Katy Barnitz / Journal Staff Writer
PUBLISHED: Feb 27, 2016
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maria Rinaldi, a Bernalillo native and the town’s director of community and economic development, remembers driving “to town” as a child. Her family, just like many others, regularly headed to Albuquerque to do most of its shopping, meaning the City of Coronado missed out on those sales and tax dollars.
“To go to town was an occasion,” Rinaldi said, “and I think that was the biggest suck of (gross receipts taxes).”
Decades later, Bernalillo boasts a prime location along U.S. 550, connecting sprawling Rio Rancho to Interstate 25, and as retailers and fast-food joints have begun to fill up Bernalillo, the small town finds itself not only holding onto resident dollars, but gathering tax revenue from out of towners, too.
Traffic studies provided by the town of Bernalillo found that regional travel accounts for one-third of the 36,000 to 40,000 vehicles that traverse U.S. 550 each day, commuters make up another third, and local traffic the remaining third.
Town Mayor Jack Torres said that new businesses scramble to fill vacated buildings with storefronts on Highway 550 as soon as the former tenants leave.
“If there’s an empty spot, somebody’s gonna take it, because that’s a lot of people,” Torres said.
Those commuters and longer-distance travelers have helped to revitalize the small town’s economy, driving a steady increase in job numbers, business licenses and gross receipts taxes over the last several years.
“The growth was really fueled by the traffic,” said Jami Grindatto, president and CEO of Sandoval Economic Alliance.
The town won a Walmart nearly 10 years ago. The superstore, located on N.M. 528, is positioned perfectly between Bernalillo, Rio Rancho and Santa Ana Pueblo in a chunk of town that Rinaldi calls “Riolillo.” She said the company considered three locations, all right next to each other: One across the street in Rio Rancho city limits, one just down the road in Santa Ana, and the one it eventually settled on in Bernalillo.
Residents and city officials worried about the effect the superstore would have on Bernalillo’s mom-and-pop shops, Rinaldi said, but ultimately, the town couldn’t turn down the benefits the additional tax revenue would bring.
“The impact would be felt no matter what, but if it was on our side of the road, we would get the GRT,” she said.
Over the last decade, according to JobsEQ, the area emcompassing the zip code Bernalillo shares with Santa Ana Pueblo saw the addition of 784 jobs, a significant increase for an area with just 4,645 jobs. Of those, 261 were added in retail.
“The explosion really came along 528, but 550 is certainly healthy,” Grindatto said. “If you think about the growth, it’s really been Walmart.”
Grindatto said the superstore attracted other retailers that set up shop on both the Bernalillo and Rio Rancho sides of the highway.
While 528 and 550 continue to gather the 21st century staples that dot most American cities, Bernalillo’s downtown remains largely unchanged.
Camino del Pueblo boasts a locally owned grocery store, a mechanic, a feed store, a veterinarian and a few local restaurants – a stuck-in-time assortment that visitors from the big city find attractive and charming, but that locals really rely on.
“It’s not just romanticism, it fills a need in the community,” Rinaldi said.
A few small businesses and restaurants have sprung up on the town’s main street in recent years, but the only large addition was a chain discount store.
Frances Garcia and her husband, Johnny, run the Bernalillo Feed & Conoco, which her grandfather founded 49 years ago. She said she’s watched as Bernalillo’s activity has moved from its main street to Highway 550.
“This was where the action took place,” she said of main street. “Now it’s all about 550.”
The Garcias say they’re grateful for a loyal customer base drawn from out of town by their prices and quality products. Part of the reason the store has withstood the test of time is that the Garcias have been flexible; they’ve evolved to accommodate the needs of their changing community in order to stay competitive.
“It’s not just romanticism, it fills a need in the community,” Maria Rinaldi, director of community and economic development for Bernalillo, says about the variety of small businesses along Camino del Pueblo. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
Garcia’s grandfather owned a chunk of land along 550, which now houses Tractor Supply Company, the feed store’s biggest competitor. She said it’s hard not to think about how different business would be if her store was located along the highway.
“We would have more traffic,” Johnny Garcia said. “But we’re really established.”
“All the time we say it would be better,” Frances Garcia said. “But we like being here.”
Matt DiGregory, co-owner of the Range Cafe, first came to Bernalillo as a preteen to visit his brother, an “old hippie” who moved out west from Indiana in the 1970s. DiGregory followed, opening the Range two decades after his first visit to that dusty town where he used to hang out at the drug store.
“I always really loved Bernalillo,” he said. “I just think it’s such a cool little town.”
And Bernalillo really learned to love DiGregory’s cool little eatery. On its opening night, the Range ran out of food and had to close early.
Now, it’s become inseparable from Bernalillo. Mention the town’s name to almost anyone in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, and they’ll start gushing about the place and its menu, packed with New Mexican and American comfort food.
“The Range brought people to Bernalillo that never would have stepped foot in Bernalillo,” he said.
DiGregory said people were thrilled to find a neat and delicious restaurant nestled in this Albuquerque suburb and that it began to attract people from outside of Bernalillo, a trend that he hopes the newly opened Freight House, will maintain.
That restaurant opened in November, also on Camino del Pueblo, offering local craft beer and pub food with creative twists, like a portobello reuben and a mac ‘n cheese relleno.
Torres said DiGregory’s decision to expand in town is a testament to the local government’s efforts to attract businesses that are right for Bernalillo and to do what it takes to help business owners set up shop.
“We work hard to advocate however we can for them,” Torres said.
Torres said community members and civic leaders pushed out an oil transloading facility that they felt was the wrong fit for the town. And while he said they look for companies that will keep Bernalillo’s small town atmosphere alive, Torres also said the town is not opposed to industry. He described two industrial areas, one on Camino del Pueblo and a second on Hill Road, which runs parallel to I-25.
Over the last year or so, manufacturing company MCT and metal fabrication company AmFabSteel Inc. both expanded, while a handful of other industrial and light industrial companies moved into town.
Torres said he thinks it’s Bernalillo’s location combined with its affordability that have drawn companies.
“Square footage of land in Bernalillo is a lot more reasonable than in Albuquerque,” he said.
Torres said the town is grateful that it not only withstood the Great Recession, but even saw moderate growth.
“Our economic development has been contrary to regional and state trends,” he said.