How a rural New Mexico town recovered after mining’s death

Raton is an unlikely site for an economic boom. The town enjoyed growth without a real bust for a century, driven by coal and, for a time, horseracing. The town was once surrounded by eight coalmines, which employed more than 2,000 men and boys at the turn of the century. The number of coal jobs declined as coal-fired steam engines switched to gas, and then disappeared in the late 1990s as the Eastern steel mills that once relied on the region’s high-quality coal moved overseas to China.

For many towns, the disappearance of mining has proved a death blow. But Raton’s officials and town leaders have an economic strategy that doesn’t rely on coal, oil or gas — or cannabis, the crop that’s boosted economies just across the border in Colorado. Today Raton is betting on a whole new type of economy, a mix of small manufacturing businesses, health care and specialty services, and hospitality for travelers. Raton may lack a college and expansive recreational facilities, but it has plenty of advantages: lots of water, high speed Internet, a major transportation corridor and cheap commercial real estate – all pluses for a town trying to attract new ventures.

Raton’s leaders also know what they don’t want: One or two big companies that would make the town dependent yet again on one primary source of revenue. “If we had 20 small manufacturers that each employed 20 to 30 people, that would equal the jobs lost when the mines closed,” said Ron Chavez, a Raton city commissioner.

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