As Farmington goes, so goes New Mexico: A look at the changing landscape of our state

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This is the first in a series focusing on the long-term economic and social issues facing Farmington New Mexico and surrounding areas. As a region that has rich and diverse opportunities but generally relies on extractive industries economically, the whole area is facing uncertainty as the coal-burning San Juan Coal Generating Station closes its doors and oil jobs are moving to the southeast part of the state to capitalize on the Permian boom happening right now.

Farmington has always been a crossroads of sorts, situated uniquely at the confluence of three rivers and in modern times, highways and railroads. But as we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century, Farmington and other cities in the tri-county area of northwest New Mexico will be facing major changes as coal is phased out. No matter what the Trump administration says, or any campaign stumps from politicians like Steve Pearce promise, coal has seen its heyday and it’s never going to be a reliable commodity to build an industry on again. So what becomes of places like Farmington and Gallup and Aztec and Bloomfield? In this series, we’re going to explore some issues that folks in those areas are facing now because looking ahead at their future could give us a glimpse of where the whole state could be down the road.

We’ll be discussing some of these issues more in depth in the weeks to come, but for now, let’s look at some of what we know about Farmington and its surrounding areas and why it’s so important that all of New Mexico supports the efforts surrounding their future.

Two major economic studies have been published recently about the future of this tri-county area: San Juan County, Cibola County, and McKinley County. One was conducted at the behest of regional governments in early 2017. A newer report just last month was published by Kelly O’Donnell, an economist, senior research fellow, and research professor at the University of New Mexico School of Public Administration. Her report is something of a response by an outside, well-respected, and independent researcher commissioned by a citizen-led group with questions about the findings of that initial report.

In the O’Donnell report, we see clear indications that Farmington, and really the whole surrounding area, is poised to expand its economic opportunities far beyond its almost exclusive reliance on energy production. But that by no means that energy production won’t be a part of that future. The report finds that there are five main areas for the region to embrace and promote: Tourism and Recreation, Solar + Scalable Storage, Mine Reclamation, Healthcare, and Local Food Systems.

Even at a glance and a cursory knowledge of current New Mexico economics and politics, we know that these five economic opportunities are a microcosm of the direction the state as a whole should be heading. ­Folks across New Mexico have worked to protect public lands and other natural resources from extractive industries in recent years, partly out of the knowledge that tourists come to New Mexico to enjoy the natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities throughout all parts of the state. And with amazing resources like Chaco Canyon, the San Juan Mountains, and access to multiple rivers AND short distances from Durango CO and Moab UT, this area is primed for increased focus on outdoor tourism.

In addition, solar and wind and related clean energy jobs are on the rise in the state and have proven to be more reliable long-term than the boom and bust jobs from oil and gas. And because of the area’s existing, extensive, infrastructure to transmit power around the state and elsewhere is primed to take advantage of clean energy projects from wind and solar.

Skipping over mine reclamation, for now, healthcare is worth its own series as the state wrestles with how to provide and administer healthcare to its most rural residents and even sometimes those in urban areas, while also creating a climate that recruits healthcare professionals of every stripe. As an industry that creates jobs AND provides a much-needed service, this alone is worth focusing on in every conversation about the economic future of New Mexico.

And finally local food systems is another almost no-brainer as we look back on the agricultural history of the state and how creating more small-scale food production options that are closer to settled areas can create more net jobs than large industrial farms, protect the legacy of farming in the state, and create more and better sources of food for our disparate population. Like with the energy infrastructure, with the existing water rights a focus on craft farming for beer and wine and other higher value crops would greatly improve economic opportunities for the area.

So, focusing back to Farmington and the surrounding tri-county area in northwest New Mexico, all of these issues remain true of course, with the added benefit of that third issue we skipped over, mine reclamation. As the O’Donnell report suggests, the area is in need of workers who already are familiar with the kinds of mines present in the area, such as the mine workers who are likely being phased out as the coal plant closes. Not only is there then work for them in the interim, but also it creates the long-term effect of helping with many of the other potential job-creating ideas like tourism, clean energy production, and local food production.

We’ll be diving more in-depth to some of the policy-oriented issues that face Farmington and surrounding areas in upcoming articles. These policies will affect not only the areas in the northwest part of the state but likely set some precedents for the state as we all collectively look at the future of our state in the years to come.