Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988

Gallery owner Sara Chadwick has decided the time is right to reopen the Bernalillo gallery she closed after the Great Recession dried up business.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres speaks about new businesses and other progress in his town during the annual meeting of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Placitas and Bernalillo businesses ride bumpy road to recovery

—Bill Diven

Besides being neighbors, Placitas and Bernalillo share a common concern: nurturing local small businesses in the face of larger economic trends.

Yet despite the uneven recovery from the Great Recession, downtown Bernalillo is showing hints of new life as The Range Café takes over new space and a gallery owner gives the town a second chance. In Placitas, a long-vacant commercial property may have a buyer.

In the recent past, Bernalillo seemed destined to become an art center with a vibrant core of galleries and related enterprises, backed by its location on the original Route 66. A downtown stop for Rail Runner Express trains also was seen as a potential contributor.

Today the landscape appears much different.

When businesses promoting the Bernalillo Arts Trail produced a slick, paper, four-color flier about ten years ago, it touted 19 galleries and studios plus a few individual artists on or near Camino del Pueblo, the town’s main street. Rose’s Pottery House may be the only one from that group still in operation.

The now-defunct Greater Bernalillo Chamber of Commerce and ten sponsoring businesses funded the Arts Trail promotion hoping to entice tourists, art buyers, and area residents off Interstate 25 and into the town. Then beginning in late 2007, the national economy lurched off the rails.

“The door closed,” said Sara Chadwick, owner of Gathering Artists Gallery. “We were doing very well. Suddenly there was no business at all.”

Chadwick soon retreated with her business to her home in Corrales. But four years later, she’s back on Camino del Pueblo representing 18 regional and out-of-state artists and hoping she’s at the forefront of a revival.

“There’s such an opportunity here,” she said. “I’d like to see Bernalillo become a little artists’ colony.”

For Placitas, commerce is a tale of two communities known locally as above and below the S-curve on State Route 165.

Two miles east of I-25, Homestead Village shopping center and a small neighboring office complex have stayed mostly occupied as some tenants came and went. There, Placitas supports The Merc and two eateries—Blades’ Bistro and Placitas Café—plus a bank, art gallery, hair salon, and computer shop.

Developed by members of the McCallister family starting about twenty years ago, four lots and about half the shopping center site, totaling about eight acres, remain vacant, according to a review of Sandoval County records. Annual and weekend events, occasionally featuring music, draw more than shoppers to the site.

Four miles farther up NM 165, Placitas village has seen most of its highway commerce disappear. Gone are the Windmill Mercantile, Placitas Mini-Mart, Café de Placitas, and a short-lived antique store.

The Placitas Area Plan approved by Sandoval County in 2009 found about a dozen parcels qualified for nonresidential uses along the highway by the village. The Placitas post office fronts on the highway as does Clear Light the Cedar Company with Anasazi Fields Winery just down a side street.

Placitas Realtor Tony Lucero, who opened Rio Sierra Realty in 1980, said some rural communities are growing their retail economies. But they have tourist and pleasure traffic passing through to other destinations while Placitas is essentially at the end of the road, he added.

“It would probably take lots of planning and thinking to figure out what would work and whether local businesses or galleries would be enough to draw people into the area,” Lucero continued. The flip side is some residents might like things as they are and not want the extra traffic, he said.

The mercantile and café both shut down before the economy crashed, and David and Sandy Espinosa took over the Mini-Mart in 2006 with no hint of the national calamity headed their way. Now, five years after shuttering their enterprise, the Espinosas have returned, beginning what is expected to be a paced renovation of the property.

David Espinosa told the Signpost that the only plan for now is getting the building back into shape for whatever they or someone else might do with it next. The large metal tank dug up and waiting to be hauled away is not a petroleum tank but the remains of an earlier septic system, he added.

The underground petroleum tanks, new when the original owners built the Mini-Mart in about 1994, were recently recertified by the state, Espinosa said.

Clear Light is maintaining its retail and online sales; it’s been on the market for a year with no takers. Company founder Josh Peine built the structures in the middle 1980s to create cedar-based lotions, soaps, and other products.

Penny Peine, working from her home in the Midwest, has kept the business alive since his death in 2006. She told the Signpost that she’s had a few nibbles on the property that all, for one reason or another, didn’t go anywhere.

The two-acre property is listed for sale at $360,000 dollars with the cedar business offered separately for $150,000 dollars. The sales listing suggests a gallery or spa as possible uses, but includes the caveat that limits on the septic system make the buildings unsuitable for a restaurant.

Just down the road, the Café de Placitas building, recalled fondly by old-timers as the Thunderbird Bar before an arson fire in 1976, is under contract to a potential buyer, said Realtor Patricia McDougal of Realty One of New Mexico. She declined to discuss details of who made the offer or any intended use for the building.

Typically a formal purchase offer includes buyer contingencies—obtaining financing or successful structural and mechanical inspections, for example—for the deal to proceed.

In Bernalillo, several of the businesses that supported the Bernalillo Arts Trail remain in operation, including the Range Café, Abuelitas New Mexican Restaurant, Atmabodh Yoga Studio, and Camino Real Antiques.

“People who do the whole Route 66 to Los Angeles and Chicago still stop here,” said Camino Real owner Fawn Dolan citing recent visitors from Sri Lanka, Australia, the Netherlands, and across the U.S. The state’s busy movie industry has been a surprise customer as set decorators frequently rush in seeking period props to add authenticity to productions, she said.

Dolan, a past president of the Bernalillo Chamber of Commerce, is concerned that the town’s main street is not getting the attention or promotion it needs, despite the town’s significant investment in dressing it up.

The town withdrew from the state’s MainStreet program during the previous mayor’s administration, and an attempt then to create a pedestrian-friendly, two-lane Camino del Pueblo failed in the face of numerous concerns including access to businesses. Instead, the program, with the northern phase left to go, has overhauled sidewalks, installed new lighting, and added crosswalks.

“The tension to me is all what’s happening on (U.S. Highway) 550,” Dolan said referring to the commercial strip of largely national businesses running through the town from I-25 to Rio Rancho. “Appreciating mom-and-pops versus chain businesses is what makes a community unique and a destination, not just one big drive-through.”

Dolan and Matt DiGregory, co-owner of The Range Café, both mentioned the Rail Runner as an underappreciated asset.

“We’ve got a Rail Runner station downtown, and no one uses it,” DiGregory said. “Look at the number of people living in Albuquerque and driving to Santa Fe, and they don’t even know we’re here. It’s a cool little town.”

Events like the annual Fiestas de San Lorenzo and the new Mountain West Brew Fest on Labor Day weekend do bring visitors to town, but anyone stepping off the train downtown finds little direction on where to go and what to do, Dolan and DiGregory said.

DiGregory said the Range, now in its twenty-third year, is successful in part because it’s a destination and not something that can be found in Albuquerque. The Range partners have now leased the space vacated by the Flying Star restaurant on Camino del Pueblo near U.S. 550. There they plan an October opening for the Freight House Kitchen + Tap featuring “good bar food” and 24 area craft beers on tap.

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres, speaking at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association, touted the forty business licenses the town issued during the last year as a sign the town is good for business. While some were for home-based businesses and others for national chains, at least six moved into existing vacant buildings, he said.

Applebee’s has all its permits and should be breaking ground soon on the corner of Camino del Pueblo and U.S. 550, he added.

In a later interview, Torres acknowledged that downtown business has suffered as the U.S. 550 strip has prospered. But given limitations on how public money can be spent, businesses need to step up, he said.

“I am still concerned that we don’t have a business or chamber of commerce-type organization in town,” Torres said. “For probably two years I tried to develop a business roundtable, but we couldn’t get beyond about six regulars. We couldn’t get a critical mass together.”

Possibly inhibiting that critical mass are chain businesses hired managers rather than on-site owners and small businesses whose owners are too busy running things to start up a chamber of commerce.

“I think we have some of both,” Torres said.

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