Letter to the Editor: Does Rain Really Follow the Plow?

Does Rain Really Follow the Plow? Or, can we expect better than failed expectation from Trinity Site?
By Khalil Spencer

There was once a belief that if Western settlers tilled the soil, it led to more rain, i.e., “rain follows the plow.”

That was in large part false causation, because some of the plowing was done during wet climate periods.

One could almost rephrase that Charles Dana Wilber quote in the context of the Trinity Site economic development discussion:

God speed the developer … By this wonderful provision, which is man’s mastery over the economy, the malls are dispensing copious commerce … (the mall) is the instrument that separates poverty from plenty; and converts a desert into an economically sustainable community … To be more concise, Money follows the Mall.

For a different opinion:

“Los Alamos is not, nor can it ever be, Urban. The wannbe urbanization of Los Alamos will only result in Los Alamos as an Urban Wannabe Failure.” Richard Hannemann

No doubt it should be apparent that I have a few misgivings about the Trinity Place lease plan, which basically involves putting another shopping mall in Los Alamos.

  • Los Alamos and White Rock have an abundance of empty, underutilized, or downright ugly storefronts surrounded by vast seas of asphalt. Poor land use planning has led to dispersion rather than compact development. Central Avenue has more parking lot asphalt than storefront and many of the businesses are downright eyesores. Can we demonstrate we can get it right with existing development before we drop another sea of asphalt (see planned layout below) farther on the edge of town and create yet more conflicting traffic patterns?


  • One of the assumptions of the site development is that Los Alamos must have what amounts to a “critical mass” of shopping to keep people on the Hill with their dollars. How does one determine a critical amount of shopping? Are the investors suddenly rushing in? Will I still have to go off the Hill for #6 coffee filters?
  • People live here to be close to work and to enjoy the beautiful mountains and canyons and, frankly, make enough money (on Average) to live far from shopping. They can afford to drive to places like Santa Fe, where shopping is rich. Short of gas rising to ten bucks a gallon, how will Trinity Site change such habits? What stores and behaviors will keep us on the Hill on Saturday?
  • Nothing against Smith’s/Krogers, but do we want a government-blessed Smith’s/Kroger’s monopoly on both sides of Trinity Drive? Furthermore, what will that do to small businesses not receiving Kroger’s largesse at Trinity? What will become of Mari-Mac? Will it dissipate, leaving residents another eyesore that can’t generate tax revenue for the county or provide shopping diversity for our residents?
  • For decades, Americans have built fast, efficient, four-lane highways connecting the country. In our case, these highways connect Los Alamos to the shopping centers in Santa Fe, Espanola, and Albuquerque. While this newfound mobility is great for previously Hill-bound residents, it is not so great for local businesses. It is too easy for people to drive to these other locations and visit a plethora of centrally located specialty shops, big-box stores, and eateries. Likewise it is easy for those commodity providers to wait for us to go to them. Furthermore, the multitude of vendors who now compete for consumer dollars on the World Wide Web drive yet another stake in the heart of local-based shopping. How will the Trinity Site change this flight of capital? Furthermore, can we predict what shopping will look like in the decades ahead, or will the county taxpayer be providing decades of CPR to a shopping dinosaur rather than benefiting from an income stream?

It is difficult for me to see how we will reverse this trend of fleeing dollars simply by building a mall in Los Alamos unless we also build a moat and unplug our computers. It will take longer range paradigm shifts, probably related to eventual rising costs of individual transportation from the passing of Peak Oil to reverse this trend, if it can be done at all in an era of the virtual shopping mall. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. Stores that capitalize on quality, location, personal service, and trust must be supported. One doesn’t want to have to drive forty five miles to fix the toilet, grab a gift, or fix a flat tire. How will this plan do that?

  • Los Alamos has a one-horse economy, LANL. Further, this is a time of federal austerity; for the foreseeable future, individual as well as government belt tightening will result from the catastrophic bursts of the bubble economies of the last couple decades. All of this contraction will likely result in less shopping demand if LANL shrinks its work force. And, to be blunt, both LANL and the county don’t lure a lot of people up here with nearby shopping. People are lured in with high paying jobs in science and engineering, closeness to work, a beautiful environment, and good schools. If the federal money tree is pruned back, there will likely be fewer government jobs. Are we sure we can count on Uncle Sam to fund this endeavor? If not, who will support more retail?
  • If LANL contracts, does it not make more sense to develop income generators rather than income sinks? Why not zone for high tech industry or higher education? We need someone or something up here to bring in more revenue and real, high-tech jobs rather than retail outlets that depend on capturing existing money and that pay low wages to employees, who will, frankly, not be able to afford to live here. Why not a New Mexico Tech North offering degrees in conjunction with LANL? Adding retail before adding demand in the form of a balance of payments plan, i..e., building domestic industry, is putting the cart before the horse.

I therefore think it’s time to re-evaluate what we do with Trinity Site. Rather than plop down another sea of 20th Century asphalt and a backward-looking shopping mall on one of the most beautiful sites in the town (and which is across the street from everything else), let’s take a time out and think this through.

Editor’s note: Khalil Spencer penned this letter last January and submitted it to the Los Alamos Daily Post this morning.



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