Life was bustling when the doors opened to this company-owned mining town in the early 1970s. The new Phelps Dodge smelter had trucks lining up on a two-lane highway and railroad cars roaring along the tracks west of town.
“Churches, pools, tennis courts, kids, bicycles, friends. It was so full of life,” said Richard Peterson, spokesman for the Phoenix-based company that built the southwest New Mexico town.
Three decades later, the smelter is all but shut and the population has dwindled to a few dozen who wait in limbo for the town’s likely next incarnation -- as an elaborate anti-terror training center.
For now, Playas is quiet, eerily so. No air conditioners whine against the heat that plagues New Mexico’s most southern reach. The shelves at the mercantile are bare. The post office has been gutted, and nearly all of the houses have been cleared of their furnishings. Wild grass is taking over the wide, curving streets.
Many of the roughly 60 residents who still live here -- and hope to stay even if the town is sold -- wonder about their fate.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Bill Bollinger, head of what’s left of Playas’ maintenance department. “I’ve heard probably 10 different stories, so I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I just hope it’s the right thing.”
Playas’ fate may be determined by the end of this month, when a deal to sell it is expected to be sealed.
New Mexico Tech has offered to pay Phelps Dodge $5 million for the whole package -- 259 company-owned homes, an apartment complex, community center, grocery store, medical clinic, air strip and 1,200 surrounding acres. If the deal is completed, officials from Tech, New Mexico State University and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would plan exactly how the town would be used in terror simulations.
“We’ve got the door wide open,” said Dennis Hunter, associate director of training at Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center. “The opportunities are limitless.”
New Mexico Tech already conducts explosives testing and training for first responders at its Socorro campus. In Playas, officials said they believed that they had an ideal classroom in which to train police and firefighters to respond to terror attacks and disasters.
Trainers hope to set up realistic scenarios using homes in Playas, as well as fly helicopters and planes over the town.
Among other things, the so-called National Emergency Response Training, Research and Development Center at Playas is set to offer lessons on protecting pipelines and transportation systems, and on preventing suicide bombings. Research into animal and plant diseases and ways to prevent agroterrorism probably would be in the mix.
“We are going to take a look at a lot of different things. We are going to take a look at the things that we can do here and not anywhere else,” Hunter said.
Tech -- a science and engineering university that grew out of the New Mexico School of Mines -- has done military research for decades and has helped train thousands of police and firefighters. After the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, it began moving more toward anti-terrorism programs. And since Sept. 11, 2001, it has ratcheted them up.
The proposed center at Playas would only be limited by the funding it gets from the federal government and other sources, said Michael Hensley, a New Mexico Tech program manager.
For this fiscal year, New Mexico Tech received $123 million for research and training programs.
Hensley said the training center could bring at least 200 jobs to Playas and possibly more high-paying technical jobs if a proposed 600-acre research park is built.
Officials said the center would have an enormous impact on Hidalgo County’s economy.
“For our whole county, I think it’s going to be lifeblood,” County Commissioner Louise Peterson said. “It’s just so exciting for me to feel something happening with this town.”
Peterson and the residents of Playas remember when Phelps Dodge began building the town in 1972.
Within two years, the first residents moved in, and it wasn’t long before trucks were lining up to make deliveries to the smelter.
“It was really an incredible plant in its day,” said Peterson, the Phelps Dodge spokesman. “The smelter is still beautiful, but it’s very empty and very quiet right now.”
As for the remaining residents, New Mexico Tech officials said they did not foresee anyone being forced from their homes should the deal to purchase the town be signed.
But residents wonder: They said they have not been told what might be in store. A meeting planned earlier this year was canceled, they said.
“It’s been like that for four years,” Bollinger said, referring to 1999 when the company began laying off smelter workers. “We didn’t know from one day to the next whether we had a job. So I guess you kind of get used to it.”
Bollinger and the other residents also have become used to sharing their empty town with rabbits, snakes and deer that wander down from the Little Hatchet Mountains.
They also love the sunsets of tangerine mixed with bright pink and shades of gold, and the unimpeded view of stars that litter the night sky.
Bollinger would love to stay. So would maintenance worker Tom Shamp and Mapi Sanchez, who works in the restaurant.
Sanchez, 42, first came here in 1976 with her parents and three sisters. Her father worked at the smelter, where she met the man she married and had a daughter with.
“It was a nice community when it was up and going. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped out everybody,” she said.
Sanchez gets lonely now that nearly all the residents are gone. She misses going for coffee in the mornings to visit with friends.
Her daughter, who is grown and lives in Nevada, is encouraging her to leave.
“But you can’t just get up and walk away,” she said. “You’ve got to wait it out and see what happens.”