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Congresswoman-elect addresses area needs with EDC

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Xochitl Torres Small, newly elected to the 2nd Congressional District House of Representatives seat, meets with local business leaders Thursday at the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. offices. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Newly elected Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat from Las Cruces, has three primary roles when she starts her first term in elected office, she said Thursday afternoon when she met with members of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp.

“I see three really clear opportunities,” she said. “First is my legislative responsibilities, my responsibilities to understand and weigh in on every piece of legislation. Second is the convening power that we were talking about, getting people into the same room to try to solve problems and identify opportunities. And the third is constituent services and support, so helping to identify grant opportunities.”

A water rights attorney and former field representative with Sen. Tom Udall (D-Santa Fe), Torres Small will be sworn in Jan. 3. She has requested assignments to two House of Representatives committees, Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure.

She told the people attending the talk that her own legislative priorities include providing affordable housing, safe roads, affordable health care, workforce education and internet access. But she asked local business leaders to tell her what they thought was important to the region and how she could help.

The 14 people gathered gave her many ideas about the challenges and opportunities in Chaves County.

• Agriculture is one of the largest economic sectors in the region, and that industry is under pressure from immigration policies, said John Mulcahy, president of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. He said that dairy producers are “terrified” that immigration officers will round up a large number of their workforce on any given day because current regulations are not conducive to adequate background checks or allowing immigrant workers on a regular basis. Without a strong dairy industry, the city’s largest private employer, Leprino Foods, could not exist here, and without that workforce, major retailers probably could not survive, he said.

Torres Small said that she wants to work for “a clear and moral immigration policy that includes work visas because there are a lot of folks who want to support our economy here and then eventually go back home. … Having people who are undocumented doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help the worker who doesn’t have the same protections as other workers and it doesn’t help the employers who can lose that needed worker at a moment’s notice.”

• Several people spoke about the importance of the oil and gas industry to the state and its crucial role in providing monies for the state’s general fund and public education. They said they hope they could count on her support for continued oil and gas activity in the state in spite of some people’s desire to “keep it in the ground.”

“Oil and gas is one of the most (innovative) industries out there,” Torres Small said, explaining that the industry has created new technologies and by-products and now has the potential to use “produced water” to alleviate water scarcity issues in the state.

But she said that industry and government also need to act responsibly by “making sure we are taking care of things like controlling methane and making sure that you are getting the support you need from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to get those right-of-ways needed to do that work and collect the methane, and by making sure that we use the resources … for diversification. We know that oil and gas prices will go up and oil and gas prices will go down, so the only way we can grow consistently as a community is to diversify the portfolio.”

• Aeronautics is a huge potential growth area for Roswell and the region, said a couple of the business leaders, but the Roswell International Air Center needs money for infrastructure — including water, sewer and electrical lines on the southside of the airfield for future industrial buildings — and could benefit from legislators’ help in dealing with disputes or restrictive regulations over airspace use.

• The city’s higher education institutions — New Mexico Military Institute and Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell — are considered quality assets in providing needed technical and vocational training to meet current and future workforce needs, said a few people at the meeting. Dr. Shawn Powell, president of ENMU-R, and others noted that the school also has infrastructure needs, including a critical requirement to replace the main electrical backbone for the campus — and will appreciate continued funding and legislative support for Title IV and Title V programs, which involve financial aid and support for Hispanic students. Powell said the university is also interested in programs that can help to raise high school graduation rates and would appreciate having more input in U.S. Department of Education policy decisions.

• Some people spoke to Torres Small about the cultural and social offerings of the region, with the future congresswoman saying that she would like to attend festivals at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge or some of the social gatherings of the Young Professionals group meant to encourage people to stay in Roswell.

• Roswell’s existing solar energy complex and its suitability to future solar projects also were discussed, as was its film studio and the “largest unoccupied building in the state,” a 420,000-square-foot plant at the air center.

Torres Small said she expects that she will return to southeast New Mexico for additional visits in late January or early February.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.