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Group offers to take charge of cemetery

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Lawyer Bruce Voss, standing at right, talks Monday during a court hearing to an investor group he represents that has proposed a multi-faceted plan to assume ownership and long-term care of Memory Lawn Memorial Park cemetery. Seated in the front row and facing the camera is California businessman Henry Mayhew, the lead party in the investor proposal. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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A judge has given initial approval for a California businessman with roots in Roswell and a group of investors to move forward with plans to assume ownership and management of the long-troubled Memory Lawn Memorial Park cemetery.

“This particular proposal — I am an optimistic sort of person — I think addresses every issue that we have been concerned about,” said Judge Freddie Romero of the 5th Judicial District Court in Chaves County. “I think this particular proposal set forth addresses the needs of the plaintiff, addresses the needs of the cemetery and certainly a lot of other issues.”

Romero heard about the proposal during a Monday morning hearing at the Chaves County Courthouse in Roswell. He is scheduled to hold a final hearing March 19 after all parties have had a chance to work out legal and financial issues and after the public has been notified and given a chance to comment.

Henry Mayhew of Mayhew and Associates of Irvine, California, and a group of investors that Mayhew said numbers about 10 have made the proposal to the court, a multi-faceted solution that seeks to help the Roswell community in several ways.

Mayhew is one of the plaintiffs in a 2009 lawsuit against the former owners Allan and Vivian Drake and their family business, Avidlo LLC, that ultimately led to a court-ordered receivership in 2010.

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Mayhew and his investors, which include water engineers, marketers and food industry executives from various state, including California and Illinois, have proposed creating a New Mexico nonprofit organization to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity. According to Chaves County online property records, the land totals about 45 acres. About six acres are used for the cemetery, which has an estimated 2,000 people buried in it.

To fund the nonprofit, the investors intend to start two money-making enterprises utilizing the property and its assets.

One corporation would install and operate a hydroponic greenhouse to grow herbs and spices to be sold to supermarkets, food service companies and over the Internet, and another enterprise would install and operate a water treatment plant that would produce and sell filtered and sparkling water.

Another aspect of the proposal is that the corporations would hire local troubled youth as employees, a concept modeled after a Los Angeles anti-gang program.

In addition, a local ophthalmologist, Dr. Paul Engstrom, has made an initial offer to buy five acres of the property, with sale proceeds to go to the nonprofit.

Engstrom said that his offer is meant both to help the cemetery and ensure that any future development on the cemetery property does not obstruct the view of or access to nearby property on Sena Road owned by his medical practice partner and fiancée, Dr. Sally Mellgren.

“Of course, we are also concerned about the cemetery,” he said. “It is nice to hear that something is going to be done with it. We offered to do something with it, but Mr. Mayhew has a great plan … and we look forward to working with him.”

Mayhew, among the sixty or so people who belong to the Rescue Memory Lawn Memorial Park Alliance that joined with the original seven named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said his interest is that he was born in Roswell, that his father attended New Mexico Military Institute and that his grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles are buried at the cemetery.

His proposal described the cemetery as being in an “appalling and inexcusable state of disrepair.”

Lawyers for the investor group, the plaintiffs and court-appointed receiver Robert Corn voiced their support for the concept, but many details remain to be worked out. Those include which entity, the corporations or nonprofit, would own the mineral and water rights; land ownership and title concerns; repairs to an existing well and pump and approval to drill additional wells; approval for necessary permits or licenses; and tax and liability issues.

The parties also will need to agree on a sales price for acreage sought by Engstrom.

While Engstrom made an initial offer of “approximately” $5,000 an acre, Bruce Voss, the lawyer for the investor group, indicated that they were not in agreement on that price and also would need to ascertain exactly which five acres would be involved in the sale.

In supporting the investor group in proceeding with negotiations, Romero also praised the idea of hiring at-risk youth, which the proposal said was modeled after Homeboy Industries started by Father Gregory Boyle in Los Angeles. That program seeks to give youth an alternative to gang life.

“Part of the problem in the area is gangs,” said Mayhew after the hearing. “They have no jobs, and it creates a cycle. We need to give them a way to make money besides drugs and a way to develop their self-esteem. This will give them a start in job training.”

He said he also has plans, once funds are raised or earned, to beautify the cemetery with new landscaping of indigenous plants, gravel pathways and benches and, especially important to him, adding some sort of display identifying the grave sites.

Located just east of the city limits on East 19th Street, Memory Lawn was started in 1953, according to court documents, and has been owned by several different entities over the years.

The Drakes and their corporation purchased it in 2008, but plaintiffs alleged in their lawsuit that the Drakes “failed to meet the perpetual care and maintenance duties associated with the ongoing operation of a cemetery.” The Drakes declared bankruptcy in October 2010, and Allan Drake died in 2014.

Romero has presided over the case since 2015. Robert Corn was appointed receiver in 2011 and has managed the cemetery while exploring various options to turn over its operations to some other entity.

Chaves County officials and the city of Roswell have opted not to assume its ownership. In April, the City Council voted 6-4 against taking it over. Among the concerns voiced by some council members were potential environmental liabilities associated with tires buried on the northern portion of the property.

At this point, Corn said, he thinks that the plan is a step forward.

“It is still up to the court and the parties,” said Corn, “but I am excited that this has been approved to move forward, and Mr. Mayhew and his group … have figured out how to maintain the cemetery on a long-term basis.”

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