Even a short walk through downtown Silver City will reveal, between the town’s vibrant colors and businesses, an abundance of empty storefronts in varying stages of repair. A bill sponsored by District 38 Rep. Rebecca Dow seeks to fill some of those vacant storefronts with small businesses.
House Bill 205, christened the “Vacant Rural Building Act,” would loosen red tape requiring small businesses to follow the letter of the code when moving into a vacant building. The presumption is that the incredible cost of bringing every aspect of a vacant building up to current code is the primary obstacle keeping entrepreneurs from taking on these projects. HB 205 would put more control into the hands of local or state building inspectors — allowing them to work with prospective business owners to correct safety concerns, but allow building features that are not necessarily up to code but pose no safety risk. As for which codes can receive a variance, that will be determined by the New Mexico Construction Industries Division of the Regulation and Licensing Department, with whom Dow said she has collaborated on the bill.
Given the many vacant buildings scattered all over Grant County, HB 205 could make a big difference to communities, both incorporated municipalities and other, throughout the region.
In Silver City, the 200 block of Bullard Street has seen significant remodeling in recent years with the Pink Store North, the local Curves studio and the Little Toad Creek gift shop Hops filling two of the brightly painted buildings. But these thriving businesses have leapfrogged the bright blue 204 N. Bullard St. space, which remains vacant. On just the other side of the Pink Store, the 208 building sits empty.
Just a block north, the large 300 and 302 N. Bullard Street, through the window of which the iconic neon sign of the newly reopened Silco Theatre is visible, has remained vacant for years.
And those are just two blocks of one street in Silver City’s historic downtown. There are a total of 15 vacant storefronts just on Bullard Street, between Broadway and College Avenue. Side streets like Yankie and Market have more, and the number grows the farther from Silver City’s downtown you travel.
In Grant County’s Mining District — in the village of Santa Clara, for instance — the majority of storefronts have cobwebs in the corners at best.
“We tried to clear the least restrictive path to occupying a vacant building,” Dow said of her bill. “The local building inspector or equivalent state agency will look at the building, say ‘what is public safety, what is not?’ Then we will go from there. So often, business owners will put so much into a property, that they could have built a brand new building from scratch.”
Teresa Dahl-Bredine — co-owner of Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery with her husband, Dave Crosley — said that has been her experience with the many projects she has taken on in downtown Silver City.
“It is just a very expensive and very time-consuming process,” she said. “We all know it is healthier for our communities to remodel existing buildings rather than spread out and leave the downtown a shell. But, in doing so, you almost always sink more into the building than you would have building from the ground up.”
Little Toad has expanded into the old Silver Skate building on the south side of Bullard Street, near San Vicente Creek trailhead, where it will soon conduct the actual brewing, distillation and canning of their beer and spirits. They also moved their gift shop, Hops, into the building next door to Little Toad itself. Outside of Little Toad, Dahl-Bredine has been behind the wheel of the renovation of historic El Sol Theater with the Virus Theater troupe.
“The local government has been great to work with,” Dahl-Bredine said. “So, it is not an issue of people getting in the way, it is just an issue of dollars, cents and time.”
Property owners approve of the idea of less red tape as well. Chris Raphael, owner of the former Workshops of Carneros building on Bullard Street — which for years has been vacant but for occasional events like the Southwest Festival of the Written Word — said that was the best way for buildings like his to sell.
“If you have people who are serious and trying to do something, start a business, having to come up with all of the capital required to bring a building to code is a burden,” Raphael said. “I would think that for small towns like Silver City, easier codes could go a long way. Boy, that would be nice to get people in those buildings, starting a business and hiring people. Plus, with this, it still sounds like safety will be the focus.”
In the Mining District, local governments are also watching the bill with interest. In Bayard and Santa Clara, many storefronts stand vacant.
“We would like that, of course, because so many buildings in Santa Clara are empty,” said Sheila Hudman, village clerk-treasurer. “It’s different here, because we have to build with state inspectors because we don’t have a local inspector. That makes it harder. It’s not that we mind dealing with the code. But it can take years to bring a building up to code, between the cost and the inspectors.”
Silver City, of all municipalities in Grant County, has its own building inspector. Assistant Town Manager James Marshall — in Santa Fe, tracking bills that interest the town — said he would have to wait until further discussions with the Construction Industries Division shape which parts of the building code can qualify for variance.
“I think the intent of the bill is very honorable and has the potential for benefit,” Marshall said. “We do know code-compliance can be burdensome and, of course, want to see those buildings filled. But having not determined which codes could be available for a variance, it is a bill that provides an opportunity that is unknown.”
District 39 Rep. Rudy Martinez and District 28 Sen. Howie Morales said they are not yet familiar with Dow’s bill, having been focused on their own bills and committees, but will watch it as it moves through committees and houses.
Dow said the bill is scheduled to first be considered by the House Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee on Monday.
Benjamin Fisher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.