Is This Four Corners Town The Next Moab?

First oil and gas went bust. Then the coal mine closed. Even the power plant shut down. With jobs disappearing and on the brink of economic ruin, the people of northwest New Mexico have recently unearthed a new type of natural resource that’s been right beneath their feet all along.

By Shauna Farnell October 28, 2018

Farmington, New Mexico, is not what you’d call a nationally known hot spot for outdoorists … but it’s poised to become one before you know it.

Situated in San Juan County in the northwest quadrant of New Mexico near Four Corners, Farmington (pop. 50,000), is working toward becoming the next Moab. It is a place where you can explore 1,200-year-old Puebloan ruins and 240 natural sandstone[ck] arches (yes, more than Arches National Park). You can compete in America’s longest-running loop mountain bike race, paddle and camp on the shores of Farmington Lake and check out remnants of 12th Century rock climbers in Chaco Canyon. You can drive your Razor quad directly from your hotel to the off-road trails and float right through town on the Animas River. You can find really good wood-fired pizza on one end of town and authentic Mexican food on the other. You can sip a delicious IPA masterminded by partners at the local brewery and the local bike shop.

“Even when I was growing up, I always said, ‘why are people going to Moab?’ We have better trails, gorgeous hiking and two rivers running right through town.”
– Cameron Garrett, owner, Animas Outdoors

“There is so much opportunity here,” says Farmington native Cameron Garrett, who launched Animas Outdoors, a tube- and bike-rental company in the middle of town, this summer. “Even when I was growing up, I always said, ‘why are people going to Moab?’ We have better trails, gorgeous hiking and two rivers running right through town.

Since he was 16 years old, Garrett has worked in oil and gas, the industry that has long fueled San Juan County’s economy. However, community leaders are in the process of galvanizing the area’s outdoor recreation assets in order to draw more adventurers and to highlight the community’s potential as an outdoor business hub.

The Journey Ahead

The Farmington Outdoor Recreation Industry Initiative (ORII) was born in early 2017 to insulate the town against the boom-and-bust of oil and gas. Most recently (as of late summer 2018), Farmington’s efforts included a .25-percent tax general sales increase, with $4.4 million of the revenue dedicated to “community transformation and economic diversifications.” Community leaders have identified the ORII as the primary focus of the new funds, and they’ve begun using a new brand tagline to market Farmington: “Jolt your journey.”

“If we’re all in it together, we’re all going to win,” says Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett, who implemented the tax increase. “San Juan Basin is among the most proven natural gas resources in the nation, and everything was built around the extractive industry. But when the bust hit in 2009, the need for a diversified economy became apparent. Jobs are leaving. Our coal mine is shutting down. The power plant is shutting down. If we don’t do something now—invest in our community and take this initiative seriously—we’ll never know what we could be.”

More than twice as many jobs in New Mexico depend on outdoor recreation (99,000) than on the energy and mining sectors combined.

 
Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Duckett relocated to Farmington and spent his teenage years adventuring in Glade Run, a vast recreation area just north of town rife with rock formations, sand washes and high desert trails.

“San Juan Basin is among the most proven natural gas resources in the nation, and everything was built around the extractive industry. But when the bust hit in 2009, the need for a diversified economy became apparent. Jobs are leaving. Our coal mine is shutting down. The power plant is shutting down. If we don’t do something now—invest in our community and take this initiative seriously—we’ll never know what we could be.”
—Nate Duckett, Mayor, Farmington, New Mexico

“In high school, that’s all we did was go four-wheeling and camp out there. I took a trip to Moab and was blown away by all of these companies that rent vehicles and bikes,” Duckett says. “I’m thinking, ‘we have all of that here. We’ve just never promoted ourselves.’”

Existing Good

Granted, Farmington has been on some people’s radars for decades. The Road Apple Rally mountain bike race, for example, has been a much-anticipated annual event for a handful of nubby-tire enthusiasts since 1981.

The course takes racers through a variety of terrain from slick rock to sand wash and dirt roads around the lake. Named because it originally coincided with an equestrian event in which course obstacles included road apples (horse poo), the inaugural Road Apple Rally hosted just 25 racers. For the past several years, however, about 200 of the region’s top riders compete. Also, Farmington has been home to some of the most miraculous feats on four wheels. Side-by-side drivers from far and wide flock to the area for the World Extreme Rock Crawling Championships in September. Also, every weekend of the summer, you’ll find hundreds of sunbathers and paddlers enjoying the beach on the north side of Lake Farmington, which is also the town’s water source. Newly named Outdoor Recreation Director Cory Styron, who led Farmington’s Parks and Recreations district for the past five years, opened the lake to non-motorized watercraft in 2014 and for swimming in 2015.

“Here was an asset that was not fully embraced [by] the community. It was strictly thought of as a water source and not a recreational destination,” Styron says of the lake. “We opened it back up, and everyone loved it. It’s completely changed the area’s activity and instilled a lot of positive energy. The transformation was enough to spur the conversation of what’s next?”

The beach and swimming access was so successful that Farmington implemented a lake access fee of $5 per vehicle, which in its first year nearly paid for operations on the lake. Last spring, the town opened a number of camping spaces around the lake, which have also created a fresh buzz. Also soon to come is detailed signage in and around town directing visitors to cultural and historic sights around Farmington, trails, and put-in/take-out areas of the Animas River.

Residents of New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District spend $1.61 billion on outdoor recreation every year.

 
A short distance from town are even more underappreciated treasures. “We have some spectacular rock formations,” Styron says. “You walk into these places—so many in the Bisti Wilderness—and it’s like you’re stepping into a Star Wars movie. I would like people to think of Farmington as a destination area to see some wonderful, natural gifts.”

Many of the area’s ancient ruins and rock formations can only be reached on roads initially built and used exclusively by the extractive industry.

“Oil and gas built this community. We wouldn’t have the [infrastructure] we do without their employees settling here,” Duckett says. “It’s our duty to create this public partnership. They want a reason for their kids to stay here.” Opening these roads to outdoorists is evidence of the community’s unified effort to diversify its economy.

Growing Businesses From Within

A Farmington native, Darin Blakely grew up in an oil-and-gas family and has run a successful, one-man lawn mowing service (Mowivated) for 17 seasons. He recently launched a side project—Farmington Outdoor Adventures—a guide service aimed first and foremost at showing fellow locals the natural treasures in their own backyards.

“My family wasn’t into hiking and biking. I grew up at the lake, but it wasn’t until later, in my teen years, that I started finding places. I’m still finding places,” Blakely says. “Places like the Bisti, Largo Canyon, Chaco … that’s how we started with the guide idea. We’ll see if we can turn it into an income stream. Anytime I take people into the Bisti, it’s jaw-dropping to them. They can’t wrap their minds around how it’s just an hour down the road. I’ll ask, ‘have you been to Chaco?’ There’s an alarming amount of people who haven’t.”

Errol Baade, CEO of Jack’s Plastic Welding, has seen his own children forced to relocate during extractive-industry bust cycles, and it inspired him to explore a unique business model. Baade’s company, which manufactures rafts and inflatable boats, began manufacturing rapid-deploy spill-containment systems and other custom products for extraction companies as well. Jack’s is a testament to the success that comes with diversification and with partnership. Having lived in and operated out of San Juan County for nearly three decades, Baade’s primary hope is that ORII will attract other outdoor outfitters, brands and manufacturers to the area.

“There might be an idea that manufacturing in this area can’t be done. We’ll say it surely can,” he says. “We have 12 full-time employees and $1.25 million in total sales this year. I see that growth continuing.”

The Best Is Yet To Come

Using the funds from the tax increase, Farmington’s outdoor and community improvement plans include a mountain bike and BMX park; a river trail; and a bike path system connecting all parts of the city with schools, the lake and Glade Run recreation area. The city also aims to purchase plots of land for prospective outdoor-oriented businesses, make investments in utilities, improve roads, and recharge Four Corners Regional Airport, once a hub for Mesa Airlines.

“It’s a hugely untapped market,” Styron says. “We have trails that rival Moab. We have a top-10-rated municipal golf course. You’re in this sweet spot of all of these interesting geologic settings. Skiing, fishing, camping, world-class rafting … you’re within 90 minutes of everything. Farmington is one of those best-kept secrets. We didn’t have John Denver telling everyone how cool it is here.”

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