Belen MainStreet Partnership

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Downtown Belen is undergoing a transformation.

Things have been rough for the Hub City in recent years, boarded-up buildings and failed businesses dot the city’s streets. But if one nonprofit working with the city has its way, that will all change.

Barron Jones-News-Bulletin photo: The Belen MainStreet Partnership fixed up the outside of the old health department building as part of its efforts to revitalize the downtown area.

It’s been nearly a year since volunteers finished painting, pulling weeds and removing boards from the windows of the former Department of Health building on Becker Avenue. The building has had several owners since the health department moved decades ago.

The volunteers are from Belen MainStreet Partnership and they hope their work will have a lasting impact and help regenerate a city struggling to cope with a stagnant economy.

“The old Belen health center was a derelict building with stucco falling off with badly boarded particle-boarded windows that were deteriorated and dilapidated. It looked like a real eye sore,” said Tom Greer, vice president of Belen MainStreet Partnership.

Although the building is still vacant, the partnership targeted the property for improvements as part of its core mission to improve the appearance, economic outlook and social desirability of the city’s downtown. The organization’s plan is to transform downtown into an thriving commercial district by promoting historic preservation and community participation.

Greer said the work on the old building is an example of how MainStreet can find common ground with property owners who might not want to deal with city officials. He said it’s difficult to get property owners to sit down for any type of discussion because of prior issues they may have had with the city.

“We discovered that so much water has passed under the dam, where there are a bunch of hard feelings and polarization that we, as MainStreet, were able to step in the middle and find some common ground,” he said. “The building’s owner turned around from someone who was not pleased with the city to someone willing to pay for the materials, if we did the labor.”

The tax-exempt organization first surfaced in 2009, after community members submitted an application to the state’s Economic Development Department to participate in the program.

Before an organization is named an emerging MainStreet community, it must have both a strong public/private partnership and a designated historical district. The partnership allows the established nonprofit to work closely with city and state officials to get governmental funding for projects designed to generate a healthy economy.

This first phase usually last about 18 months. But for Belen MainStreet that 18 months stretched to nearly four years, primarily because of the city’s sour economy.

“You have a resolution and a commitment of actual monies from a community partner, which is the city of Belen,” Greer said. “It was a hard time to be asking the city for money, we were somewhat victims of circumstances, like a lot of people were in this economy.”

Greer said community support for the MainSreet program is growing because people are starting to see the projects the group has completed in the last year.

“The number of people who are aware of us now is increasingly larger. The last board meeting, we had a half a dozen people there to see what we were all about, which has virtually never happened in the past,” he said.

The New Mexico MainStreet Program helps communities revitalize their commercial districts. The program is part of the state’s Economic Development Department, which works with more than 20 communities in the state to help create bustling commercial districts while preserving local, cultural and historic resources.

Rich Williams, director of the New Mexico MainStreet Program, said a main focus is to help local downtown areas become economic engines.

“The MainStreet programs help to protect small mom-and-pop businesses directly related to the history of the communities they serve,” Williams said.

In addition to improving the former health department’s appearance, the organization is working on a multi-phase project to improve the appearance of old Belen City Hall. During that project’s first phase, the partnership painted the long-vacated building and provided new window coverings to replace the plywood. The building has a long way to go before it’s ready for occupation, but the partnership hopes to raise funds to further secure the building and make some interior repairs.

Originally built during the Great Depression, the building served a vital role in the city’s day-to-day-operation for several years before the city relocated more than 10 years ago to the current city hall.

Greer, whose experience in community redevelopment and historic preservation spans 40 years, through several states, said a key to the organization’s current and future success is to recognize a structure’s potential.

“You have to be able to see what something can be by looking at what it is. A lot of people can’t see past what it is,” Greer said. “They see a derelict building; I see a museum and cultural center.”

City Councilor and Belen MainStreet President Jerah Cordova said that in the long run, the partnership will play an instrumental role in the city’s revitalization. Nonprofits aren’t bogged down with the skepticism and the legal restrictions that often influence collaboration between private citizens and government officials, he said.

“I don’t think that there is necessarily an antagonistic relationship with city government,” Cordova said. “Some citizens can be skeptical, from time to time, working with city government where they’re not as skeptical working with nonprofits.”

He said he believes nonprofits provide more of an opportunity to work with private property owners because the nonprofit isn’t bound by anti-donation laws that forbid the use of public funds on private property, whereas a nonprofit can provide money and invest resources directly into private property.

“You have to remember, city governments can’t go onto private property and make improvements to that private property because of anti-donation, but a nonprofit can. That means the city often has to play the bad guy,” Cordova said. “The city has ordinances and it can enforce those ordinances and get the property owner to do things by citing them with violations.”

Earlier this summer, the partnership graduated from the emerging community phase to start-up phase. However, before the nonprofit could move to the next phase, it had to meet several benchmarks, including developing a vision statement, training volunteers and establishing organizational goals.

Graduating out of the emerging phase is a big deal for a MainStreet community. This means the organization is now eligible to request capital outlay funds from the Legislature for projects it deems crucial for the city’s economic health. But to request appropriations from lawmakers to complete projects around town, the nonprofit must generate a downtown master plan, detailing proposed projects

In addition to the downtown master plan, during the start-up phase which usually takes two years to complete, the local MainStreet organization must generate a strategic marketing strategy and entrepreneurial development plan.

The start-up phase is a very important step for the Belen MainStreet community, said Rhona Baca Espinoza, the partnership’s director. The status allows the nonprofit to apply for various grants to help pay for project they believe is necessary for economic development.

“We just applied for a $15,000 grant to help renovate the old city hall and a $20,000 historical development grant” Baca Espinoza said. “We are eligible for grant money that we wouldn’t be considered for in the emerging phase.”

Besides the construction projects, Cordova said the partnership works with several area nonprofits, such as the Corazon de Belen Garden Park and the Farmers Market. The partnership recently served as the garden’s financial agent during its efforts to secure a $10,000 PNM resource foundation grant. The partnership also is discussing plans to act as the fiscal agent for the Harvey House Museum.

“They are not really a functioning business and it doesn’t make sense for them to have to be a business and have to go through all that. It makes more sense for them to be under an umbrella of a nonprofit, function as a nonprofit and then all of their proceeds go back into the Harvey House,” Cordova said.

The partnership is comprised of four committees that share an over-arching goal of promoting business enterprise and cultural and historical longevity. There’s an organizational committee that involves establishing and maintaining a nonprofit corporation working to develop and carry out a downtown revitalization strategy.

Then there are three other committees directly related to projects that affect the community such as the economic positioning committee, primarily responsible for finding out the economic needs of the community and finding ways to address those needs through the other committees, he said.

Besides the operations and the economic positioning, one of the more active committees is the promotion committee in charge of promoting Belen, both locally and nationally. The promotion committee has produced three brochures recently. Two of the brochures promote Belen as a destination for railroad afficionados and the other offers a walking tour guide, complete with stories about many of the sites on the tour.

The Harvey House Museum is one of the tour’s destinations. Built in 1910, it offers a glimpse of what life was like during the hey day of train travel.

Mike Moreno, one of museum’s volunteers, said he believes in the partnership efforts.

“I think they have done a huge amount of work,” Moreno said. “It’s a very positive step forward for the city. They have helped revitalize Becker Street, (the old) city hall and the old water tower.”

Cordova said the partnership is working on a plan with the owner of Tommy’s Lounge, located at South Main and Baca, to get the building ready for a new tenant.