By Tom McDonald
About this time every year, parents all over New Mexico swell with pride as their daughters and sons walk across the graduation stage — and wave goodbye.
The walk is ceremonial; the wave, at least for small towns, is figurative. As the urbanization of America continues, fewer of these young men and women will be staying in or returning to their hometown, simply because the opportunities they seek aren’t there.
Some of them will choose to carve out a life in their hometown, while many others will move on. Their futures depend in large part on what’s going on in the communities that raised them.
Some of the state’s smaller communities have strong local economies, and you can see it in the stability of their populations. Three examples: The oil-and-gas boom in and around Lovington and Hobbs keeps southeastern New Mexico’s economy strong, and some good-paying jobs there are ripe for the picking; Los Alamos, with its lab, enjoys more millionaires per capita than any small city anywhere; and the Ruidoso area, with its racetrack, casino and wilderness areas, has carved out an economic niche that not only offers opportunities to the local but brings in a lot of Texas money to boot.
Mostly, however, New Mexico’s small cities and towns are struggling to keep the people they have. Overall, New Mexico’s population is growing modestly — by 1.3 percent between 2010 and ’13, according to Census Bureau estimates — but that’s mostly because of the Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe metropolitan areas.
Look beyond those sprawling cities and you’ll find population declines all over the state — especially in villages like Clayton, Fort Sumner and Lordsburg, but even in small cities like Las Vegas and Silver City. Even Farmington, the state’s sixth-largest city, is in a slump; USA Today recently named Farmington the second-fastest “shrinking” city in the nation, having lost nearly 7,000 people since its peak in 2010.
For the graduates of schools in those communities, there are and always will be limits to the number of the local jobs available. Ranching, drilling, mining and other rural operations offer work, but too often it’s not enough to meet demand, so young people move to the urban centers for employment.
Still, small local economies aren’t dead. For one thing, thanks to the Internet and interstates, they’re not nearly as isolated as they once were, so living out in the boondocks doesn’t necessarily remove you from the modern world.
And for another, there are just as many innovators in the countryside as there are in the cities (proportionately, of course), and that’s made for some pretty creative methods of making a living.
Look at the novelty and specialty shops sprinkled around in small downtown districts and you’ll see what I mean.
To the graduates, I say: Go! Spread your wings and fly away. It’s a big and exciting world out there, and you should see as much of it as your heart desires.
Just don’t lose your way back home. Someday, you might come to the realization that your dusty old hometown, the one you left behind, had something after all, something you might want to return to.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at: