Las Cruces economic recovery board convenes first meeting, more members to be appointed

Michael McDevitt
Las Cruces Sun-News
At Violeta's Beauty Shop, Arlene Hernandez dyes Amanda Nuñez's hair for the first time in months on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Nuñez said she is grateful for the precautions the salon takes, as she works closely with people who are immunocompromised.

LAS CRUCES - The Las Cruces Economic Recovery Board convened for the first time this week to begin to address local economic needs as businesses open back up.

The board selected leadership and discussed what health steps board members had seen taken in their respective industries. They discussed building a campaign to instill public confidence it will be safe to patronize businesses under a "new normal."

The city formed the ad hoc board on local economic recovery last month after some Las Cruces city councilors were concerned the city and Doña Ana County weren't well represented on the state's Economic Recovery Council.

The NMERC worked with state health officials to formulate industry-specific "COVID-safe Practices" business owners and employees should follow to mitigate SARS-CoV-2 spread as New Mexico's economy continues to reopen.

Las Cruces reopens:

The board, which will meet weekly and have 14 members, says it will work in alignment with the NMERC's work and develop Las Cruces-specific recommendations and practices. Seven people have been appointed so far. The rest will be appointed by the city council June 15.

District 4 City Councilor Johana Bencomo spearheaded the idea for the city to conduct its own economic recovery work.

The board will represent leaders from the technology, restaurant and other industries, nonprofits, faith ministry, state government, health care, mental and behavioral health care and labor.

“That diversity of thought and voice is critical," Bencomo said. "The economy doesn't run equally without business or workers."

Here are the appointees thus far:

  • Doug Cowan: pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church and administers Cornerstone Christian Academy in Las Cruces
  • Jolene Martinez: clinical director for Families and Youth, Inc.
  • Sharon Thomas: former Las Cruces city councilor who currently works with the state Department of Workforce Solutions
  • Veronica Archuleta: owner of The Mint Hair Studio in Las Cruces
  • Christopher Schaljo: co-owner of Salud! de Mesilla
  • Michael Harris: owns a technology consulting company called Visgence, Inc. 
  • Debbi Moore: president and CEO of the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce

A 'localized conversation'

Bencomo said she hopes, as the city continues to reopen, the board can give the council guidance that pertains to the challenges of the region.

“I think Las Cruces and Doña Ana County continue to be in a unique situation across the state that require our own conversation for how we move forward and recover from COVID,” Bencomo said. “Las Cruces is the second largest city in the state, our proximity to El Paso, there's a couple of things that make us unique and deserve our own localized conversation.”

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Earlier in the pandemic, Doña Ana County saw a slow growth in coronavirus cases, at one point being praised for "doing really well" social distancing. Lately, the county has seen some daily case numbers above other places in the state. One contributing factor could be travel to and from El Paso, which opened much sooner than places in New Mexico, and another could be outbreaks at prison facilities which are in Otero County but drive regional spread.

The county remains an area of concern for state health officials, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Friday.

Bencomo also hopes the board engages in scenario planning to prepare for a potential second wave of infections or intermittent spikes as restrictions are eased.

Committee Chair Christopher Schaljo, the co-owner of Salud! de Mesilla, was appointed by Bencomo. Each councilor was allowed to appoint one business owner from their district. The mayor also got an appointee.

At the board's first meeting Monday, Schaljo volunteered to be chair. Moore was selected as vice chair.

Schaljo said he frequently is reading articles, state health department information and information from the New Mexico Restaurant Association to determine what works and what doesn't as restaurants reopen across the country. He sees one of the board's goals as implementing those best practices locally.

But overall, Schaljo said the board's goal for all businesses is to figure out how to make people the most comfortable going back out in Las Cruces and going back to work.

Bencomo also approached Jolene Martinez, clinical director of local nonprofit Families and Youth Inc., and convinced her to apply to sit on the board.

Martinez said through FYI she has seen the impact the pandemic has had on families who have lost jobs and access to childcare or who are struggling with food insecurity.

She hopes to develop strategies to address those issues.

"What I hope to bring specifically is a reminder of the human condition and a reminder of the most vulnerable families in Las Cruces," Martinez said. 

Evangeline Contreras hands a family meals for their children at the Families and Youth Inc. headquarters on South Solano Drive in Las Cruces, Wednesday March 18, 2020.

Economic report shows job losses by industry

The city commissioned an economic flash assessment report to figure out which economic areas suffered in the city due to measures implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The report was presented to the council at a work session a few weeks ago, and suggested the city implement programs aimed at creating several thousand jobs in specific areas of the economy to speed up recovery.

More than 24,800 jobs will be lost citywide over the next five years, the report projected, with some of the hardest hit industries being food service, hospitality, health care, retail and construction.

Most will be temporary job losses, about 16,200, but natural attrition and the pandemic will amount to about 8,600 permanent job losses.

To stimulate the economy, the city should proactively work to create 2,500 remote-work positions, 2,000 new and expanded employer jobs, 500 startup jobs and 200 jobs for retirees. That stimulation will induce growth in the service sector and accelerate recovery to make up the remaining jobs lost, the report suggests.

The flash assessment came from the Albuquerque-based Community Economics Laboratory and mirrored an assessment presented to the county government last month.

Michael McDevitt can be reached at 575-202-3205, or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.