The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 25, 2012

New Mexico camp a case study for the Summit

OAK HILL — City of Mount Hope, meet the Village of Cimarron, N.M.

The two towns may be almost 1,500 miles apart, but they have one big neighbor in common — the Boy Scouts of America.

Cimarron, pop. 1,021, is home to the Philmont Scout Ranch, a 137,000-acre tract of wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where, on any given summer day, several hundred Boy Scouts are unloading from buses and preparing for a 12-day backpacking adventure.

Mindy Cahill, clerk administrator for the Village of Cimarron, sums up her town’s relationship with the Boy Scouts of America this way.

“Without them, we probably wouldn’t exist,” she says. “They are one of our biggest industries here.”

Cimarron is 4 miles from one of three BSA “High Adventure Bases” in the country. The BSA has proposed the same designation for The Summit, their new development near Mount Hope. The other uses for The Summit include a permanent Jamboree site, National Scout Summer Camp and Center for Leadership and Excellence. All but the Jamboree are still several years away.

Never before has the BSA operated one permanent facility for all these activities, so what it will mean for the economy of the region and how it will impact local life in Fayette County is still a bit of a guessing game. And many of the small towns near BSA sites don’t track the dollars or numbers of people flowing through their community because of the Scouts.

But Cimarron now has 75 years of experience playing host to a tcotal of 950,000 Boy Scout adventurers, and locals there — especially business people — aren’t shy about sharing the lessons they’ve learned over the years and the advice they would offer up to The Summit’s new neighbors.

“First of all, know and love the Boy Scouts,” says Valerie Kutz, owner of Cimarron Art Gallery. “In the summertime, it’s our job to cater to them.”

“Welcome them with open arms,” says Cahill.

“There are little things the community can do to make the Scouts feel welcome,” says Cimarron Inn co-owner Deb Saunders.

Like collecting and displaying patches, the ultimate Boy Scout eye-catcher. The vast collection at Kutz’s soda fountain is a tourist attraction in and of itself. The boys frequent her business, in part, to connect with Scouting and the Cimarron community at the same time.

“Have a walkable town with good signage where (Scouts) can get lost in whatever history you have,” suggests Tim O’Neill, a local real estate broker.

The town recently built a walking path from Philmont to Cimarron so the Scouts would have a safe hike into town. Located on a branch of the Santa Fe Trail, it’s the allure of the Old West that ties together marketing, architecture and signage in the community.

Cooperation among local business people helps, too. A strong community spirit in Cimarron means that business people often work together, calling back and forth to find a way to meet a visitor’s needs if their own business can’t, says Kutz.

O’Neill says the way locals interact with their visitors ultimately has an impact on his business, O’Neill Land.

“The people charm them, and that makes for a stronger urge to purchase property,” he says.

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Boy Scouts come to Philmont in crews of seven to 12 people with two adult leaders. They arrive by some combination of plane, rail, chartered bus, Greyhound and special Philmont shuttle bus. Scout leaders sometimes arrange special side trips for the boys before or after the Philmont experience at local and regional attractions.

Families do not generally accompany their Scouts to Philmont, meaning the 23,000 summer visitors to Philmont are the Scouts themselves.

When their treks end, the Scouts often spend a free evening in Cimarron eating pizza, blissing out on scoops of ice cream and “buying gifts for auntie,” says Kutz.

It’s that evening that injects so many thousands of dollars into the local economy. For those who don’t want to make the 4-mile trek, a privately operated shuttle bus offers another option for Scouts who want to travel the pizza and presents junket.

Ranching, coal mining and gold mining have all, at one time or another, contributed significantly to the area’s economy. Until the 1990s, a lumber mill constituted an important employment base.

Now, though, Cimarron would be “seriously struggling” without Philmont, says Saunders.

Retail, food and accommodation made up about 30 percent of the $646,253 total gross receipts tax revenues for the town in 2008.

“The revenues we get for the individual businesses and what they bring in lodging taxes and gross receipts tax for our village has a huge, huge impact,” she says. “We’re a little village without deep pockets.”

Along with the school system, Philmont is the town’s major employer, says Cahill.

Philmont employs 80 full-time staff members and 1,100 summer workers — college students, teachers and retired folks who live on the ranch and help with summer programming.

Some of those full-time Philmont staff members live in Cimarron (the “higher-ups,” says Cahill, live on the ranch itself), and locals acknowledge that finding housing is a challenge for those employees. The town is “land-locked” because it’s surrounded on all sides by thousands of acres of privately held ranch land.

Another challenge for Cimarron is extending the busy summer tourist season over a longer period, just as summer recreation-oriented businesses in Fayette County have struggled to do for years.

Half of Kutz’s annual income at the Cimarron Art Gallery rolls in from June 1 through the third week in August, but she has learned to make her business work despite its seasonal nature.

“We’ve learned to grow it in the other months,” she says. Innkeeper Deb Saunders, too, has been surprised by the amount of year-round business she gets.

“For many years, I think people thought of Cimarron as a seasonal place,” she says. “But we have seen it in the last 10 years evolve into a place where businesses can stay open year round.”

At this point, the town has promoted other tourist activities for long enough that fall colors, hunting, skiing and spring break round out the low season. Four nearby ski resorts and a vast National Rifle Association shooting range support these activities.

In addition, about 4,000 adult Scout leaders come to Philmont during the off-season to take part in conferences and leadership training activities. They often bring a spouse.

“One of the things your chamber of commerce can do, in coordination with the Scout base, is activities for the spouses to take them on a tour of the shops and stuff and arrange a nice lunch or going to look at the gorge,” says Saunders. “These people are coming in with money.”

And often they leave with an appreciation of an area that they never would have encountered otherwise.

O’Neill, who runs the only real estate brokerage with an office in Cimarron, advertises for his business in the Scouting newspaper and alumni magazine. Philmont has tremendous buy-in from its alumni and former staff.

“Philmont sure introduces a lot of people to this part of northeastern New Mexico,” he says. “They might not be buyers today as 14-year-olds, but it may sow the seed for them to get a place out here in their future.”

He says he enjoys seeing Philmont employees move into town, especially those with children.

“In a balanced community, you’ve got to have them to keep the schools going,” he says.

A handful of the boys who worked at the ranch in their late teens have now established businesses in Cimarron. The town’s police chief was a Philmont Scout in his youth.

It has taken the BSA 75 years to carve out a “legacy Scouting experience” at Philmont, built on generations of young men’s connections with the wilderness experience.

It has also taken 75 years for Cimarron’s businesses to learn how to capitalize on that connection. Their population and revenues haven’t exploded, but they are also more remote than many Fayette County communities.

By catering to the tastes of Scouts, working together, and promoting other area attractions to build off-season revenue streams, they are carving out a modest but sustainable local economy, as long as the BSA stays put.

“It would be very quiet without them, and we would miss them extremely,” says Cahill.

To learn more about Cimarron and its economy, you can download the town’s comprehensive plan at http://www.villageofcimarron.net/commdevelop.html.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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