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Five-county economic planning gets underway; Officials: Anyone can join in the long-range efforts to boost area’s quality of life

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J. Michael Patrick of New Mexico State University, at top, center, leads a meeting of the southeastern New Mexico planning team involved in the Strong Economies Together planning process funded and organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NMSU. The southeastern region involves Chaves, Lea, Eddy, Roosevelt and Curry counties, and one of the planning sessions is occurring today. (Submitted Photo)

Southeastern New Mexico is well known for its energy and agribusiness sectors, but business, government and education leaders are hoping to boost income, business activity, jobs and quality of life in the region through long-range planning that identifies as many potential areas of growth as possible.

The Southeastern New Mexico Economic District / Council of Governments based in Roswell has joined with the Eastern Plains Council of Government based in Clovis to coordinate a five-county planning effort known as Strong Economies Together. The process is facilitated and funded by the state and national offices of the Rural Development division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. New Mexico State University partners with USDA in the effort.

In spite of its funding source, the planning does not concentrate on agribusiness, according to its lead facilitator and coach.

“It will focus on any aspect of improving quality of life in rural New Mexico communities, and that goes beyond just generating jobs,” said J. Michael Patrick. “It has to do with improving educational systems, health care delivery systems, and dealing with environmental issues.”

Patrick is a resource and economic development specialist and an associate professor with NMSU.

He explained that, once a region identifies its needs, he will help leaders involve whichever state and federal agencies that can help address those.

A planning team of about 18 people is at the core of the local effort, which involves Chaves, Lea, Eddy, Roosevelt and Curry counties, said Dora Batista, director of the Southeastern New Mexico Economic Development District.

Started in 2010, SET planning has occurred or is in progress in 32 states in the nation at no cost to the regions except staff time and travel. Every area in New Mexico, except three counties in the north portion of the state, has completed or started the planning.

This is the first time the southeastern New Mexico region has participated, but seven other regions in the state already have completed the process, said Patrick.

Of those seven, six have developed written plans that have been reviewed by USDA national staff and judged as high-quality, Patrick said. That evaluation determination enabled those regions to receive $5,000 to implement some smaller goals. Patrick said there is also a move federally to establish a funding program to help implement larger components of plans.

The planning in southeastern New Mexico has consisted of two civic forums — which occurred in late September to gather input about region strengths, weaknesses and needs — and will continue with four planning sessions. Those start this afternoon, with a session at the Roswell Convention and Civic Center. Other sessions are expected to occur on a monthly basis in various cities in the region.

Batista said anyone interested can participate. So far, 45 people took part in the civic forums in Clovis and Hobbs.

Patrick said that the planning process is not meant to “duplicate or compete but to complement” existing plans.

“They have plans for their respective (Council of Governments), but they don’t have a plan that crosses over,” he said. “This plan that they are working on now encourages using the existing plans at the regional level, the county level and even at the municipal level. We aren’t trying to reinvent anything, but to facilitate a broader approach.”

People at the two civic forums identified the top five strengths of the region (natural resources, agriculture, energy production, education and training resources, and entrepreneurial spirit), top five challenges (aging infrastructure, water, lack of trained workforce, perceived or actual low quality of life, and regulatory overreach) and top six opportunities (natural resources, agriculture, educational and training resources, transportation resources, workforce development and infrastructure development).

They also received data about the region, including that net job gain in the region from 2009 to 2015 was 7,866, while the number of businesses in the area increased by 934 during that time. Data also shows that energy production, transportation and defense and security remain advancing and strong industries. Agribusiness and mining, while still strong, have experienced decline in recent years. Industries such as arts, entertainment and tourism; educational and knowledge resources; and chemicals production are identified as new but growing sectors for the area.

Batista agreed that a beneficial aspect of the planning has been learning what other cities and counties consider to be their economic strengths, whether the military in Clovis or tourism and energy production in Carlsbad.

“It is giving us the opportunity to see what each individual county sees as their strengths and what they are proud of and what they hope to achieve,” she said. “I hope that, when we are done, we have an appreciation and awareness of these assets and actually try to figure out, when we are trying to draw economic development into our area, how we can use other counties’ assets, something that will benefit the whole south side.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.