Open the darn rest stops!

This week’s hero is the owner of the Conoco station and convenience store at the Wagon Mound exit of I-25.

On a recent trip to northeastern New Mexico, that station was open on a Sunday afternoon, with a working restroom and fresh coffee.

In parts of New Mexico, this is appreciated and not taken for granted.

There was a waiting line for that restroom. Care to guess why? Several miles back, at Watrous, the restrooms at the state owned public rest area were closed and locked.

(To be fair, there’s another station at the Wagon Mound exit that we did not visit.)

This was not just any Sunday afternoon. It was the last day of Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, when thousands of visitors were heading home. It was also a perfect day for an autumn drive through the exquisite turning aspens.

At the Conoco station, my friends and I saw the same people we had seen at the highway rest stop, looking confused and uncomfortable. Now they were standing in line.

So what does it take to get the State of New Mexico to show a little courtesy to visitors who come here and support the economy?

Consider this one day.

A report on the economic impact of the 2019 Balloon Fiesta says 618,620 guests visited from other states, with most coming from Texas, California, Colorado, and Arizona. This year’s report is not yet completed.

If even half of those visitors came by car, that’s a massive economic boost for towns along our major roads. New Mexico should be encouraging them by showing hospitality. You’d think there would be enough revenue to provide a restroom.

This report does not address the economic impact of those visitors traveling to and from Albuquerque or where else they might have visited while in New Mexico. Since New Mexico government is expert at state agencies not having the sense to cooperate with each other, I’m wondering whether anybody else is measuring that, either.

I bring up the unknown but significant economic impact because when I mentioned the rest room issue to a legislator, she replied, “How are we going to pay for it?”

The report said the fiesta generated an estimated $6.52 million for the State of New Mexico. Even at today’s rates that should be enough to pay for a plumber.

The rest stops are operated by the Department of Transportation, not Tourism or Economic Development.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think the rest stops were closed for COVID-19. They are as essential as grocery stores. The maintenance staffs should be considered frontline workers. And I don’t think a workforce shortage is likely in that part of the state.

Last year I offered a suggestion for long-range planning on rest stops. The planning should consider keeping the rest stops always open, safe and clean, electric car charging (which users pay for), and vending operations with simple amenities such as hot coffee, located where they are needed and not competing with the privately owned truck stops.

In the shorter term, perhaps this service should not be left to DOT by itself. Maybe the relevant state agencies and tourism-related nonprofits, both state and municipal, might form a study group to figure out how to improve rest stops as a means to enhance tourism. They should generate the numbers that would demonstrate to legislators that this is worth funding. I nominate the Balloon Fiesta people to provide some leadership.

Or maybe we should invite private concessionaires to set up coffee and souvenir booths and keep an eye on the state of the facilities. And give a bidding opportunity to local heroes like the owner of the Conoco station in Wagon Mound.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2021

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