Infusion of government funding could mean good news for San Juan County labor market

City official says mine spill settlement, Pinon Hills Boulevard extension likely to have positive impact

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Despite continued concerns over the scheduled closure of the San Juan Generating Station later this month, several recent developments have helped generate a sense of optimism when it comes to economic development and the future of the job market in San Juan County.

Chief among those is an announcement by the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee that proposals are being accepted for projects that could receive some of the $10 million the state received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June as part of a settlement over the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill. The money is targeted for projects that restore or replace injured natural resources or the services they provide — including river, land, habitat and watershed restoration and conservation — or projects that compensate the public for the loss of natural resources after the spill.

That funding is part of the larger $32 million settlement the state reached with the EPA, the entity that hired the contractors performing the work on the mine that contributed to the spill.

While visiting Farmington for a June press conference to announce the settlement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham described it as an economic development boon for the community.

Warren Unsicker, economic development director for the City of Farmington, said the state's move to begin accepting ideas for how to spend the funding is a welcome move, and he anticipates New Mexico officials will receive plenty of proposals.

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"There is no shortage of opportunities we could apply for," he said, noting that it is not just the City of Farmington, but other government and private entities throughout the county that are likely to float proposals as part of a concerted effort to increase the county's inventory and variety of outdoor recreation offerings.

Ideally, that infusion of $10 million will lead to the creation of more trails, campgrounds and water features that attract business start-ups and lead to the creation of more jobs, Unsicker has said. He remains especially excited about the possibility of the City of Farmington receiving funding to create a standing wave feature somewhere on the Animas River that would offer enhanced rafting and kayaking or even surfing opportunities.

The availability of $10 million in government funding for projects  related to the Animas and San Juan rivers in San Juan County could lead to an increase in the number of local outdoor recreation opportunities.

Unsicker has long maintained that the river has enormous unrealized potential as a facet of the county's outdoor recreation inventory, and he hopes that potential is met with the availability of this funding.

"We haven't maximized and utilized it sufficiently," he said, explaining that the city already is in the process of creating more awareness of the river with increased signage.

He said the area is undergoing a shifting paradigm that will make the Animas River more recreation oriented and lead to the creation of more curated experiences for visitors. All of that will lead directly to an increase in jobs, he said, citing the example of the founding of Desert River Guides in 2020, the city's first river guiding company.

The deadline for submitting proposals for the funding is Sept. 30. After that, the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee will prepare draft and final restoration plans in which one or more projects will be selected for implementation.

The city is set to see an even larger infusion of funding for another project, the long-awaited extension of Pinon Hills Boulevard across Crouch Mesa to U.S. Highway 64. State and local officials announced at an August press conference that Farmington would receive $40 million in American Rescue Plan act money, administered by the state, to complete the next two phases of the project, which has languished for approximately 25 years because of a lack of funding.

Lujan Grisham, who also attended the press conference, indicated that the final $9.5 million needed to build the third and final phase of the extension likely could be appropriated by the Legislature during the upcoming session.

During that press conference, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett described how the project would open a considerable amount of new territory in the city for commercial and residential development.

Warren Unsicker.

"Obviously, it's very exciting to have the (state) government commit to that $40 million and that overage up to $9 million," Unsicker said.

"There are a lot of opportunities the opening up of a new corridor brings," he said while noting the new road also likely would help relieve some of the congestion on East Main Street by offering commuters an additional route into and out of Farmington.

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New businesses likely will spring up along that additional route, he said, which he estimated could shave as much as 15 minutes off the commute that some drivers face in getting to and from the northeast quarter of the city.

That alternate route may be especially helpful to commuters who attend nearby San Juan College, he said, thus encouraging more people to enroll in degree or certification programs that allow them to qualify for work in health care, information technology, teaching or other fields that have a large number of unfilled positions in the county right now.

Unsicker was less sure about the new route's potential for creating residential development, noting that for many years, there simply was not enough demand for new homes in San Juan County to spark any kind of building boom. But when the COVID-19 pandemic led many Americans to re-examine their lifestyle and consider moving to a smaller community where they could work remotely, home sales in San Juan County increased significantly over the last two years.

"That influx changed things," he said, adding that the area has seen the arrival of new residents from both coasts, as well as the Denver metropolitan area. "That makes the calculus different for developers."

There are other positive signs of an improving economy and strengthening job market, as well. Unsicker pointed to an increase in gross receipts tax numbers for local governments, an indication of strong consumer spending, while the unemployment rate for the Farmington metropolitan statistical area was 5.7% in July — down from 6.1% in June and significantly less than the July 2021 rate of 9.3%.

Statewide, the picture is even brighter. A recent news release from the Lujan Grisham's office indicated New Mexico's unemployment rate has reached its lowest level since 2008, with joblessness nearly a full percentage point lower than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

The governor said the number of jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, with the state having added 10,200 jobs in the last year — an increase of 10.9%.

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Additional government funding that could find its way to San Juan County also has been made available in the form of the infrastructure law passed by Congress earlier this year. An Aug. 25 news release from the Office of U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez reported that New Mexico will receive $25 million to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells in the state.

"(The) initial funding will provide resources to plug, cap and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells around New Mexico," Leger Fernandez stated in the release. "Thousands of New Mexicans live within a mile of an orphan well, and these clean up funds are an investment in their communities and health, while creating good paying jobs. The $4.7 billion in the Infrastructure Law to clean up orphaned wells and invest in our rural communities in a win for our environment, a win for our metal workers, a win for our American steel manufacturers, and a win for our public health. New Mexico's leadership in regulating methane pollution and cracking down on companies that abandon wells will place it in a very competitive spot to receive additional funding."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.