ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – They’ve been around for decades. But a longtime family business along Central Avenue is worried the homeless, drug, and mental health problems right outside their doorstep are creating a fragile future.
They’re giving it one last fight to try and get some help. KRQE Investigates took their concerns to city leaders.
Those passing through Central near Louisiana may not know what that stretch of Route 66 used to look like; a desert thoroughfare for travelers and the hometown main street for locals. Longtime businesses like Southwestern Minerals have seen a lot over the years.
“We’ve been here since 1969,” said Michael Spaeth, co-owner of Southwestern Minerals with his wife. “My father-in-law started up the street in 1963,” he said.
In its heyday, Southwestern Minerals was a booming business. They sold rocks, gems, and turquoise to local jewelers and the public. “Very much a family operation,” said Spaeth.
But on top of that, the second-generation owners said it was a safe place. “She would go out the door with her wagon selling girl scout cookies up Central,” said Spaeth of his wife as a young girl growing up around the store. “You know, we’d walk to the local restaurants with no problem at all. It was just a great area.”
Today, you can see the difference from his shop’s front door. “I can’t let her run loose out here,” Spaeth pointed to their little dog.
Behind his store, is a city-owned alleyway littered with drugs, dealers, human waste, and trash. “This is another commonly used restroom in that corner,” Spaeth pointed to a stretch of dirt behind his business.
“I pick up out there the burnt tin foils that they’re doing the drugs with. I mean, I probably can clean up 100 a day,” Spaeth explained. “The needles – I mean I can probably pick up 25, 30 a week. It blows in from the alley. The whole yard is just covered with drug residue.”
A dwindling customer-base
These days, customers are fewer. The ones who brave the parking lot are safe to browse behind a dead-bolted front door.
Spaeth spends his days on high alert, frequently trying to move along drug-users. “Appreciate if you didn’t do that right in front of my doorway,” Spaeth told two men who were apparently smoking methamphetamine outside his front door. “That’s really disrespectful.”
To keep people safe outside, he’s called the city and Albuquerque police more times than he can count. “Basically all they can do is scatter the herd,” Spaeth told KRQE News 13.
City resources are responding
Records show city resources including Albuquerque Police Department, Albuquerque Fire Rescue, and Albuquerque Community Safety have responded to calls to the store itself more than 40 times in the last year, and responded to the area outside his store more than 70 times.
“Our efforts are focused out here daily with our Problem Response Team,” explained APD Lieutenant Justin Hunt. Lt. Hunt is the southeast area commander for Albuquerque Police.
He has a dedicated team of four officers focusing on this five-block area. When asked what would help him, Lt. Hunt replied, “What would help me is to have more police officers in the City of Albuquerque.”
“A lot of individuals that our PRT officers are dealing with out here are suffering from some sort of substance abuse or mental health issues. And we are reaching out to the resources within the community and city to assist with that,” Lt. Hunt added.
However, Spaeth says, it isn’t working. Call logs show the city’s unarmed civilian response team, ACS, has tried offering resources to people around his store.
(Below is an audio call of Michael Spaeth reporting to police about homeless outside of the store.)
“It’s like Uber Eats”
“They drove the alley, talked to five individuals, gave out food, water, and resource cards,” Spaeth read from the call report he was sent from ACS responders. “Some clothing was given to some of them. None of them wanted to talk about resources.”
“I do not feel that I’ve been heard,” Spaeth told KRQE. “It’s like Uber Eats. People that are doing the drugs do not have any reason to want to leave the area – you know, if they’re being fed and given drinks.”
Crossing daily through the alleyway is unavoidable, since Spaeth’s store warehouse is on the other side of it. “We also have two other buildings,” he pointed to. He said he doesn’t like that his wife has to use that route alone some days.
Spaeth also explained it would be too costly to move locations and afford another storefront with a warehouse and living quarters, like what he has along Central. He and other business owners have considered fencing off the alleyway to keep the problem at bay. However, since the alley is owned by the city, they’re not allowed to.
Can’t block the alleyway
“It’s kind of a confluence of all these problems,” explained Pat Davis, Albuquerque City Councilor President. “It’s public property because it’s an alley. We can’t close it for public safety reasons, but it’s public safety reasons that are causing the problem. And nobody seems to be taking ownership of it, and it’s incredibly frustrating.”
Davis is City Councilor for District 6, which includes Nob Hill and the International District, where Southwestern Minerals is trying to hold on. “The last thing we need is another closed business on Central, and it is partly a strategy that the city needs to be a better partner,” Davis explained.
He suggests having dedicated city staffers coordinate responses and follow up with business owners about specific problem spots like this one. “Right now, it just sort of depends on who answers the call as to who you might get,” said Davis.
But like a lot of places, staffing up isn’t easy. “The city still has a 20% vacancy rate and a lot of those are in services that are out in public,” Davis added.
Not everyone can afford private security
It’s partly why some business owners feel the need to take matters into their own hands. “Businesses are having to hire private security to try to maintain their property values,” said Larry Sonntag, with the New Mexico Business Coalition.
Sonntag said his nonprofit advocates to policy-makers and tries to help businesses dealing with crime. But it’s not always a simple fix.
“It is hurting their business because people don’t feel safe,” Sonntag told KRQE. He acknowledged other businesses are dealing with a declining customer base due to crime and drug-use outside their properties.
Meanwhile, Spaeth was hoping his son would take over the business. “I don’t think he’s really interested anymore because of what this area has become,” Spaeth said.
A ‘fragile future’ for his generational business
He’s worried the longtime store he and his wife have poured everything into may have to close its doors forever. “I see this becoming like a lot of the problems they have in California where people just have to pack up and leave,” said Spaeth.
Spaeth reached out to the mayor’s office asking for a plan, but said he never heard back.
KRQE News 13 asked numerous times for a sit-down interview with Mayor Keller about this issue. A spokesperson told us his schedule was full, and pointed KRQE to a news conference where Mayor Keller was asked about the International District.
“We are not gonna give up on that community,” Mayor Keller said, referring to the International District during a press conference on July 6th. “We are literally reversing decades of under-investment in that community. But it’s gonna take time, but we’re well on the way.”
It’s a fragile future for Spaeth and his wife, but they haven’t given up yet. “I’m trying to put up the good fight,” he said.
APD said the department is also targeting patrols in that area on the other side of the fairgrounds near Lomas and Louisiana.