State’s $2M visitor center Oñate’s final folly

A KRQE News 13 Investigation

onate monument center

ALCALDE, N.M. (KRQE) – One high-ranking elected official calls it, “a prime example of a project gone wrong.”

A former state senator says its, “a major waste of state funds.” And the man responsible for overseeing the pricey project says, “it’s a total loss. It should never have existed.”

It’s a multi-million dollar compound surrounded by a low wall and locked gate. There’s no sign so most tourists who take the scenic route to Taos on Highway 68 drive right on by. Just as you cruise by Alcalde, glance to the right and you’ll get a hint to what this publicly funded project is all about.

An Empty $2M Visitor Center

Rising above the northern New Mexico prairie stands a larger-than-life bronze statue of a Spanish Conquistador. Nearby is an ornate 7,500 square foot Spanish colonial building. Welcome to the Oñate Monument and Visitor Center. But don’t look for any visitors today, or any day for that matter because tourists haven’t visited for years. In fact, the last time a crowd gathered there was the monument’s dedication ceremony more than two decades ago.

So there it sits on the side of a rural two-lane highway, locked and empty. The only reminder of a public memorial is the imposing statue, a deserted parking lot and a vacant building. Today, it represents not a place of art, history and culture, but rather a monument to waste, backdoor politics and a reckless abuse of power. It’s a case study in governmental misconduct and it shows how New Mexico elected politicians squandered more than $2 million.

“It just was built and there it was. That was the end of it. (A) complete bust. It never functioned according to the original purpose,” says Dr. Robert McGeagh, a retired history professor and the Oñate Monument’s first project director.

Captain Juan de Oñate

To understand the Oñate project you have to go all the way back to the 16th century. In 1598 the Spanish Conquistador, Captain Juan de Oñate, forded the Rio Grande, rode into the northern frontier, claimed the territory for Spain and named himself Nuevo Mexico’s first colonial governor.

While some historians view Oñate as an important European explorer, others view him as a ruthless overlord. In an attempt to control the native pueblo population, Oñate committed unspeakable atrocities including senseless murders, the slavery of women and children, and the amputation of the right foot of 80 Acoma Pueblo men.

Fast forward to modern times to Rio Arriba County’s legendary political boss and State Senator, Emilio Naranjo.

In 1991, Naranjo wanted to honor the controversial Spanish Conquistador in a grandiose way. He proposed a taxpayer-funded monument dedicated to Hispanic history and culture and promised that the world-class center would bolster tourism and the economy. There would be a museum, a visitor center and a majestic statue.

Over the course of the next 15 years Senator Naranjo singlehandedly convinced legislative colleagues to fund his pet project. Through a series of legislative initiatives including several Capital Outlay appropriations, state legislators funneled more than $1,300,000 tax dollars into what would be the Oñate Monument and Visitor Center. It was to be erected in Senator Naranjo’s Rio Arriba County district.

Rio Arriba County chipped in another $700,000 or so in construction and operating funds (including $5000 to Emilio Naranjo to “negotiate” with then Congressman Bill Richardson about federal participation in the project). The U.S. Small Business Administration topped off the funding with a $375,000 check.

Renowned New Mexico sculptor Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera was tapped to create the project centerpiece, a $120,000, 12-foot tall bronze statue of Juan de Oñate mounted on a noble steed.

The Oñate statue was unveiled at a 1993 dedication ceremony attended by hundreds of local residents. Governor Bruce King kicked off the celebration with welcoming remarks. Then Congressman Bill Richardson addressed the crowd in Spanish. But, it was Senator Emilio Naranjo who was the star that day.

In prepared remarks, Naranjo said, “In northern New Mexico and the United States of America it is a great honor to give thanks to Juan de Oñate,” The crowd cheered and chanted, “Viva Don Juan de Oñate. Viva Emilio Naranjo.”

When you add it all up, taxpayers shelled out an estimated $2.4 million for a statue, an ornate building, and staff to run it. The only thing the project lacked was visitors.

You see, the county and state politicians spent all that money building this place but then lost interest in the center. No one had bothered to draw up a business plan for the center detailing how the monument would draw tourists or boost the economy.

In addition, just a few months before the center was opened (April 1994), a newly elected Rio Arriba County Commission ousted its long time County Manager Emilio Naranjo. After Naranjo left no one in the county seemed to have much interest in the project. A few years after opening, the center was quietly shut down.

A Pork Barrel Project

Project director Robert McGeagh said the Oñate Monument never operated as its intended purpose, which was a Hispanic cultural center.

In fact, the only notable event to occur during the monument’s brief operation was an act of sabotage. Sometime during the night in January 1998, unknown vandals severed the statue’s right foot as a symbolic protest to Oñate’s brutality. The statue’s original sculptor, “Sonny” Rivera, re-cast a replacement foot that cost taxpayers another $10,000.

Since the Oñate Monument closed, the property has been leased to a variety of tenants: A Montessori school, a charter school, a weekend flea market and, currently, the center to home to a part-time Yoga studio.

“It was a pork barrel project that got its approval based on politics and not based on, in my opinion, (any) benefit to the state,” says former State Senator Bill Davis (R-Albuquerque). Davis was one of the few members of the 1991 legislature to oppose funding the Oñate Monument.

“This particular Oñate project is a prime example of a project that was driven by political considerations,” Davis tells News 13. The former state senator added, “People voting for it were driven not by the benefit to the state but by benefit to their personal interest.”

“That money was wasted,” says State Senator Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas). Senator Campos, who also served in the 1991 legislature, has been an outspoken critic of the legislative process that funds capital outlay projects, not based on priorities, but rather politics.

“Resources have gone to projects that don’t serve the public need. What we are seeing are empty buildings, statues, parks and other things like this where the resources have been put to bad use,” Senator Campos says.

And, the Oñate Monument is not the only project where public money has been squandered.

“The state of New Mexico is spending hundreds of millions of dollars too often on non-essential items like doggie drinking fountains, statues (and) sculpture gardens instead of essential needs like water systems and roads and bridges,” says Fred Nathan who heads up the non-partisan think tank, Think New Mexico.

Nathan says it’s time to take the politics out of New Mexico’s legislative capital outlay system. According to Nathan, New Mexico is the only state in the country that uses a political formula for distributing dollars for public infrastructure projects. Nathan told KRQE News 13, “Last year every state senator received a million dollars and every state house member received $600,000 to spend in their near total discretion.”

“There’s billions of dollars of need out there for urgently needed critical public infrastructure projects that aren’t getting funded so we can fund these more political projects,” Fred Nathan says.

Think New Mexico is supporting a bill introduced in this year’s legislature (HB 307) that proposes to overhaul the legislature’s public project spending system. Under the bill, the state’s most urgent infrastructure priorities would be funded based on a transparent merit based system instead of political considerations.

Today, the $2.4 million Oñate Monument is closed. Tourists can still view the imposing Juan de Oñate statue if they are willing to park outside the locked gate and jump the wall. Rio Arriba County is looking for tenants willing to lease the visitor’s center building.

State Senator Emilio Naranjo died in 2008 at the age of 92.

Was the Oñate project Naranjo’s last hurrah? Dr. McGeagh, who recently published a biography of the legendary political boss, has an opinion. “It would have been (a last hurrah) if it had been successful. But since it wasn’t successful it wasn’t much of a hurrah,” McGeagh says.

Read below: The Vision for the Oñate Monument and Visitors Center

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