TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES — Marianne Blaue and John Masterson discovered this offbeat town by accident in September 2015.
They intended to pass Truth or Consequences as they traveled from Albuquerque to Silver City on vacation, but they were tired. They pulled off and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express.
Masterson found the community’s artist directory in the hotel lobby the next morning. It piqued their interest in a town they knew nothing about except for its funny name.
They stayed in T or C most of the day. They explored downtown’s quirky businesses, which are interspersed with vacant, often dilapidated buildings. They discovered soothing hot springs and quality restaurants.
And they had enlightening conversations. “The people presence was really positive – nice, helpful people really engaging us,” Blaue said.
She and Masterson, who were living in Seattle at the time, eventually left for Silver City. But they felt called back and returned to T or C a few days later for an art hop. They found bands playing downtown and shops serving wine.
“We developed a crush on the town,” Masterson said.
He and Blaue weren’t actively looking for a new home but were keeping their eyes open. They decided to find a spot in downtown T or C to get a beer and talk things over.
No luck. The last downtown bar had closed years earlier.
Masterson and Blaue were baffled. Seattle has a flourishing brewery scene. Masterson had been doing home brewing for years. They had thought about opening their own brewery or brewing supply store in Seattle, but decided the market was saturated.
In T or C they found a place they loved, and an opportunity. What started as a joke – they should move to T or C and open a brewery – became a serious business venture. They bought an old building downtown and renovated it.
Truth or Consequences Brewing Company opened its doors in June, serving beer from other New Mexico brewers. Three months later, Masterson, 48, and Blaue, 35, hung a sign outside the business and started serving Masterson’s own brews. They expanded the brewery’s hours earlier this month.
Masterson and Blaue are among those in T or C who have taken on financial risk, hardship and lots of work to make T or C a place people will visit for days a time. The new brewery helps create a needed nightlife and serves as a gathering space for the community. Now the question for T or C is how to attract other entrepreneurs – and keep them.
Poverty and exodus
Truth or Consequences is a hot, dusty town nestled between a pair of manmade lakes to the east and Interstate 25 and the Gila National Forest to the west. The town was originally named Hot Springs after waters Apache leader Geronimo is said to have enjoyed in the 19th Century. In 1950, when the host of the popular game show Truth or Consequences said he would broadcast from any town that took on the name, residents voted 10-1 for the new name, seeking to distinguish their town from others named Hot Springs.
Interest in the town again spiked a decade ago when the state opted to build Spaceport America in the desert to the east. Virgin Galactic’s pledge to fly high-dollar customers into space from the facility was to create a tourism boom for the region, but accidents have delayed those plans and fueled skepticism. Meanwhile, T or C’s population has shrunk and its economy has stagnated.
Today the spaceport is operational and Virgin Galactic says it hopes to begin flights next year, but substantial tourism hasn’t yet materialized.
Big dreams aside, T or C’s downtown is a unique draw. Historic buildings line the one-way loop under an expansive sky. The Geronimo Springs Museum includes a display of about 30 different styles of barbed wire. At the downtown grocery store Bullocks, people can still rent VHS cassettes — and pick up a good bottle of whiskey, or a kombucha if they prefer.
People can soak in hot springs for a few dollars or opt for an upscale experience at businesses like billionaire Ted Turner’s Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa – though T or C is home today to about a quarter of the hot spring spas that existed before World War II. There are unique restaurants, a used bookstore and other shops that sell clothing, antiques and art.
There’s been a noticeable increase in downtown traffic in recent months, which some attribute to the brewery. But many businesses have come and gone in recent years, and some believe the town’s best days are in the past.
The interstate exit that leads to downtown T or C and the hot springs doesn’t point people there. It’s instead labeled as the exit for the adjacent village of Williamsburg. Even T or C’s name is a relic of the past, some say, pointing out that many of today’s youth have never heard of the game show for which the town is named.
T or C is located in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation. The town’s poverty rate of 25 percent is five percentage points higher than the state’s. Its median income in 2015 – $26,877, according to the U.S. Census – was about $18,000 below the state average.
Between 2007 and 2014, unemployment in T or C spiked from 3.5 percent to 11.3 percent. This year it has hovered between 7.7 and 10.1 percent – worse than the state and much worse than the nation as a whole.
Sierra County, where T or C is located, has more elderly residents and fewer children than the state averages. And from 2000 to 2016 more than twice as many people died as were born in the county, according to Headwaters Economics.
T or C has lost 7 percent of its population in recent years — falling from 6,474 residents in 2010 to 6,023 in 2016, according to the Census.
Through that period of stagnation, some entrepreneurs have found success in T or C. Rob and Ralph Stuart, for example, have built Blackstone Hot Springs into a successful business. They bought the historic property a block south of downtown in 2004, originally intending it to be only a personal getaway. They live most of the time in Pecos, in northern New Mexico, where the average annual low temperature is about 34 degrees – 12 degrees colder than in T or C.
Their architect suggested they embrace a larger vision for a destination that would help people deal with societal uncertainty. “We tried to create an experience where people would come and regain their sense of wellbeing with a chaotic world around them,” Rob Stuart said. “To open a hole in the ground and pull out water that’s 110 degrees is a miracle.”
They opened Blackstone when one room was ready in 2006. As the nation headed into the Great Recession they couldn’t get another loan to complete construction, so they cashed in points on their credit card to buy doors and windows at Home Depot. They opened additional rooms in 2008. The business embraces the town’s TV name by creating themes in its rooms for shows like The Golden Girls and The Jetsons.
Today Blackstone’s occupancy is twice the average for hotels in Santa Fe, Stuart said. And he sees potential for more tourism in T or C, which he calls a “wide open” market, but also a problem: “We have more visitors coming already than we have entrepreneurs to serve them.”
Some new entrepreneurs are trying to change that. Masterson and Blaue are working to create a public space with their brewery. Lynda Thompson recently opened a new shop that adds to the arts community downtown. Gaelan and Jasna Brown and their son recently started a food truck, which they park near the brewery.
Thompson, a Montana native who lived in Santa Fe for 20 years, decided last November to move with her secondhand and art store, Angel Remnants, from Santa Fe to downtown T or C because she was “tired of being cold.”
“I came here for the warmth, the healing waters, and the rockhounding,” Thompson said.
She scavenges minerals in southern New Mexico, which she uses to create decorative angels. She supplements her income with a part-time job as a bartender at the brewery, which is just across the street.
The Brown family has traveled for years, “waiting for the right time and place” to launch their food truck, Gaelan Brown said. Collaborating with Masterson and Blaue convinced them “the time is now and the place is here,” he said. Me Gusta World Street Food now delivers orders to customers at the brewery and sells food out of the truck.
Such collaborations can help build a critical mass that attracts customers. Later this month, T or C Brewing Company and Me Gusta are holding a joint grand opening and Oktoberfest celebration with a shared beer garden in the alley behind the brewery.
“We’re excited to be part of elevating downtown T or C as a destination for quality food and night life,” Brown said.
Like the Stuarts, it was a stretch for Masterson and Blaue to come up with the cash to open their business. The couple invested big in their T or C dream, spending their savings on the brewery. It wasn’t enough to gut and renovate the historic building downtown, which has housed a car dealership and art gallery, among other things, in its more-than 90 years.
The couple secured a $125,000 grant through a state economic development program that helped with renovations. In exchange, they have to create at least eight manufacturing jobs within five years – which puts T or C Brewing Company on a path to becoming a beer distributor in addition to a drinking establishment. The business also received grants from USDA’s Rural Development Office to install solar panels and energy efficient equipment.
They brewed their first beer, Cosmic Blonde No. 1, on the day of the solar eclipse in August. They had a costume party to celebrate its debut in mid-September, and the brewery filled up with more people than ever.
Given the right conditions, breweries can help revitalize small towns. In New Mexico, the number of full liquor licenses is limited by state law, which makes them highly coveted and expensive. Over time, metro-area drinking establishments or chain stores like Walmart have bought up many of them. That and the shift of retail stores away from downtowns creates an opportunity for local breweries, according to John Gozigian, executive director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild.
“Craft breweries have gravitated to the very areas that have been left behind for a variety of reasons: ample space, unique and historic architecture, affordable rent, and the intangible coolness of not being in a cookie-cutter retail development,” Gozigian said.
For example, in Paonia, Colorado, a town of about 1,500 people on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, the local brewery has had a substantial impact. Gretchen King and her husband moved there from Alaska to open Revolution Brewing in 2007, while the nation was heading into the Great Recession.
Revolution was popular immediately, King said. People came from out of town to visit it. Farmer’s markets and vineyards ramped up activity too, “which created a small hum.” While the Colorado beer scene exploded, Revolution built its reputation and began distributing beer in cans.
Neal Schwieterman, who was Paonia’s mayor at the time, credits Revolution with helping save the town’s economy during the recession. While other area governments sank into the red, Paonia’s sales tax revenues remained roughly flat and helped the town government avoid substantial budget cuts.
King and her husband sold the brewery after he decided to quit drinking, and it remains open today. Schwieterman said Paonia is changing. Mines have closed, and some of those residents have left. New residents are seeking rural homes and quality of life. There are more kids.
“There’s a whole different vibe,” Schwieterman said. “…Change is inevitable, and you can’t stop it. What you can do is try to keep and grow some jobs.”
T or C has changed too, as its population slowly drops. Government assistance, like that provided to the town’s brewery, can help communities adapt to such economic downturns. USDA Rural Development has funded a number of projects in T or C while the town’s spaceport dreams have stagnated. In recent years, the agency has helped fund improvements to the wastewater treatment plant, business development downtown, a street sweeper, ambulances, a new hotel and home repairs, said Terry Brunner, who ran the agency’s office in New Mexico during Barack Obama’s presidency.
“What’s impressive about that list is the wide variety of projects that have an impact on all sorts of sectors of the community,” Brunner said. “Those projects aren’t fluff. They are the types of efforts you need in a town if you plan to grow.”
Regardless of whether Spaceport America succeeds, Brunner said he is optimistic about T or C’s efforts to build “a new economy” as a unique tourist destination. T or C’s downtown is “perfectly set up” as a walkable area with a variety of hotels, spas, restaurants and shops, he said. “If you look at successful tourist destinations around the country, they all have that in common,” he said.
Masterson and Blaue are working to thoughtfully integrate into T or C and develop symbiotic relationships with other businesses. They asked people for input before using the town’s name for the brewery. They coordinate with the taproom at the bowling alley a mile north of downtown so the two are offering different beers. The downtown brewery places menus from area restaurants on tables, and several deliver food to the brewery’s customers.
They include A Little Slice of Heaven, a downtown sandwich shop that has adjusted its hours since the brewery opened — and, according to owner Bryan Becker, seen a spike in business as a result. The brewery is “creating lifeblood” in T or C, Becker said.
‘You gotta have grit’
That vibrancy will be key to making T or C more than a cheap place to retire. Jared Bartoo, 35, used to be among the town’s naysayers. He “high-tailed it” out of T or C in 2000, moving to Dallas a couple of months after graduating from high school in search of a place where he could pull up to any stoplight, look in both directions and see people younger than he was.
Today, though, he’s back in T or C — and fed up with those who say the town’s best days are in the past.
Bartoo returned in 2005 because he wanted to raise his children in a place “where you say hi to everyone in the coffee shop because you know everyone.” He began working for his father’s sand and gravel company and took over as general manager the year the spaceport was built. The company poured concrete for the hangar Virgin Galactic is leasing from the state and had a record year.
Bartoo said he’s blessed to have a good job with a successful company. But he notes that he’s among only a handful of people from his high school class who still live in T or C. He’s worried that his children won’t have the choice to stay if the town doesn’t grow.
“There’s an underlying problem. It’s that there’s nothing here for anybody, and it sucks,” Bartoo said. “I want to change that.”
So does Blackstone’s Rob Stuart. He said he knows people who bought property in T or C 10 to 15 years ago because of a sense that something big was coming, but they haven’t done anything with it. Now, he said, those properties are just “older and more decrepit.”
“It’s like everybody’s waiting for something big to come to stick their neck out, and I think that’s a shame,” Stuart said. Instead, he said, people should help create that big thing.
Like Stuart, Bartoo believes the answer lies in bringing more outside money to the town, but he’s not sure how to make that happen. “That’s why I give the vague answer of ‘You gotta have grit, you gotta keep pushing, get up everyday and do something,’ ” he said.
T or C exudes grit. The town recycles and conserves. You can see it in buildings, fences and art displays. A business a block south of downtown hung old New Mexico and Texas license plates on the fence around the yard in the shapes of automobiles. A wall outside the home of Jessica Murphy, an employee at the brewery, is made from concrete and empty wine bottles from BellaLuca, a popular restaurant downtown.
Many people in T or C don’t have much – and make do with what they have. “More than resilience, it’s determination,” said Linda DeMarino, executive director of MainStreet Truth or Consequences. She, Bartoo and others participated in a recent forum hosted by NMPolitics.net and KRWG Public Media at the new brewery to discuss T or C’s future. So did City Manager Juan Fuentes, who said people are “not giving up” in spite of the town’s ups and downs.
Perhaps that grit and the town’s generosity are their own form of entrepreneurship, an investment of things other than money. Murphy, for example, ran a farm southwest of T or C for years with the man she was married to at the time. They sold shares in the crop and once traded vegetables for massages with someone who couldn’t afford to buy a share.
While many of the town’s residents are short on cash, “we have time, we have able-bodied people, we have ideas, we have creativity,” Murphy said.
Ben Kalminson sees T or C’s spirit of community as a strength. He has lived in the town for 11 years, working for the federal government at Elephant Butte and Caballo dams. He and his wife Julia, an educational assistant at Truth or Consequences Elementary School, are raising two kids – Ethan, 12, and Isabella, 10.
“We have a lot of support here. You need help, you can always go to somebody. Whether they’re a rancher, a welder, a mechanic, construction, they’re always willing to help,” he said.
Kalminson, 38, is on the board of the local youth soccer league and coaches a team. He’s designing a sprinkler system for a new field the league is building. He and others fundraise, and the league lets kids join for $25 – a fraction of the cost to join a similar league in nearby Las Cruces. Kalminson said his family and others who can afford it pay the fee for some families that can’t. And he saves equipment his kids have outgrown to give to others.
The town’s giving culture is so strong that Kalminson says T or C could survive a larger societal apocalypse. But that’s not enough to keep him here. He shares Bartoo’s views of the town’s shortcomings when it comes to young people and resistance to change.
Kalminson pushed for the creation of middle- and high-school soccer teams so kids in the youth league could continue competing, but some said that would take players away from other school sports. His daughter wants to learn to play the violin, but there’s nowhere in town to buy one. Even if they could find a teacher, who would Isabella play with?
Kalminson doesn’t see his children staying in T or C after high school.
“They’re going to go and they’ll probably never come back, because there’s no industry to keep them here,” he said, adding that he and his wife will probably also leave T or C at that point.
Murphy, 32, said she likes raising her three children in T or C – twins Cormac and Clara, who are 5, and Bridger, 3.
“All the demographics say it’s a terrible place to raise kids, but I think a lot of those indices don’t weigh things in the same way that I do,” Murphy said. “I value open spaces and a clean environment and access to land to run around.”
But she’s also not certain about her future in T or C.
“I love a lot of things about this community,” Murphy said. “I am committed to improving it while I’m here, but I’m open to possibilities for my future.” She anticipates living elsewhere, at least part-time, when her kids are older.
Bartoo isn’t planning on going anywhere. “I want to stay and work, and I want my kids to have that choice too,” he said. “We’re very blessed. We’ve been able to make a living in this small town. I just want better for everyone else.”
‘A little bit of hope’
On a Friday in early September, people filled the brewery to hear a popular duo play live music. Many spilled out onto the patio to enjoy the cool night air and conversation. Employees from nearby restaurants regularly passed through, delivering food.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, there’s a place where the community comes together in the same physical space and just exists,” said Murphy, who has lived in Sierra County since 2009.
The brewery didn’t spark what’s happening, Blaue said, but it is contributing to something positive in the “wonderful place” she and Masterson fell into by accident. “There’s already so much momentum here,” she said.
Brown said the hot springs and weather drew his family to T or C. What kept them here were “the wide variety of unique individuals who seem free to be themselves without pretense, and the abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities.”
“We see T or C as one of the many hidden gems in New Mexico,” Brown said.
This article is part of the State of Change project, a multi-newsroom examination of the challenge of building resilient rural communities — and what some in New Mexico are doing right.