effective, we must develop cooperative approaches to management of local resources in furtherance of collective return. Roger Gonzales and the members of the Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative are actively demonstrating this methodology through a highly organized and mutually supportive agricultural cooperative that promotes collaborative practices like succession planting and encourages resource conservation through drip irrigation and season extension as ways of generating consistent supplies of produce and maximizing yields from small-acreage operations. After only two years in operation, the members of Los de Mora are proving that small-scale agricultural enterprises can be financially viable, whether through vineyards, alpacas, free-range eggs or gourmet greens. By coordinating local resources, knowledge and expertise, members work together for a common purpose and share in the fruits of their labor.

Capital. We want to give our families a hand up, not a hand-out, and in order to accomplish this we must be prepared to make meaningful investments in our entrepreneurs by providing access to capital and leveraging sufficient financial resources to develop the infrastructure, equipment and programming necessary to incubate successful ventures. Many thanks to organizations like OCS, USDA, McCune Foundation, New Mexico Community Foundation, Regional Development Corporation, Los Alamos National Laboratory Major Subcontractors Consortium (LANL MSC), LANL Community Programs, Northern Río Grande Heritage Area, Río Grande CDC, and Delicious New Mexico for committing capital contributions and for making an investment in our rural communities.

There is much work to be done, and our progress will continue to be measured and hard-fought. But if we continue to work together we will certainly succeed.

 

Todd Lopez, a practicing attorney, is president of Siete del Norte CDC and New Mexico area manager for Chicanos por la Causa, both nonprofit organizations dedicated to the long-term strengthening of rural New Mexico communities through education, advocacy, leadership and economic development.