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Struggling With Success

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 1992


THE oldest state capital in the United States - and arguably the best preserved - glistens in the cold mountain air. But Santa Fe's age-old tranquility has been shattered recently by a new sound: the thumping of hammers and the whining squeal of chain saws.

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All across the Sangre de Cristo Mountain foothills, which ring Santa Fe, new housing developments with such names as "The Summit," "La Tierra," and "Las Campanas" are being constructed. This building frenzy has brought to a boil a long-simmering controversy that pits pro- vs. anti-growth factions.

The debate is heated for two reasons:

Racial tensions: Historically, most of Santa Fe's population has been Hispanic, while most of the newcomers are whites.

Class tensions: Old-time Santa Fe residents fall, by and large, into the low-income category; new residents tend to be fairly wealthy.

As a result, a "haves"-vs.-"have-nots," Anglos-vs.-Hispanics tension is palpable in the streets here.

But the fight is, at least in part, being waged in the spirit of good-natured competition, as symbolized by a split between the mayor and the City Council affectionately dubbed "The Sam and Debbie Show."

"Debbie" is Debbie Jaramillo, a city councilwoman and lifelong resident who is a leader of the "slow-growthers." "I see a train coming down the track full speed that is still stoppable," she says.

"Sam" is Mayor Sam Pick, who leads the pro-growth side. "We've been discovered, and that seems to be a problem for some people here who don't want any more people," he observes.

The question is whether, and how, to grow. Though it is a familiar dilemma for much of America, it is a newer problem across the rural Southwest, and still more recent in small towns. Here in tiny Santa Fe, with a mere 65,000 residents, the old scenario is playing out with a unique twist.

"The people who are coming here are not coming to assimilate into the local culture and be a part of the community," Ms. Jaramillo says.

"They are running away from a different kind of life and are seeking refuge," she says.

The majority of new homes in Santa Fe, those on both sides of the growth issue agree, are being bought up, lock, stock, and adobe, by "computer commuters" who come from California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and elsewhere.

Demand from "location flexible" professionals and executives - ranging from company presidents to consultants to psychiatrists - is pushing up home prices.

The average price of a house in Santa Fe, capital of the nation's second-poorest state, is $175,000 - well beyond the means of most of those employed in Santa Fe's economy, which is dominated by tourism and government. But the price is very attractive to those in nearby Texas and California, where a comparable house might cost 30 percent to 50 percent more. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service says, 1,482 people moved to Santa Fe in 1990, 41.6 percent from California and 19.3 percent from Texas.

Many are moving into exclusive communities where it is not uncommon to see empty plots of land being sold for $250,000.

"These kind of prices are not within any kind of range of the typical Santa Fe resident," says Bill Mueller, executive director of Santa Fe Economic Development, Inc. "That's what the fuss is about."

The town's burgeoning popularity as a tourist mecca and international art market (See story, Page 11) is also attracting gallery owners who are elbowing aside longtime retailers in the city center.

"We're losing our sense of community," says Marc Simmons, a 40-year resident and author of several books on New Mexico. He bemoans the loss of such amenities as dry cleaners, dime stores, and offices near what is now the tourist-dominated central plaza. "The high-roller real estaters are making a fortune, but nothing is trickling down," Mr. Simmons complains.