Las Vegas, NM: A Place with a Past (and Future)

Hollywood Meets Main Street

While most Americans may not have heard of the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, many have traveled there –at least in their imaginations – while watching major Hollywood blockbusters such as 2007’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture “No Country for Old Men,” the 1984 Cold War thriller “Red Dawn,” and 1969’s counter-cultural landmark “Easy Rider.”  For almost one hundred years, filmmakers and television producers have found Las Vegas to be an ideal location for shooting productions on its historic streets and beautiful surrounding countryside.

Situated in north central New Mexico between the foot of the Rockies’ Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the edge of the Great Plains, Las Vegas’ outskirts can serve as a stand-in for a variety of different locales because of its diverse physical landscape.  In town, Las Vegas’ built environment features homes, storefronts, and civic buildings that showcase a wide breadth of prominent mid-to-late 19th  century architectural styles such as Italianate, Victorian, Queen Anne, Mission Revival, and many others.  This diversity in building style, the result of the city’s interesting history, makes Las Vegas a unique backdrop for film and TV productions, particularly ones seeking an authentic-looking small town with a colorful “Main Street” lined with stores, restaurants, and galleries.

Las Vegas’ Bridge Street, which connects “Old Town” with “New Town,” is home to shops, restaurants, and galleries that exemplify the Italianate commercial architecture popular in the mid-to-late 19th century.  (Photo Courtesy of the Las Vegas Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation)

Las Vegas’ eclectic architecture and vibrant history also make it a place worth preserving and redeveloping.  With local, state, and federal funding, Las Vegas has made significant progress through historic preservation, main street redevelopment, and supporting the arts and cultural activities.  These efforts have helped instill a sense of place as well as provide an economic boost to this city of 13,000 by creating jobs, spurring new businesses, and attracting private investment.

‘A Rich and Unusual History’

Las Vegas’ look and appearance today has been shaped by almost two centuries of cultural and economic influences, varied land use patterns, and the impact of transportation advancements.  “Las Vegas is a town with a very rich and unusual history,” says Doyle Daves, a Las Vegas resident and board member of the town’s Las Vegas Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation (LVCCHP).  “Even today, we still talk about it in terms of ‘Old Town’ and ‘New Town.’”  This geographic distinction is the result of two major economic periods that shaped Las Vegas.  Founded in 1835 along the Gallinas River, the city became an important drop-off point along the Santa Fe Trail, the critical 19th century route that carried goods and people between New Mexico and Missouri in the days before railroads.

In its heyday as an important spot along the Trail, Las Vegas consisted of small adobe homes located around a main plaza and church, in a traditional style of the Southwest region modeled after the Spanish Laws of the Indies.  Streets were winding, narrow, and spread out in relation to the terrain and to meet agricultural needs, rather than any particular plan.  During these years, Las Vegas grew in population and financially prospered due to its prime location along the Trail, 70 miles east of Santa Fe.

Las Vegas’ look and appearance today has been shaped by almost two centuries of cultural and economic influences, varied land use patterns, and transportation advancements.  (Photo Courtesy of the NM State Records Center and Archives)

Changes would eventually come to Las Vegas in the form of the powerful trains arriving from the East on the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad that first arrived in town on July 4, 1879.  Though the invention of the railroad had major political, social, and economic impacts on the entire country, the changes it brought to Las Vegas were particularly profound.  The railroad depot in “New Town” was situated one mile away from “Old Town’s” central plaza.  In addition to bringing new goods, people, and attitudes from the East, the arrival of the railroad also resulted in new and different styles of planning and land use in the district surrounding the railroad depot.  In contrast to Old Town’s original winding and narrow streets, development in this part of town was based on a gridded street pattern found in Eastern cities and towns.  Streets were wider, more orderly, and lined with multi-story buildings designed in a variety of architectural styles such as the popular Italianate and Victorian.

The divisions that existed in town at this time were not limited to architecture and street design, but to politics and economics, as well.  These differences led to the community being split into East and West Las Vegas, which separately incorporated in 1888 and 1903, respectively.  They would eventually merge into one municipality, but not until 1970 after citizens voted for consolidation.  This history, though divisive at times, has shaped Las Vegas into the unique place it is today.  “Th[e] contrast between two different traditions and their cultures, and the friction and conflict that came with it, also brought to Las Vegas a diversity of styles, political prominence in northern New Mexico, a distinctive hybrid architecture, and a unique heritage that still gives the town a special sense of place unlike any community in New Mexico,” notes the 2011 Las Vegas Comprehensive Master Plan Update.

Like many other railroad boom towns that thrived in the late 1800s, Las Vegas did not fare as well in the twentieth century.   It suffered a major setback in 1905 when a new rail line was built in New Mexico between the towns of Clovis and Belen, cutting off Las Vegas in the north.  The Great Depression hit the community hard, and with the eventual decline of the railroad industry with the postwar rise of automobile and truck travel, Las Vegas turned into only a passing blur for many travelers whizzing through the state on I-25.  Today, Las Vegas is home to over 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the highest per capita in the nation.  In a strange twist of fate, Las Vegas’ mid-century economic challenges resulted in a historic and architectural goldmine that is “frozen in time,” in the words of the city’s 2010 Downtown Action Plan.  “So many of these historic buildings are still standing here because no one had the money to tear them down” after Las Vegas’ boom town days ended, says LVCCHP’s Daves.

‘A Good Time to Invest in Downtowns’

Main Street de Las Vegas covers a 1.07 mile corridor that includes the three major commercial districts in the city: Old Town, New Town, and Railroad Avenue. Click image to enlarge.  (Map courtesy of Community by Design)

It is within these historic buildings and along these streets that Las Vegas is seeking to promote economic development and foster a sense of community pride.  The city has benefited from being located in a state that values the importance of vibrant downtowns and main streets.  The New Mexico MainStreet Program was created in 1985 by the state legislature to support local towns and communities implement the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Four-Point Approach which emphasizes economic development through historic preservation.

New Mexico MainStreet, part of the state’s Economic Development Department, provides technical assistance, training, business support, and other services to the 23 programs located throughout the state.  The work has resulted in major tangible results in both large and small communities.  In 2012, 622 new jobs were created, 134 new businesses were launched, and 135 private buildings were renovated, resulting in $16,912,000 in private sector reinvestment in communities involved with MainStreet.  These initiatives “are critical for New Mexico and particularly rural communities,” says Rich Williams, the program’s director.  “This is a good time to invest in downtowns, through acquiring or renovating a property or launching a new start up.  Main streets are the greatest places in the world to incubate small businesses,” he says.

‘A Visible Impact in the Community’

Las Vegas became a certified MainStreet community in 2005.  Projects are coordinated locally by Main Street de Las Vegas (MSLV), which oversees projects in a 1.07-mile corridor that connects the city’s three major commercial areas of Old Town, New Town, and Railroad Avenue.  These districts are home to a varied mix of shops, restaurants, galleries, bookstores, museums, residences, and hotels.  From 2005 to 2011, the work of Main Street de Las Vegas resulted in 18 net new businesses, the creation of 181 new jobs, and sparked $12,003,088 in private reinvestment.  Over $890,000 was received in public sector grants.  “Our organization has made a visible impact in the community,” says Cindy Collins, executive director of Main Street de Las Vegas.

State capital outlay funds have led to streetscape improvements in the downtown area as well as provide resources to support the creation of a Downtown Action Plan, which was finalized in 2010.  The city received $99,000 from the US Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG) program to provide state and federal tax credit assistance to owners renovating buildings in the downtown area as well as to provide technical assistance to small business owners and operators.  USDA funds also led to the installation of WiFi in the downtown area and a GIS database of local businesses.

The Castañeda Hotel, formerly part of the famed Harvey House chain, was purchased in December 2012.  The plans to renovate the hotel will be “transformative” for the city, says Cindy Collins of Main Street de Las Vegas.  (Photo courtesy MSLV)

Two recent developments have generated much excitement in Las Vegas – the upcoming renovation of the Bridge Street Breezeway and the recent purchase of the long vacant Castañeda Hotel.  The Breezeway is an open air structure that sits on the former site of a vacant building that collapsed on Bridge Street.  Main Street de Las Vegas received $90,000 in capital outlay funds to renovate the space with the goal of using the area and the parking lot behind it for art exhibitions, music performances, and potentially a farmers market.  Work will begin in spring 2013.  In December 2012 the Castañeda Hotel, one of the former hotels in the famed Harvey House chain, was purchased by an investor seeking to renovate it and also include an artistic element to the property.  The Castañeda is situated next to the Las Vegas Intermodal Center, located in a renovated train station built in 1899 and today served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train.  “This project has the potential to be transformative for our city,” says Collins.  The buyer first became interested in investing in the property after reading the city’s master plan and later reached out to Main Street de Las Vegas with his proposal.

Volunteers, including students from nearby New Mexico Highlands University, have helped repaint 10 vacant buildings as part of the “Façade Squad” sponsored by Main Street de Las Vegas.  (Photo courtesy of MSLV)

Volunteers have been a key driver in the progress made along the main street corridor.  In 2011 alone, over 1,300 volunteer hours were logged.  One of the most successful volunteer-led projects has been the “Façade Squad,” a group of volunteers who have helped repaint 10 vacant buildings in an effort to beautify the area and inspire additional restoration.  Students from New Mexico Highlands University, located in the heart of Las Vegas near Bridge Street, have often volunteered on these painting teams.  Over the past five years under new leadership, the university has evolved into a major supporter of community development efforts in Las Vegas.  “The university recognizes that what’s good for the university is good for Las Vegas, and vice versa,” says Main Street’s Cindy Collins.  Highlands University was also a partner in the installation of a sign that directs visitors to the downtown area, the historic plaza, and the university itself, a major improvement as the community has lacked adequate signage to attract visitors off the highway.

Las Vegas has suffered from poor signage and wayfinding. Recently, this sign was been installed to direct visitors and passersby to the downtown and historic districts.  (Photo courtesy MSLV)

The North Central New Mexico Economic Development District (NCNMEDD) has been an active partner is supporting redevelopment efforts in Las Vegas, as well as including it in larger regional planning.  NCNMEDD covers a seven-county region and has worked with the city in application and grant preparation, technical assistance, and planning for a variety of projects, including a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application to fund the Comprehensive Master Plan and assisting in efforts to fund streetscape improvements.  NCNMEDD has included Las Vegas’ economic development strategies into the latest regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) report and also works with the city as part of a Regional Transportation Planning Organization that provides technical assistance and other support for local transportation projects.

Historic Preservation and Promotion of the Arts

Las Vegas’ main street redevelopment efforts have been bolstered by strong support for historic preservation and the promotion of the arts and culture in the city and surrounding areas.  Since 1977, the Las Vegas Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation (LVCCHP) has worked to support historic preservation in the city through both advocacy and educational initiatives.  It has assisted in writing Las Vegas’ historic buildings ordinance, partnered with the city to receive Certified Local Government status from the state to receive federal historic preservation funding, and organized educational workshops and tours to highlight Las Vegas’ past.  One of LVCCHP’s marquee events during the year is the annual “Places With a Past” tour held during Heritage Week.  This tour brings residents and visitors through homes that showcase Las Vegas’ diverse architectural styles, from the traditional adobe to the more ornate Victorian style.  “Places With a Past” also visits the Montezuma Castle, located six miles northwest of the city.  The castle, originally built as a hotel in 1886 for visitors to the nearby hot springs, is now home to the US campus of the United World Colleges.  This tour, as well as the Holiday Home tour and Garden tour, bring in visitors from the larger cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as some out-of-state guests.

The Baca Building (right) and Estella’s Café (middle) are local landmarks on Bridge Street.  Families and individuals have been critical in supporting historic preservation efforts throughout the city.   (Photo courtesy of Elmo Baca)

Individuals and families have also been instrumental in supporting historic preservation in Las Vegas, rehabbing family homes and businesses while maintaining historic facades and designs.  William “Wid” Slick, owner of the Plaza Hotel located on Old Town’s plaza, has been active in preservation and restoration work in Las Vegas since the early 1980s, when he was involved in the restoration of the 19th century hotel.  Today, the Plaza and the adjoining Ilfeld Building are major attractions in the city for tourists and locals alike.  In 1980, Elmo Baca and his father Manuel bought and renovated an Italianate commercial-style building originally built in 1884 on Bridge Street, the colorful thoroughfare which connects Old Town and New Town.  That project first sparked Elmo’s interest in downtown revitalization and preservation efforts and he continues to remain involved in these community issues.  His building is located next to Estella’s, a family owned and operated restaurant open for over six decades.  It is a local landmark in its own right and its vintage sign outside is a favorite subject for amateur photographers seeking to capture the historic essence of Bridge Street.  This local community buy-in to preservation is an important reason Las Vegas has been able to maintain its historic character and charm.

In 2008, Las Vegas was designated by New Mexico as one of the two first pilot cities for the newly created Arts and Cultural Districts Program, established the year before by the state legislature with the goal of fostering local economic development through the arts and tourism.  Designation as an arts and cultural district provides for additional redevelopment support from the state, including more historic preservation tax credits and tourism funding (Tourism is the second largest net revenue generator in New Mexico).  Since its creation in 2007, the program has now expanded to serve six districts throughout the state.

One of the local organizations that has benefited from Las Vegas’ designation as an arts and cultural district is the Las Vegas Arts Council (LVAC).  Located in a historic building on Bridge Street, LVAC has supported a variety of artistic programs and initiatives in the community for over three decades.  With the help and support of volunteers, it converted its front office space into the Gallery 140 and for the past three and a half years has run a program to showcase local artists and musicians.  “The gallery gives arts a center stage and helps highlight the importance of the arts in our community,” says Linda Wooten-Green, a local artist and co-president of LVAC.  Recent shows in the gallery have featured sculpture, quilts, and tin artwork.  The gallery also hosts a Sunday music salon in the winter where local musicians, including high school and college students, perform in the space to around 40 to 50 people.  LVAC also supports the city-sponsored annual People’s Faire held every August for over thirty years.  Between 60 to 80 vendors from the region set up in Carnegie Park and sell crafts, jewelry, baked goods, jams and jellies, books, and other wares.  All of these efforts are part of the larger goal of making Las Vegas part of an “arts triangle” with the cities of Santa Fe and Taos.

Since the early 1900s, Las Vegas has served as the backdrop for many films and television shows because of its diverse architecture and landscape. Here, University Avenue is outfitted as a border crossing for the 2008 film “Inhale.”  Las Vegas is actually located over 300 miles away from the real US-Mexico border.  (Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas New Mexico Film Commission)

As mentioned earlier, Las Vegas has hosted numerous film and TV productions for almost one hundred years, dating back to the silent era when Tom Mix rode into town to film his western movies.  In addition to the natural and built environment that has attracted filmmakers, New Mexico’s film tax credit, which provides crews with a 25% refundable tax credit on production expenditures, is a major incentive for producers.  The local economy has benefited from these projects, as crews rent hotel rooms, eat and shop in local businesses, utilize local building material suppliers, and sometimes use locals as extras on productions, says Lindsey Hill, film liaison at the Las Vegas New Mexico Film Commission.  “The film industry has also helped increase tourism in our community,” she explains.  “People come from all over to check out the many film locations that have been used.  This is what spurred the creation of a film tour guide,” which includes information about the history of film in the city and points of interest for visitors to see the actual locations from some of their favorite movies.

A New Chapter 

For the 14,000 residents who call Las Vegas, New Mexico home, this town is not simply a stand-in for some other community on a movie or television screen, but rather a very real place steeped in local history, culture, and natural beauty.  These are the local assets that have attracted filmmakers to this small community for years, and it are these assets that local residents and officials are working to capitalize on to make Las Vegas a vibrant place to live, work, and be entertained.  Through local economic development efforts including main street redevelopment, historic preservation, and the promotion of the arts, Las Vegas is seeking to write a new chapter in its storied history – one that builds on its past to create a stronger future.

This case study was researched and written by Brett Schwartz, NADO Research Fellow.


This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.

This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.


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