January 30, 2023

Mora County Sheriff Americk Padilla and Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna walk through the area at the Mora County Complex on Jan. 20, 2023 where an exercise facility, technology center and rock climbing wall are planned to be built. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Department of Treasury and Administration have awarded Mora County $2.5 million for the Mora County Recreation/Community Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

A recent $45 million state grant will fund the development or improvement of community centers, skate parks, rodeo arenas, outdoor theaters, athletic complexes and more throughout New Mexico.

That’s good news from Angel Fire, where $90,000 is earmarked for a playground, to Tucumcari, where more than $216,000 is earmarked for a municipal swimming pool rehabilitation.

But in Mora County, beleaguered and devastated by fires and floods last year, the $2.5 million earmarked for a recreation and community center is seen by some as a glimmer of hope, a new beginning, another opportunity. The center’s plans envisage a playground, a climbing wall, a demonstration kitchen, a fitness area, a conference room and a technical unit – facilities that can give people whose lives have been unimaginably disrupted a sense of normality back, or maybe even give them one blueprint for the future.

“A lot of people made their living off the land — lumberjacks, outfitters, landscapers, people who grew Christmas trees, made latillas, and sold stones for landscaping,” said Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna.

But the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire that broke out last spring and the monsoon-fueled floods that poured over burn scars in the summer robbed the country of natural resources, polluted rivers and streams, choked irrigation ditches, killed fish and robbed many of them Mora County’s 4,500 people make a living.

“We have a lot of people who want to come back but have to work remotely,” Serna said. “We don’t have much broadband in Mora County, but they can use the technology incubator (of the center) or start businesses from there. We need to look for alternative ways to use what we have left over, such as selling biochar products for fertilizer. Someone even talked about making biodiesel from wood waste.”

A safe place

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Treasury and Administration Departments earlier this month announced the award of $45 million from the Regional Recreational Centers/Quality of Life Grant to tribal and local governments across the state. More than 40 projects were funded.

Serna believes Mora County’s share of the award can be a step toward recovery, but she’s not sure when the recreation/community center project will begin, let alone when it will be complete. She said it is contingent on final DFA approval, county commission approval of the plans and how long the Request for Proposal (RFP) process takes.

“Hopefully, work could start later this year,” she said.

bright spotShe knows the center will be housed in the 43,000-square-foot, two-story Mora County Complex in the town of Mora. Construction of this building began about a dozen years ago, but much of it has remained vacant over the years due to structural problems and a lack of funds to fix the deficiencies and complete the project.

Serna said about a third of the complex, which was completed last year, is now used by county offices, including the sheriff’s department. She said there will still be space in the complex after the addition of the recreation/community center facilities.

Serna is confident that every facet of the new center will be valuable to Mora County residents.

“The demonstration kitchen can be used to teach people with diabetes how to make healthy meals, and the district counselor can teach 4-H kids how to make canned food,” she said. “There will be a playground outside. Mora County never really had playgrounds because people used the mountains for recreational activities like hiking, camping, fishing.”

But the fires not only turned the mountain forests into a charred no man’s land, they also turned them into a lingering source of mental anguish.

“A lot of people suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the burned trees give them flashbacks,” Serna said. “The center’s playground will be a safe recreational area for all ages and for families.”

Great asset

Tobias Lovato, 66, a rancher who lives in Holman, six miles northwest of the town of Mora, sold his cattle ahead of last year’s fires due to multiple years of drought. “Cattle farming is big in Mora County, but we need hay production,” he said. “And without acequias (irrigation ditches crippled by flooding) we won’t be able to produce hay. The hunt is big here, but that’s over. Lumber, firewood, Christmas trees all affected. How does a community recover when all of our resources are affected?”

He agrees with Serna that the recreation/community center’s technology center can help.

“The technology center is huge,” said Lovato, who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It’s always been important, but we’ve never had the funding to do it. We can capitalize on that and do things for the community as a whole. Or, for example, if there is a job opportunity in Los Alamos and we have qualified people, they could do the work from here.”

Martin Duran, 52, rancher in Chacon, seven miles north of Holman. His family has lived on this land for five generations. Last year, fires and floods alternated, ravaging its pastures. He got no hay and sold half his herd of cattle.

But he does enjoy the view of the recreation/community center.

“I really believe it’s a great win for the community,” he said. “I am a big advocate of youth. I sponsor a program to give kids backpacks for school, I coach Little League. I think the climbing wall and the playground are great for the kids. And people can make jams, jellies, cookies, and burritos in the kitchen and sell them to shops. You cannot make them at home and legally sell them to stores, but you can do so in an approved community kitchen.”

Move Mora forward

Kristy Wolf, 63, is from Mora and left the town for years before returning to own and run a motel, RV park and coffee shop for 18 years. She sold her businesses just before the fires and has since spent much of her time as a volunteer helping victims.

She said she didn’t think one part of the proposed community center was more important than another.

“We need a fitness area that is accessible to everyone,” said Wolf. “It’s hard to drive to (Las) Vegas every day to go to the gym. The kitchen gives people the opportunity to start their own small business. I’ve had people asking me about things I used to offer in the café. A climbing wall increases strength, self-confidence and self-esteem.

“And I think a lot of people here don’t have access to the internet. There could be courses (in the technology center) where people learn how to use the internet, how to create resumes, business plans, marketing, websites and things that move Mora forward. There is an opportunity for people to take courses that would help them move in a new direction, away from rock and wood. The possibilities are endless.”

Mora County Sheriff Americk Padilla, 34, is excited at the prospect of having a fitness center in the same building as his department.

“There will be locker rooms and showers,” he said, “I could give the guys (eight stand-ins) an hour of fitness time, keep them physically fit and mentally focused.”

Padilla, a lifelong resident of Mora and a graduate of Mora High School, sees the recreation/community center as a place where friends and families can gather for a picnic in the playground or just visit and talk, a place where Children staying anyway can get into trouble.

And we have a lot of older people who might have a computer at home but might not know much about how to use it,” he said. “They could get help at the (technology) center, especially with all the paperwork for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).”

Another world

Ella Arellano’s family has lived in the Mora Valley for 10 generations, but lately they sometimes have a hard time recognizing the place.

“The landscape has changed so much now,” she said. “It’s a whole different world. It’s so windy in January because we don’t have a forest for a wind break.”

Arellano, 67, lives in Holman. Her family grows alfalfa on land stretching from there to near the Taos County border. About 2,500 acres of their property were affected by the fire.

“Right behind us, 300 acres are just gone,” she said.

She welcomes anything that can help Mora County, but isn’t sure if a community center with a technology center is what the county needs. “We need water, and we don’t have a watershed now,” she said.

Rancher Lovato notes that the county’s population has been in decline for decades. He said 14,000 people lived there in the 1920s, compared to fewer than 5,000 there today.

“I don’t want to lose our people,” Commissioner Serna said. “I want those who are here to stay and those who left during the fire to come back. It’s been 10 months (since the fire) and some people have become complacent about where they are.”

She hopes the recreation/community center will give people a reason to come back.

“I want to create a homecoming for them,” she said. “We have a responsibility to the people of Mora County to be as creative as possible.”

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