Promises of big skies and bigger opportunities

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It really all started in Socorro County.

In a little concrete building, on the north side of N.M. 60, Horizon Land Corporation set up shop.

Sitting on a major east-west thoroughfare in the early 1960s, the land speculation company was poised to capture a new kind of customer.

Horizon's agents weren't looking to sell to local ranchers or farmers. They were trying to tempt those fed up with congested freeways, crowded cities and light-polluted skies into buying the dream — the wide open expanses of the American Southwest.

And so properties in Rio Grande Estates Socorro County started selling like hotcakes. This vision of tract homes under clear blue skies was that of Horizon's chairman of the board, Joseph Timan.

At that time, he was calling for 25 new cities across the nation "to meet the aesthetic, social, economic and human needs of our expanding population."

Timan's vision of the future involved taking a vast land mass and thoroughly planning its use — everything from single-family homes and multi-family dwellings to schools, parks and even hospitals. It was all there, laid out on paper.

In casting around for those vast land masses, Timan and Horizon found what they were looking for in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The company began aggressively marketing it's undeveloped land, so full of potential, to families living back East — families that measured their living space in square footage instead of square acreage.

As land began to move, so did Horizon. Pushing north into Valencia County, planned communities with names such as Tierra Grande Estates, Rio Grande Estates Valencia County, Enchanted Mesa, Canyon del Oro, Rancho Rio Grande Estates and Rio del Oro began to take form, both on paper and on the ground.

But all that land had to come from somewhere.

In 1968, shareholders of the Tomé Land and Improvement Corporation voted to sell the entire 47,000-acre Tomé Land Grant to Horizon for $4.7 million.

That was seven years after the first house was built by Horizon in southern Valencia County, and there was no sign, at least according to Horizon, that things were going to slow down — the company predicted $4 million in Horizon home sales that year.

For nearly a two decades, Horizon blitzed the buying public with newsletters, newspaper ads, in-house publications and hard sales pitches, urging people to get a piece of the American dream before it was too late.

Literature put out by the company in the late '60s encouraged investors to "slip a little land into your portfolio." After all, land had increased in value 48 times in a 20 year period, according to Horizon's calculations.

A March 1963 article in Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly called Horizon and companies like it "the city builders," while at the same time trumpeting dire warnings about hucksters and land scams.

Horizon helpfully reprinted and distributed the article, complete with select passages highlighted in red — passages that pointed out why Horizon was different, financially stable.

The article does admit that regulatory agencies had little control over "exuberance in advertising" and the developers weren't shy about admitting that.

Timan was quoted in the article as saying, "Sure we puff, but who the devil doesn't? If you're going to sell something — and especially if you're selling it through the mails — you have to play up the favorable aspects of your product. This is axiomatic, and it's something everyone does."

The Barron's article also gave an explanation of the accounting practices of Horizon, and companies of its ilk.

For example, if the company sold a lot for $600, it took $10 down and the buyer paid $10 a month. Instead of recording the $120 received for the year, Horizon would record the $600 on the books as revenue.

Developers wrote off advertising costs and selling expenses in the year they occurred, but they would report income to the IRS only when cash was received, Barron's reported.

"It's quite a thing to build a community — not just to subdivide land, but to create a whole new town with shopping centers and churches and the works," Timan concluded in the article. "It's quite a thrill to see people move in and build homes and live happy lives. And, incidentally, it's a way to make quite a bit of money."

But not everyone came for the money.

Growing up in a small town in Rhode Island, Serena Douglas came to New Mexico by way of Fort Benning, Ga. She was in the Navy and her husband was enlisted in the Army.

One day, "some guy knocked on the door," Douglas said. And he had a deal for them. They bought a five-acre ranchette to add to Douglas' modest land portfolio.

"When I was single, I had bought land in Arizona. Different speculators were saying now is the time to buy in the Southwest," she said.

Douglas laughs when she admits to having the desire to be "a big land tycoon."

She never thought about living in the Land of Enchantment, but a summer visit changed all that.

"That's when they had the little country club," Douglas said. "We had such a good time in that little club."

In 1972, she and her husband drove two cars packed with household items, a dog and 9-month-old baby across the country.

They lived in an apartment complex while they waited for their brand new house on Hillman to be completed.

And as life has a tendency to do, it changed, Douglas said. She ended up moving across the Rio Grande and becoming a Belenite.

Even though she didn't stay in the big house on the corner, she understood what drew people out there.

"They could live in houses that had bathrooms bigger than their homes back east," she said. "They lived better than they could in their whole lives. The developers played on people's dreams."

In considering what went wrong with the whole plan, Douglas points, in part, to the local shopping center.

"You had companies like Walgreens and Furrs that wanted space, but the spaces were so small; they were built for small boutiques like in Santa Fe," she said. "But you know, I embraced Belen and I've never been all that disappointed."

Tom and Marilyn Weiland left behind the cold damp winters of Ohio to move to their house on Gorman. They didn't buy a house from Horizon, but they did buy the dream — playing in the snow on the mountains in the morning and cooking hamburgers on the patio in the evening.

The family moved out to what is now commonly referred to as Rio Communities in 1977, coming in when development was a little further along. They were still on the edge of things though, getting a clear view of the Manzano Mountains.

People built and planted trees, so Marilyn says they have to make a little effort to see the mountains after 35 years.

"By the time we came, building had slowed down a bit. We didn't have all the high pressure that others did and the promises," Marilyn said.

She remembers a lot of buyers from New York and New Jersey, in love with the idea of cheap land, but wanting the city amenities such as lighting and paved roads.

"Well, there's a reason things were so cheap," she said, laughing. "Different people came out here for different reasons. (Horizon) had a big plan; too big I guess."

One reason people moved to the area was because they were somehow attached to Horizon. Local real estate appraiser George Koch moved here with his family in 1972 after spending several years training Horizon's real estate people in Kansas.

He sold property for Horizon for a short time, but eventually branched off, saying he was "never that good at selling pie in the sky," and became a builder in the community, before coming back to being a broker.

When the Kochs moved here, they had a choice, he said — they could either make the effort to become part of the community or they couldn't.

"Those that made the effort stayed. Those that didn't, moved on," Koch said.

When he was selling for Horizon, Koch said he would ask people what they did the night before.

"They would say, 'We looked at the stars.' To you and me, that's not a big deal," he said. "But to them, well …"

Being on the inside of Horizon to some extent, Koch says the plan would have had a better chance at success if the company had put the profits it was raking in back into the communities.

Instead, Horizon took the money it made in places such as Arizona and New Mexico and put it into a Texas development, Waterwood.

"If you look at Rio Rancho, the developers there plowed the money back in," he said.

Koch said he never regretted moving to New Mexico and embracing the local culture and lifestyle, but he does recognize the irony of what Horizon was trying to accomplish.

Timan's vision was houses and development from the river to the mountains. What Horizon was selling was wide open spaces, completely free of the East Coast constraints.

"After you got here, you realized you were destroying what you had come for," Koch said.

Eventually, the lawsuits started to come. Investors and property owners began to wonder if all the promises Horizon made were ever going to come to fruition.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, which later investigated and prosecuted Horizon, the firm's salesmen held dinner parties where they showed clients charts of growth rates and investment returns.

They entertained with films hosted by celebrities Merv Griffin and Leif Erickson, promoting subdivisions with names like "Whispering Ranch," "Enchanted Mesa" and "Paradise Hills."

Diners were then pressured to buy land immediately, or miss out on the investment opportunity of a lifetime.

"Horizon's representations were fashioned out of exaggeration, innuendo, ambiguity, half-truths and the omission of material facts," the FTC wrote in 1981. "Horizon's lots were, in fact, bad investments with little or no potential for profit."

The FTC ordered Horizon to spend $45 million on promised improvements, return $14.5 million to investors and allow others a "cooling-off period," during which they could back out of deals with the company.

In the early 1980s, the Valley Improvement Association was formed to try and bring some kind of order to what Horizon had left behind.

A Belen native and now VIA's chief executive officer, Paul Baca, remembers when Horizon was booming in the early 1970s and all kinds of new people were coming to the area.

Of course as a grade schooler at the time, Baca also remembers swimming in the country club pool and Easter egg hunts on the golf course, as well.

"In school, we had kids with New York accents, people we were never exposed to," Baca said. "It was a whole different set of people, and it broadened our horizons."

The lifestyle Horizon was selling was something that a lot of people native to Valencia County didn't get.

"I never realized how they could sell it. And you don't realize what we have here until you go someplace like New York City," he said. "They are selling air space there."

According to a March article in the New York Post, undeveloped air space above existing high rises can go for about $500 a square foot.

And after staying in a boutique hotel, in a room so small one person had to lay on the bed in order for the other to walk around, Baca says he definitely understands the allure of what Horizon was selling.

"When someone lives in something that small, and you go to people and say, 'Look, for $999, you can own a quarter acre,' yeah, that's huge," he said. "People saw an opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle.

"Maybe the plan was good. I think it got too big, too fast," Baca said. "If they had focused on one area at a time, maybe some stuff could have come to life. When they started working on multiple areas, then it wasn't about development — it was about selling the property. The motive may have been right when they started. I don't know later."

Horizon's motives aside, Baca says there are still property owners, even second generation owners, unwilling to part with their slice of desert.

"I think now, as the assessments are falling off, it's even more attractive, because now the only responsibility is the property taxes," he said.

But even with property owners still holding onto the dream, Baca said it's going to take someone with a lot of vision and frankly, a lot of money, to turn the 47,000 acres into something other than rolling vistas.

"You can't go in and just re-plat. There are owners all over the country, even the world," he said. "We might see something in my lifetime, if there is proper access to the east side. I think that would encourage people to develop out there."

Baca predicts it will still take a "big, big developer" to really unify the area though — someone with pockets deep enough to simply buy out the individual owners or persuasive enough to convince them to become part of another plan, another dream.

VIA has done a lot to keep the various communities whole, functioning and moving forward, Baca said.

"The idea behind VIA was to continue, to maintain the cooperation and partnerships we have always had with the schools and community," he said. "By being the lead developer on Las Maravillas and Pacitos, we were able to pull growth out to that area. It's far out there, but it's not impossible.

"VIA did a lot to try and enhance things. Now, it's up to the community to take it from here."

Baca says that looking at the future of the association, when the original covenants for Rio del Oro were signed in 1969, an expiration date for the assessments was set 40 years in the future. Now, three years passed 2009, Baca says VIA is no longer able to subsidize and provide the services it has for all those decades.

"With the amounts collected over years, it was still not enough to sustain everything. We did the things we could do to assist schools, like spend $350,000 to extend water and sewer and donate land," he said. "But we can't do that anymore. We still have land to donate, but as far as the assessments, it wasn't such a grand amount of money to do all this stuff ourselves."

Through the donation of parks, lands for schools, extending utilities, establishing bike paths and building the Manzano Expressway, Baca said Horizon and VIA changed the landscape of the community in terms of the tax base.

"It was either going to be agricultural, grazing land, which has the lowest tax assessment, or a hodgepodge of growth," he said. "If you look, you can see what it was going to be. Everything is cyclical and I hope to see the cycle turn."

And at the end of the day, all that's left of the Horizon dream is "a big open vista. And that's not a bad thing," Baca said. "VIA has managed to protect places like Comanche Springs and Tomé Hill. The last thing anyone wants to see is a big house on the hill. Certain things are sacred."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.