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Can a Town Be Too Trendy? : Santa Fe’s Success Prompts Questions

United Press International

Rap your knuckles on the shiny new image of Santa Fe and some say you’ll hear a hollow echo.

“It’s a marvelous, grand illusion. It’s all in the looks of things,” artist Jerome Milord said.

Mayor Sam Pick disagrees. He says that not only does Santa Fe have a heart, it has a heart of gold.

“Everyone in this state is jealous,” he said.

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Pick’s cheerleading aside, many who live and work in and near this small, historic city of mostly adobe architecture say the community has lost the spirit that made it special, especially in the last 15 years of rapid growth and rampant tourism.

While visitors rave about the mountain setting, the Spanish and American Indian culture and sophisticated art community, residents complain of traffic congestion, an inflated cost of living and the proliferation of trendy restaurants, art galleries and shops that sell cow skulls and carvings of howling coyotes.

“There is an overwhelming preoccupation with the glitz and the glimmer and the myth and the concept of Santa Fe as promoted in national magazines,” Steve Flance, a developer and former chairman of a city planning committee, said. “It’s good for tourism. It’s good for things that are cute and stylized, but very few people participate in that.”

‘Boutique-ified’ Downtown

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Santa Fe’s transition is symbolized for some by the “boutique-ification” of the Plaza, the nearly 400-year-old heart of this state capital of about 75,000 people that, until recently, was also the retail center.

In the mid-1970s, the population was about 50,000. The shops on the Plaza then were two drugstores, two general department stores, a Woolworth’s, a sleazy bar, two shoe stores, some law offices and a J.C. Penney’s.

Sears was a block away. Two junior high schools were within half a mile of the Plaza, and the high school teams still played football in a nearby field.

The Woolworth’s is still there.

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“If you look at any town in New Mexico, it’s all the same. What has evolved is shopping centers,” Pick said. “The difference is, you look at downtown Roswell and it’s dead. The Plaza is alive.”

Alive, yes, Milord agreed, but not for the locals.

Streets, Sidewalks Jammed

“Santa Fe, especially in the summer time, is just an awful place to be--unless you’re hustling the tourists,” he said. “The traffic is insane. There’s no place to park. We’re just choking each other to death! It’s not even a town you can walk in.”

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Tom Chavez, director of the Palace of the Governors, the 17th-Century government headquarters that is now a historical museum, sides with the mayor.

“Businesses abandoned downtown Albuquerque,” he said. “We could have had that happen here if we didn’t have the tourism hook.”

And, he added, plenty of local people hang out downtown, which is still home to state government offices and the courts.

“I dare anyone who’s been in this town for any time to walk the Plaza and not run into someone they know,” he said.

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Chavez said much of the traffic congestion is created by local people cruising the main streets. He said parking space is available.

Complaints Dismissed

“Change will happen whether or not there is tourism. It’s much easier to be a core community when you’re a town of 30,000,” he said. “A lot of people who don’t like how the town has changed talk about the good old days. Each generation tends to do that.”

Nearly 1 million tourists come to Santa Fe annually, city officials say, bringing with them more than $300 million in trade and generating $13.5 million in revenues from sales taxes.

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“Tourism is the second biggest industry in this city,” Chavez said. “It allows me to have a neat job in a neat city. Without tourism, I wouldn’t be here. Half our locals would have to move.”

“Visitors are the cleanest industry you could possibly have,” Pick says.

But Flance says the benefits from the explosion in tourism and the influx of many wealthy newcomers have not affected most Santa Feans.

“The boom is in boutiques, high-end real estate, tourism. Everybody else is pretty well struggling along,” he said. “A lot of people in the community feel they are not part of the action, and they’re not.

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Rich, Poor Sectors

“We’re seeing a bifurcation of the community--physically, socially, economically. We don’t have real poor, but we have underemployed being supported by their extended families.”

Flance said those not profiting from tourism are being forced out by the high cost of living, especially the cost of housing.

The cost of living in Santa Fe is 10% above the national average, and the average house price is $144,000, a 125% increase from 10 years ago. (The national averages were about $113,000 in 1988 and $56,000 in 1978.)

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The average annual income per person is $11,002, about the same as the national average; 10 years ago it was slightly under the national average.


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