- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

PLAYAS, N.M. - Most of the 260 adobe-style homes here are abandoned, rising like silent monuments in the eerily quiet high desert just 50 miles north of the U.S. border in New Mexico’s southwestern “boot heel.” The pale pink and white homes pay homage to a once-bustling community of 1,000, where only 60 remain.

The town’s three parks sit idle, swings dangling motionless in the warm afternoon sun, brush growing up between the jungle bars. The barbecue grills and pits are unused on this day, as are the picnic tables. Three lighted youth baseball fields, which used to be filled every Saturday with uniform-clad youngsters and anxious parents, are abandoned, and tumbleweeds having filled the dugouts.

The meticulously manicured city plaza, once the hub of a busy company town owned by Phelps Dodge Corp, has been mowed recently and is still green, shaded by dozens of towering trees that line the community’s wide asphalt streets.

But the plaza itself is a ghost town; the once busy Phelps Dodge Mercantile is closed, as is the community center, the bank, the medical clinic, the post office, the library, the bowling alley and the Feel Good Fitness Center.

“This was a very nice place to live, very active and very alive,” said Tommy Townsend, a Phelps Dodge maintenance specialist and one of the 60 remaining residents. “What happened here is very sad, but you get over it. As they say, there’s no point in crying over spilled milk.”

The 640-acre township once was a beehive of activity, with hundreds of trucks and train cars daily carrying copper ore to the Phelps Dodge Hildalgo smelter just south of here. But the first layoffs began in 1999, as the price of copper dropped, and continued. Now, the town is for sale.

But there is a new plan to revitalize the area, although it will never be the community that Mr. Townsend and others once loved.

The Board of Regents at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology recently approved a purchase agreement that would allow the state-supported research university in Socorro, N.M., to move forward on becoming Playas’ new owner. The university hopes to turn the site into a training center for the Department of Homeland Security and other national domestic-preparedness programs through the school’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program.

Earlier this year, administrators from New Mexico Tech and Phelps Dodge signed off on a tentative $5 million real estate deal — for the Playas township and 1,200 adjoining acres — that would transform this remote company town into a major training and research facility.

New Mexico Tech hopes to establish a center that would provide Homeland Security and other federal agencies with what it calls standardized emergency operations training for first responders and advanced training for emergency operations and medical personnel.

The purchase is subject to approval by the New Mexico Board of Finance and the state’s Commission on Higher Education.

University officials said the proposed antiterrorism training facility would focus, among other things, on ways to protect pipelines and transportation systems, methods for preventing suicide bombings and training for local government officials. It also would have programs to recognize and prevent agroterrorism and the spread of plant and animal diseases.

“Once the purchase is finalized, New Mexico Tech will then look forward to initiating a whole range of research activities and training programs in and around Playas that will directly support homeland-security efforts, not only at the state and national levels, but on a global basis as well,” said New Mexico Tech President Daniel H. Lopez.

Van Romero, vice president for research and economic development at the school, said the university already has received “a number of inquiries” from public and private entities seeking to work collaboratively with the university on various research projects.

“The Playas facility will expand New Mexico Tech’s capabilities to do both fundamental and applied research in support of homeland security,” Mr. Romero said.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, has made a formal request for federal funding for an environmental assessment that could speed up the establishment here of a Homeland Security training center. He asked last month for a $2 million appropriation to be included in the fiscal 2005 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill for the environmental assessment.

“Negotiations on the future of the town are on track and should be resolved soon. In order to use the town to its full extent, an environmental assessment will be necessary,” Mr. Domenici said. “I want to be sure that resources are available to clear any last hurdles to establishing this training center at Playas.

“I am optimistic about the opportunities Playas provides for enhancing homeland security training,” said Mr. Domenici, who serves on the Appropriations homeland security subcommittee. “As a full-fledged and relatively modern town, Playas offers the necessary facilities to operate a national emergency-response training, research and development center.”

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