Wildfires rage, cannabis helps fight urban blight and shining a light on Blue Moon

Wildfires rage, cannabis helps fight urban blight and shining a light on Blue Moon
In the glow of fire and the light of day, damage done to a structure in Ruidoso during the McBride Fire can be seen.

In the glow of fire and the light of day, damage done to a structure in Ruidoso during the McBride Fire can be seen.

Last week was a wild one. The Las Cruces Sun-News and a number of our sister papers headed to Ruidoso to cover a couple of wildfires that ravaged the community — claiming the lives of two residents and destroying more than 200 homes.

The McBride Fire — and, to a lesser degree, the Nogal Fire — prompted mandatory evacuations, forcing residents to gather their most-prized possessions and leave their homes for days. Some would not have homes to return to.

The McBride Fire broke out Tuesday afternoon near Ruidoso Middle School in Gavilan Canyon. For nearly 48 hours, the wildfire raged through the canyon, destroying homes and property, before winds shifted Thursday and began pushing the blaze away from residential areas.

As of Friday afternoon, the McBride Fire remained 0% contained; by Sunday, that had improved to 56%. On Sunday, all evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes.

We sent Justin Garcia, who covers breaking news and public safety for the Sun-News, traveled to Ruidoso to cover the fires. Justin said:

Covering the fire in Ruidoso was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in my career. On one hand, it required a lot of luck and patience, since I never knew where the story was going. I just had to hope I was in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, I had a chance to see the best that humanity has to offer in the form of resilience. Despite the horror, disaster and chaos of the wildfire, life in the village went on. People met with loved ones, supported each other, and smiled when walking past strangers.

Justin also joined us on The Reporter’s Notebook podcast this week to talk a lot more about his experience reporting on the fires. We were also joined by Alexander Meditz, a resident who lives on Timberline Drive in Ruidoso. His home was spared, but his neighbors — even those directly across the street — lost their homes.

iCanna, a cannabis dispensary in an old auto repair garage, is pictured in Las Cruces on April 15, 2022.

iCanna, a cannabis dispensary in an old auto repair garage, is pictured in Las Cruces on April 15, 2022.

Fighting blight as cannabis biz helps with infill

For years, City of Las Cruces officials have worked to fight blighted neighborhoods — most notably, the Solano and El Paseo corridors. The city has come up with several plans to achieve those goals, but none may be more successful than the legalization of recreational, or adult-use, cannabis.

As it turns out, we’ve discovered many new cannabis upstarts have opened for business in several long-vacant businesses — which has some unexpected upsides, according to city officials. It seems the legalization of cannabis came along at just the right time.

Michael McDevitt, who covers city and county government for the Sun-News, noticed the trend and began diving into the issue. Mike said:

This week I finished a story I’ve been really excited about for weeks. I remember when I first moved to Las Cruces three years ago, I was stunned at all the vacant properties which littered the town. It struck me how much of the structures in the city’s center, which seemed to me like perfectly good places to operate a business, were devoid of commercial development.

As I explored the public City of Las Cruces cannabis webpage a few weeks ago, I noticed an interesting trend. Buildings which I’ve noticed as vacant eyesores for years had people applying to turn them into cannabis shops, ahead of legal sales becoming effective. I connected the dots and thought back on the old Celebrate liquor store on West Picacho Avenue. I’d driven by the empty building with the beer stein and grape bunch logos countless times, but construction had mysteriously begun in the last few weeks. Sure enough, that property was listed as having a prospective cannabis shop, too.

My mind began to buzz and I reached out to as many of the new applicants as possible. I also became aware of some other shops up and running in formerly vacant structures. What I ended up discovering is that vacant structures provide a lot of benefits to cannabis businesses — lowering costs, cutting time and sometimes providing existing zoning and water rights. At the same time, these cannabis businesses are fulfilling economic development goals for the city at a rapid pace. It’s a win-win, and my story talks about how people found these buildings and how they’ve extended their lives.

The Blue Moon Bar & Grill in Radium Springs, pictured on April 9, 2022.

The Blue Moon Bar & Grill in Radium Springs, pictured on April 9, 2022.

Hidden Gem: Blue Moon Bar and Grill

Driving north on Valley Drive, you’ll soon find yourself among pecan orchards and farmland. You’ll also find the Blue Moon Bar & Grill if you travel far enough.

The Blue Moon has been a part of the Doña Ana County bar scene for over half a century. But because it is located in Radium Springs, Las Cruces area residents have not always known about it. We recently featured it as one of our Hidden Gems. Our trending reporter, Leah Romero, made the trek a few miles up north to visit the recently-remodeled lounge and performance space to see what’s happening now.

We featured it last week as part of our “Hidden Gems” feature, which runs one Monday each month.

Here’s what Leah said about the experience:

This month, I chose the Blue Moon Bar & Grill for the hidden gem feature. I recently wrote a story about the country singer Curtis Grimes who performed on the patio stage at the Blue Moon. I grew up in Las Cruces but had never heard of the Radium Springs business. It could be because the bar is located along an old highway road headed north toward Hatch.

I decided to look into it and found that the bar had recently been updated by new owners. The De La Os, whose family originally opened the De La O Saloon in the Village of Dona Ana, took over the hundred-year-old building and revamped the business.

Blue Moon has had multiple owners over the years and the name has been changed and then changed back, but it has been a popular hangout for people living in the more rural communities of the county. As a way to pay homage to the community, Ronnie De La O included them and the original aspects of the bar in the remodel. Now, it’s a popular place for regulars as well as those driving up from Las Cruces. Their weekly live music lineups also attract a sizeable crowd.

Bryce Provance, founder of the paramilitary group New Mexico Civil Guard, sent a reporter this selfie on July 17, 2020 while commenting on a civil lawsuit against the group filed by the Bernalillo County District Attorney.

Bryce Provance, founder of the paramilitary group New Mexico Civil Guard, sent a reporter this selfie on July 17, 2020 while commenting on a civil lawsuit against the group filed by the Bernalillo County District Attorney.

New Mexico Civil Guard faces more legal challenges

Bryce Provance wore what appeared to be a Civil War-era suit and overcoat when he presented himself at a law office in Albuquerque on March 3.

Provance, who is known by a few aliases, was there to give a deposition for a civil lawsuit against the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed paramilitary group he founded. Also present was the defendants’ counsel, Paul Kennedy.

After taking his seat, Provance pulled out some papers and laid them on the table.

Among them was a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the cover of a book by Milton William Cooper titled “Behold a Pale Horse,” a 1991 work that is popular among adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory and others harboring anti-government sentiments.

The story, as told by our reporter Algernon D’Ammassa, does not exactly get less interesting from there. Algernon talked to Raúl Torrez, who is running for state Attorney General in the Democratic Party primary, who filed a civil complaint against the New Mexico Civil Guard in the summer of 2020. Here’s Algernon:

The New Mexico Civil Guard, a volunteer paramilitary organization that exerted a strong presence at Black Lives Matter and other demonstrations in New Mexico during the summer of 2020, has been subdued since Facebook deleted its account and the Bernalillo County D.A. filed a lawsuit asking the state court to declare NMCG an unauthorized and illegal military force.

The group took to “policing” demonstrations, saying they were watching out for “antifa” and other agitators. They would turn up with rifles and military kits. They toyed with running a slate of radical candidates for sheriff. They posted pictures of Las Cruces citizens who had attended peaceful vigils suggesting they might be threats. They were present in Albuquerque when a man (who was not a member of the group but appeared to share some of their beliefs) shot another man at a protest.

D.A. Raúl Torrez is using civil action, not criminal, to contain the group, arguing that by acting as a paramilitary force without legal authority, they are risking public safety. This is a strategy extending back decades, when the Southern Poverty Law Center started using civil suits to target the Ku Klux Klan’s military wing. More recently, it has been used to target extremist groups responsible for violence at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlotteville, Virginia.

What’s unusual about the New Mexico case is that it was initiated by a government agency. It has also featured resistance by some of the defendants to cooperating with the process, out of confusion or a sentiment that the rules don’t apply to them.

This story kicks off with a recent deposition by NMCG’s designated spokesperson and some bizarre behavior that included an admission that could bring the case to an abrupt conclusion, depending on how a judge rules.

Centennial High School Class of 2020 graduates listen to administrators during the graduation ceremony at Centennial High School on July 1, 2021.

Centennial High School Class of 2020 graduates listen to administrators during the graduation ceremony at Centennial High School on July 1, 2021.

LCPS sees decline in graduation rates, citing ‘clerical errors’

Gadsden Independent School District and Hatch Valley Public Schools both saw an increase in their graduation rates from 2020 to 2021.

Las Cruces Public schools, however, saw a significant drop — from 86.2 percent to 81 percent in those COVID-affected years.

While LCPS is still above the state average, it now ranks below fellow Doña Ana County districts GISD (83.3 percent) and HVPS (84.8 percent). This was all revealed in the annual graduation data released by the New Mexico Public Education Department in March.

Our education reporter, Miranda Cyr, wanted to know why LCPS saw such a decrease. So she dove into the issue.

LCPS Deputy Superintendent of Teaching, Learning, Leadership, & Research Wendi Miller-Tomlinson said the 5.2% drop in Las Cruces is, in part, due to clerical error.

Here’s what Miranda told us about her reporting process:

This story was an interesting one. I went into interviewing Dr. Wendi Miller-Tomlinson with questions about how online learning, equitable grading, attendance and other factors may have played a role in this big drop. Early on in our discussion, she pointed to the clerical error. This honestly threw me for a loop and was an angle I hadn’t anticipated. Quickly, my story changed from “here are some factors that played into graduation rates at LCPS” into “there’s something wrong with the clerical data at LCPS,” which are two very different things. By my calculations, LCPS still would have had a slight drop in its grad rates without the clerical issue. But it’s around 1 or 2 percent vs. 5 percent. It’s something I’m still looking into. I’m planning to find out more details about the clerical process and what LCPS might be changing to prepare for graduations next month.

Thanks for reading. From all of us at the Sun-News, here’s wishing you a great week!

Damien Willis is a Lead Reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-541-5443, [email protected] or @DamienWillis on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Wildfires rage, cannabis helps fight urban blight and shining a light on Blue Moon