SOCORRO COUNTY (KRQE) – Established 400 years ago by Spanish Conquistador Juan de Oñate, the Royal Road of the Interior extended 1600 miles from Mexico City to Santa Fe. For three centuries, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro played a critical role in the history of the southwest.
Today, remnants of the historic trail are still visible on the rugged prairie. In fact, the Central New Mexico landscape looks much like it did in Oñate’s day. So a spot 25 miles south of Socorro seemed like a perfect place for a state museum dedicated to the history of “The Royal Road.” The El Camino Real Heritage Center is a multi-million dollar government project that may go down as one of New Mexico’s most expensive blunders.
No one remembers exactly where the idea came from but the first reference to an El Camino Real Museum was buried in an obscure 1999 State Senate Floor Amendment: $1,000,000 to plan, design, construct and equip the El Camino Real facility in Socorro County. The Bureau of Land Management chipped in another $4,000,000 and by 2005 the state’s newest museum became a reality. An estimated crowd of 2000 turned out for the dedication ceremony.
Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker attended the dedication. “We had (Governor) Bill Richardson out there cutting the ribbon and then we had the vice president of Spain come down here with his beautiful wife and we had dignitaries everywhere. It was exciting,” Mayor Bhasker said.
But the excitement was short-lived. Where the El Camino Real was in use for three centuries, the trail’s namesake museum lasted just eleven years. In November 2016, the Cultural Affairs Department padlocked the doors and permanently closed the museum. Today the parking lot is deserted, tourists are gone, artifacts packed away, display cases vacant, exhibits dismantled, interpretive panels removed and the gift shop bare. All there is to show for millions of tax dollars is an award-winning building sitting abandoned on New Mexico’s central prairie.
“Eleven years is disgraceful. There was a real failure in this particular project,” says former long-time State Senator John Arthur Smith. How will historians view this project? “They’re going to shake their head and (call this) another example of government waste,” says the former State Senate Finance Chair, John Arthur Smith.
So what went wrong? Location, location, location. Albuquerque consulting firm Architectural Research Consultants, Inc., hired by the state, said the best place for the museum would be a spot 25 miles south of Socorro, four and a half miles off I-25. Even though there are no gas stations, hotels or restaurants nearby, the consultants estimated it would draw on average, 106,000 visitors a year, boost the economy by some $10,066,200 and create 174 jobs.
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Over the course of a decade, the museum never drew more than 7800 tourists a year. The remote location meant few visitors, meager income, deficient utilities, inadequate staffing, and expensive maintenance. “I think the obituary was written many, many years ago on that one,” former State Senator John Arthur Smith said.
“It was fairly bizarre that they would place it where it was because there was no way you could really justify that location in my mind,” Former Speaker of the House State Rep. Don Tripp said. “It’s a beautiful building. It’s very interesting, the exhibits and things. The main thing is, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” the former Socorro County State Representative said.
“They built (the museum) in the wrong place,” Socorro Mayor Bhasker says. Would the Mayor pour four or five million dollars into a tourist spot more than 20 miles south of Socorro? “I would not unless maybe it was Disneyland,” Mayor Bhasker said. The Mayor says the consultant’s estimate of 100,000 visitors a year, “would have been impossible.”
(Before and after photos of El Camino Heritage Center. Some of the above photos are courtesy of Friends of the Camino Real.)
“There were decisions that were made along the way that ultimately proved to not be the right ones,” says Cultural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego.
“I think when the (Cultural Affairs) Department really took a hard look at what it was costing to operate that site versus what the visitation was. The return on investment simply wasn’t there, and the former Cabinet Secretary made the determination to close the site permanently,” Secretary Garcia y Griego said. “We would hope and we would do everything in our power to make a better decision today to ensure that we are spending taxpayer dollars appropriately,” the Cultural Affairs Secretary said.
“This is a roadmap on how not to spend taxpayer dollars,” says Fred Nathan, Executive Director of the non-partisan public policy group, Think New Mexico. “I think the critical mistake was there was no feasibility study. Instead, they just were wishing that it would work out and so they said to themselves, if we build this, they will come. That works well in Hollywood, but in the real world, not so much,” Fred Nathan says.
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El Camino Heritage Center. Image on the left courtesy of DesertUSA.com
Through Capital Outlay Appropriations (pork) state lawmakers, quietly and without debate or oversight, funneled more than $1,000,000 into the ill-fated museum project. “In most states, public infrastructure projects are based on a comprehensive plan that are based on priorities and criteria. Unfortunately, in New Mexico for the past 44 years that’s not the way it’s been done. Political traditions die hard in New Mexico,” Think New Mexico’s Fred Nathan said.
“There are so many other needs out there that are immediate. The money could have been utilized in a more responsible fashion,” former State Senator John Arthur Smith said. “I believe the Legislature screwed up. I believe the executive messed up. And I also believe the (Department of Cultural Affairs) messed up,” Smith said.
So what does the Cultural Affairs Department do with a defunct multi-million dollar museum building sitting in the middle of nowhere? “Obviously the best would be to find another state agency that could put it to good use. If that’s not possible, we’ll actually go out to the public and see if there’s anybody interested in the public in that particular site,” Cultural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego said.
“I think this is really a call to action to our Legislature to revise how they allocate money for public infrastructure projects so that there’s more planning … on the front end and less political considerations,” says Think New Mexico’s Fred Nathan.
“It’s important that that (museum be) a learning tool. Unfortunately, my experience in state government is there’s very, very short memories,” former State Senator John Arthur Smith said.
Former State Rep. Don Tripp calls the El Camino Real Museum “a real expensive lesson.”
Below: Lesson Plan on El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro