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STATE OF THE ECONOMY

The reopening Las Cruces has many moving parts NMSU, WSMR, Border critical to recovery

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Like other department heads at NMSU, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the fall schedule. Courses are being restructured to allow for social distancing. For many classes, this means moving at least partially to online delivery. We have had to do a fully rethink of how things will happen in the fall.

Of course, the really heavy lifting will be done by the faculty, who have had to adapt delivery to account for the new COVID realities. Meanwhile, others at NMSU are involved in developing plans to reopen dining halls and dorms. Yet others are working on the IT infrastructure to ensure the smooth delivery online. The list goes on. Bottomline, NMSU is engaged in an all-hands effort to reopen campus in the fall.

In my 33 years at NMSU, I have never seen anything like it. Its shoulders to the wheel, all oars pulling together, eye-on-the-ball time, and the NMSU community is stepping up to get the job done. Orchestrating this effort is the NMSU leadership team headed by President Floros and Chancellor Arvizu, who have done an excellent job.

That NMSU will successfully reopen even now is not a slam dunk. In the background lurk external threats. There is the state budget shortfall that will almost certainly result in cuts to the higher-ed budget. There is also the projected nationwide decline in college enrollment as students decide to defer attending college given the uncertainties. There is the problem of newly admitted foreign students’ inability to obtain visas to travel to the United States. Finally, and most concerning, is the very really possibility of a pandemic second wave.

That NMSU successfully reopens is critical for Las Cruces as NMSU is the county’s largest single employer. But for the county to recover, it’s not just NMSU that has to succeed, such as the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector, which is made up mainly of bars and restaurants, but also hotels, racetracks and casinos. This sector has seen a 47 percent decline in employment.

It is going to take some time to bring this sector back. Current guidelines allow dine-in eating at 50 percent of capacity. This means fewer customers, less volume. Many restaurants won’t survive the loss of business. Those that remain likely will charge higher prices. The sector may never recover fully, at least, not until there is a vaccine.

The county’s border region has also been affected. Many maquilas in Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico have shut down due to COVID, with knock-on effects for Dona Ana County. About 4,400 hundred people work in border-related industries such as border control and warehousing. These jobs are at risk until COVID is under control in Mexico.

White Sands Missile Range is the largest source of jobs in the county when private contractors that work on base are accounted for. About 70 percent of the base’s civilian workforce is on administrative leave or working from home. Most of the WSMR employees have remained on payroll, which has softened the blow to the local economy. Some testing has been deferred, which means fewer contractors on base.

Christopher A. Erickson, Ph.D., is a professor of economic at NMSU. He has been interim head of the Department of Economics, Applied Statistics, and International Business (EASIB) for three years. The opinions expressed may not be shared by the regents and administration of NMSU. Chris can be reached at chrerick@nmsu.edu.

Chris Erickson