Our View: Farmington and the Four Corners will bounce back, and it will take some work

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times

The theme of the in-depth study in this edition, “Rebuilding America,” is where we go from here and how we’re moving forward — as a nation and as a collection of local economies facing challenging times.

The second week of March will be remembered as the week the pandemic hit home in New Mexico. Schools and offices, including ours, closed and workers began working from home. Products vanished from shelves in the local stores. Jobs vanished, as well.

For our purposes, the Farmington Daily Times is focusing on the Four Corners area, where regional leaders were already retooling ideas about creating a viable new economic model for San Juan County following the bust of the extraction industry while preparing for what comes next if the San Juan Generating Station shuts down.

Now that job is a little harder. Unemployment has skyrocketed nationwide, companies thinking of expanding may drop that idea and a haze of uncertainty hangs over the business world. The tourism trade we hoped to hang our hat on may not be happening due to fears about travel and other factors, and people without jobs don’t tend to go on vacation.

Remember when the specter of losing the area’s coal-fired generating stations and mining jobs was the scariest thing on the horizon? The worries about the loss of those jobs is still acute, but against the backdrop of the pandemic and the new "shutdown economy" we now live with, they are one of many urgent issues.

The fact is the local economy can’t just “rebuild” on previous industries and ideas because what it had before the pandemic hit wasn’t working. It must be reborn, and the people of this region can make that happen.

The articles you’ll find in today’s edition examine several sectors of our economy, as well as education, sports, senior living centers and the community’s cultural life.

This area has faced many challenges in the past, and it seems some outsiders are counting this region out.

The New York Times earlier this month practically declared that the City of Farmington is ready for a toe tag and a long dirt nap in an article that painted a dystopian portrait of our city and our region. 

We disagree.

In that lengthy article, the East Coast publication parachuted in from its quarantined metropolis to paint a picture of doom and economic destruction for this Four Corners population center. 

It seems like a sound article in general, it has quotes and everything, but the overall effect rivaled old woodblock prints of sea monsters eating ships, or the decaying landscapes of monolithic factories described in Bruce Springsteen’s 1980s rustbelt ballads.

To paraphrase the old Monty Python bit, “we’re not dead yet.”

Yes, a simple look around will tell you things are very bad here economically. Both the mayor and our city’s economic development director will also tell you that. 

In fact, in going over projections for our city’s developing budget Gross Receipts Tax revenues recently, the city manager did just that. According to Rob Mayes, Farmington may never be the same after this financial hit. Depending on the severity of the tax shortfalls down the road, and how much the city is repaid in impact funds, the effects will range from unpleasant to catastrophic. Due to panic buying, we saw a hike in May gross receipts tax distributions, but the future remains to be seen.

But we’re not rolling up the sidewalks. In fact, the city is installing some fancier ones downtown. What remains to be seen is how many in our stricken business community will be around to bring customers to them when restrictions are lifted. The Three Rivers Brewery Block is the latest business to temporarily close, with a loss of 75 jobs.

The takeaway here should be that things can’t be the same as they were. What has been done in the past didn’t work. Except, of course, for having a railroad back in the day. Now we need one again, but one with a destination in the southern part of the state rather than a trip to Durango. 

Building a new rail spur to Gallup is a formerly pie-in-the-sky plan that now has a bit of momentum, and offers the only tangible prospect for recreating this area as a potential manufacturing hub.

If anything, by putting our region’s situation under the microscope on the national stage, The New York Times may have done the area a favor. The article shows that this region is ripe for economic redevelopment, with an eager workforce and the existing infrastructure to support new industry. Our national economy will at some point move forward, and despite our dire circumstances, our leaders must remain poised to move with it.

We can’t look back.

Jobs that were available here before the great shuttering of our local, state and national economy due to the coronavirus calamity were low-paying positions, and mostly in the service industry. It’s that sector of the economy that has the greatest likelihood of weathering the crisis, and unfortunately does the least to help its clerks, cooks other frontline workers earn a living wage with good benefits.

There is also a great demand for health care workers. Doctors flee this area. Health care professionals have seen layoffs. Those were among the higher-paying jobs that helped support our local economy. And finding a specialist here can be tough, with many patients having to go to Durango or Albuquerque for care.

Adding to the strikes against this region is the surplus of natural gas, leading to low prices, and the collapse of oil prices — joined with state policies that work against oil and gas development in our region — and falling demand (and prices) for the extraction industry’s products worldwide.

Back in December 2017, we put out a special report on our county’s economic situation called “Looking forward: What’s next for San Juan County? It features local leaders and people from the community we found at festivals and other gatherings. They shared their thoughts about how the county might move forward through the next five years.

Nobody expected the pandemic, of course. Like those community members who “looked forward” in our 2017 report toward a brighter future, it’s time to redouble efforts and keep planning a better economy for the Four Corners region.

This begins with small steps, like supporting our local businesses. At Gannett, we’ve started supportlocal.usatoday.com, a place where businesses can sign up and customers can buy gift cards to redeem at their convenience. 

Buying gift cards, especially for businesses that had to shut down or saw their revenue drop due to state restrictions on how they can do business, helps ensure a revenue stream for those businesses to get them through this time.

We don’t know what the economic landscape will look like when businesses can reopen, but some won’t be able to. But this region isn’t throwing in the towel, and the Farmington Daily Times will be here to keep you informed on the shutdown, its aftermath and the opportunities this region will find as we move through the future. 

Contact Daily Times Editor John R. Moses via email at jmoses@daily-times.com, or by phone at 505-564-4624.

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