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Looking back on an unprecedented year

Ascent Aviation plans to begin hiring in Roswell after its new hangar is completed. (Submitted Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Editor’s note: Many of the things we’d normally include in a look back on the previous year didn’t occur in 2020. That alone tells the tale of the impact of the pandemic and subsequent public health orders on our local way of life. Rather than run through a list of closures and cancellations that were recorded in the newspaper as they occurred, between March and December, this short review instead offers a look back on just a few of the impacts and occurrences that were covered by the paper over the past year.

It is by no means meant to be all-encompassing or even close. Our coverage of the past year (and other past years) is archived online at rdrnews.com, and much of the work we’ve done specific to the pandemic — including its impacts on public health — is compiled at rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.

The virus and health orders aimed at containing it altered almost every aspect of life here in 2020. But throughout the community, people and organizations stepped up and did the best they could to help those hardest hit. Charitable efforts helped keep people fed, clothed and warm once winter arrived. These groups and individuals did what they always do in our community — 2020 just required even more of them.

Local educators and families struggled to help educate and care for kids unable to attend in-person classes.

As a community, we had our work cut out for us. The pandemic created hardship for local small businesses as public health orders mandating lockdowns largely separated them from their customers. The city’s signature events, including the UFO Festival and Hike It & Spike It, were held virtually or put on hold as restrictions on gatherings made large, in-person events impossible. Tourism, agriculture, energy, among other pillars of the local economy, suffered as the pandemic progressed.

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It took extensive negotiations for the Air Center to maintain passenger air service after American Airlines at first announced Roswell would be among a group of small cities it would stop serving due to pandemic-caused economic strain. The negotiations were successful — and the new relief bill passed by Congress should further ensure we keep American Airlines service.

Through it all, Roswell has reached the end of 2020 and now embarks on a new year.

Though 2020 presented tremendous challenges, it also offered examples of local residents rising to meet them, demonstrating a resilience we’ll need to recover in this new year, as no doubt we continue to reflect on what’s been an unprecedented time.

The year in politics

One of the nation’s most competitive races for the U.S. House of Representatives was in southern New Mexico. As they had two years earlier, Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat and freshman member of Congress from Las Cruces, and Republican Yvette Herrell, a former state representative from Alamogordo, faced off in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.

Despite Torres Small’s fundraising advantage, Herrell prevailed 53 to 46%. Steve Jones of Ruidoso, who mounted a write-in campaign as an independent, garnered 117 votes.

Herrell clinched the nomination in June following an acrimonious primary against Claire Chase of Roswell and Chris Mathys of Las Cruces.

Chaves County’s four state representatives and four state senators — all Republicans — were reelected; only two had primary or general election opponents.

State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, prevailed 73 to 27% over Democrat Kimble Lee Kearns of Capitan in his bid for a third term in House District 59. State Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, of Senate District 33 beat Christopher Glendon Hensley of Roswell in the primary 56 to 44% and Democrat Denise Lang-Browne of La Luz 69 to 31% in the general election.

No Democrats, independents or Libertarians filed to run in 2020 for county offices here.

Former Commissioner Richard Taylor defeated Barry Foster 62 to 38% in the Republican primary for the open District 4 seat now held by Robert Corn. Jeff Bilberry won another four years representing District 3 on the Commission, defeating Randy Robertson 56 to 44% in the primary. Cindy Fuller emerged triumphant in her bid for county clerk. She beat Barbara Gomez 77 to 23% in the primary.

T. Calder Ezzell Jr., who represents District 2 on the Commission, and County Treasurer Charlotte Andrade were unchallenged.

Dianna Luce, district attorney for New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District and a Republican, was the only name on the ballot in her contest for reelection.

District Judges Thomas Lilley of Division 2 and Jared Kallunki of Division 8, both Democrats appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, did not face opposition in their campaigns for full terms. Judges James Hudson of Division 6 and Dustin Hunter of Division 9, both won retention elections for their positions on the 5th Judicial District Court in Chaves County.

Combined efforts bring major new employer

State and local business development and government officials announced Sept. 28 that Ascent Aviation Services of Arizona had chosen the Roswell Air Center for its expanded operations as an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) enterprise.

As many as 100 to 125 new aircraft mechanic and administrative support positions are expected once the company is able to occupy the new wide-body hangar it will lease from Western LLC of Colorado. Western will own the facility it will build on about 10 acres of city property. Western’s president Brad Henderson recently told city officials that the company is on track with lease negotiations with both the city and the tenant so that it can break ground by early May. The hangar is expected to be finished by April 2022.

The expansion and hangar project will have an estimated $545 million economic impact over 10 years, according to the New Mexico Economic Development Department. Ascent Aviation President Dave Querio said he plans to make an $18 million investment in the Roswell area and hire about 360 people within five years of starting operations here. Henderson has estimated that the 72,000-square-foot hangar will be a $25 million building project. The state has committed up to $4 million in Local Economic Development Act grants tied to job creation, while Chaves County is using about $3 million from 2020 state capital outlay funds for site improvement as it cooperates with the city of Roswell on those efforts.

City finances impacted by the pandemic

Faced with the uncertainty of the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic on its revenue while forming its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the city of Roswell sought to drastically cut expenses and put in place cost-recovery plans for some services in 2020.

Among the $33 million in cuts the city made to its fiscal 2021 budget that started in July was reducing the size of the city’s workforce by 81 full-time equivalent positions. Open positions were eliminated and employees were offered financial packages for early retirement and voluntary severance. A furlough of one pay period spread over the year was ordered for all city employees and a hiring freeze was put in place.

Part-time seasonal employees were laid off, but no full-time employees lost their jobs.

While the city’s GRT collections did drop, the fall wasn’t as great as feared. At year’s end, the city had collected $5.5 million more than it budgeted for. Furlough days from July to the end of the year were eliminated.

But with restrictions on mass gatherings causing events such as the UFO Festival and Hike It & Spike It to be postponed or reduced to mostly virtual events, the city’s lodgers tax collections dropped dramatically. Hotel occupancy rates dropped to 17% and never rose above 50% by year’s end. Lodgers’ tax collections from July to November dropped by 36% compared to the previous year.

Cost recovery plans in the works since 2018 for several quality-of-life services offered by the city were also implemented. For the first time in their history, admission fees for the Roswell Museum and Art Center and Spring River Zoo were approved to start in the new year, but not without concern from the public and some city councilors that doing so would keep lower-income people from enjoying those venues.

Grants to businesses help ease financial distress

The economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions ignited many efforts to help businesses in the area. In addition to several “shop local” promotions since March spearheaded by such organizations as the Roswell Chamber of Commerce, MainStreet Roswell and the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., businesses benefited from federal and state loan and grant programs, including those made by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Also in the mix were Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) business continuity and business redesign grants allocated by Chaves County and the city of Roswell.

Those local governments applied for and received money from the state of New Mexico, which set aside a portion of its CARES funding to aid businesses.

The city of Roswell awarded 79 business grants in November totaling $1.29 million. Chaves County funded nine grant applications in December for $184,734. It has approved a phase-two funding round for Jan. 4, providing another $153,016 for another nine applications.

Local health care community responds to pandemic

Even before the coronavirus appeared in New Mexico, it had an effect on Roswell’s health care community.

In February, Dr. Masoud Khorsand, CEO of Kymera Independent Physicians, was keeping his eye on the spread of the virus around the world through colleagues. He became an early proponent of precautions that soon became familiar to the public — wearing masks, frequent hand washing and social distancing. During city and county government meetings, he spoke of the need for first responders to take even higher precautions to protect themselves.

In April, three Lovelace Regional nurses — Cara Alsafi, Brittany Dickman and Jesse Gomez — volunteered to travel to New Jersey for two weeks to help the staff of a hospital there as COVID-19 cases surged. They saw it as an opportunity to not only give some relief to the staff but to also learn treatments they expected would eventually be needed in Roswell.

Before they returned, both Lovelace Regional and Eastern New Mexico Medical Center had altered visitation policies, limiting patients to just one visitor and screening everyone for symptoms of COVID-19. Nationwide concerns about the availability of personal protection equipment prompted local action. Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell donated PPE to ENMMC and the Pecos Valley Quilters made cloth face masks for clinics to give to their patients.

Both hospitals assured they were coordinating with local and state officials on plans for a surge in cases. The federal government began reporting hospital capacity numbers in late November. In the first three weeks of the reports, ENMMC reached a peak of 183 beds used for adult COVID-19 patients while Lovelace Regional had 53, both in the first week of December.

On Dec. 16, both hospitals began giving the vaccine developed by Pfizer to staff, just days after it had received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

Charitable efforts assist local residents

The pandemic brought a halt to large gatherings in 2020, causing area nonprofit organizations to change fundraising tactics while at the same time seeing an increased demand for services.

Organizations such as Chaves County Court Appointed Special Advocates, Kiwanis Club of Roswell and Royal Family Kids of Roswell are among those that moved fundraising events online after public health orders limited mass gatherings of people in March.

Others, like the Community Volunteer Program and Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico turned in-person dinners and other events into drive-thrus. Some organizations opted to postpone events until the pandemic had passed, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern New Mexico’s Bowl for Kids Sake.

With thrift stores deemed non-essential, organizations such as The Salvation Army Roswell Corps and the Roswell Humane Society had to close those facilities for at least part of the year, cutting their revenue.

Even as organizations found their fundraising curtailed by the health order, the need for their services grew. The Salvation Army reported demand at its food bank had grown from about 350 food boxes a month to more than 600.

Carrie-Leigh Cloutier, chief executive officer of Chaves County CASA, reported that with families isolated at home during the pandemic, the organization saw an increase of teenagers wanting to harm themselves and reports of violence toward children.

Roswell Community Disaster Relief, a nonprofit run by Enrique Moreno, said demand for assistance had increased threefold. Older adults at high risk of COVID-19 afraid of venturing out and quarantined families were among those seeking food assistance.

Although vehicle breakdowns often plagued his efforts, Moreno said the community would come through in donations for repairs.

The Gonzales family’s Community Volunteer Program likewise saw community support as it changed its school supply drive, community Thanksgiving dinner and toy drive to drive-thru events.

RISD undergoes change, faces challenges

For the Roswell Independent School District, 2020 started off with an unexpected change in leadership and became a struggle as the coronavirus pandemic forced students to stay at home.

In January, Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy resigned. Retired RISD superintendent Mike Gottlieb was appointed in what was expected to be an interim position but became permanent for the year.

On the Friday before RISD’s spring break, the state ordered schools to close and shift to remote instruction. That presented new challenges such as ensuring the 53% of students without internet access or devices could still learn, teachers learning new ways to teach and providing meals for students.

Over the summer, the district used federal coronavirus relief funds to install internet hot spots in school parking lots and to purchase Chromebooks for students, many of which were backordered. After a social media post describing an elementary student who spent his days outside his school to learn went viral locally, community members raised funds to help families lacking internet access.

Hopes of returning to classrooms in the fall faded as local COVID-19 cases surged. The challenges of remote learning took their toll, with more than 60% of RISD students receiving at least one failing grade in the first quarter.

The year was not without bright spots, however. In the fall, the district opened the new Del Norte Elementary School and revealed the design for additions and renovations to Mesa Middle School. In November, RISD received a grant to create elementary and middle school computer science programs, and in December, a Roswell High School team’s robotic arm was a winner in the New Mexico Governor’s STEM challenge.

Work of law enforcement and the courts continues

Many aspects of life in 2020 ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, but crime and law enforcement’s response to it did not.

The RPD in collaboration with a host of other local, state and federal agencies took part in a three-day operation in November that yielded 100 arrests in Chaves, Eddy and Lea Counties of individuals wanted on state and felony warrants. Many of the arrests occurred in Roswell, including 17 individuals connected to an alleged methamphetamine trafficking ring.

The RPD revived its dormant K9 unit in 2020 with more than $40,000 in private donations, according to RPD Chief Phil Smith. The unit ends the year on the verge of having four dogs and four trained officers.

The Chaves County Sheriff’s Office began establishing a Crisis Response and Apprehension Team, the equivalent of a SWAT team.

Sheriff Mike Herrington said formation of the team has been an aim of his since taking office in 2019. A combination of money appropriated by the County Board of Commissioners in their annual budget and about $26,000 in private donations, enabled him to begin making that goal a reality.

Twelve deputies have gone through SWAT training so far, Herrington said, with another seven expected to do so in January.

New jury trials in criminal and civil cases were suspended in March. They resumed in June with measures taken to limit COVID-19 spread, such as holding most hearings by telephone or video conference. Following a resurgence of the virus in November, new trials were again suspended. They are set to resume in February of 2021.

The county gained a new District Court Judge in 2020. Jared Kallunki, an attorney with the New Mexico Office of the Public Defender, was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Kea W. Riggs. Kallunki, a Democrat, was unopposed in his bid for a full term in November.

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