- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This past summer, Tricia Ware and Shannon Papin spent eight weeks driving around New Mexico, eating in small-town cafes, hunting for collectibles and visiting unusual attractions.

The result of their road trips is a new Web site — offtheroadNM.com — that takes travelers to places like Alien Zone, a store in Roswell full of UFO memorabilia; Sunland Peanuts in Portales, where you can tour a peanut farm; and the Uranium Cafe in Grants, which boasts the motto “Our Food will Blow Your Mine.”

The Web site is actually a project by New Mexico officials to get visitors off the interstates and into small communities where tourist dollars can boost economic development. Miss Ware is a marketing writer for the state Economic Development Department, and Miss Papin is director of promotions for New Mexico MainStreet, an economic development and historic preservation venture to bring commerce back to city centers.

“We show you where to find bargain collectibles, a cute pair of shoes or a piping-hot plate of green chili enchiladas, all from locally owned businesses found on main streets, town squares and plazas across New Mexico,” says the Web site, which bills itself as being “transparently opinionated.”

Visitors to the Web site can click on seven regions or take a 10-question quiz to match their personality to a road trip.

In all, Miss Ware and Miss Papin toured 19 communities: Artesia, Bernalillo, Carlsbad, Chama, Clayton, Clovis, Corrales, Farmington, Gallup, Grants, Hobbs, Los Alamos, Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Lovington, Portales, Roswell, Silver City and Raton, and two historic Albuquerque neighborhoods.

“We shopped and dined as sneakily and as incognito as we could so we would have the same type of experience as an everyday traveler would have,” Miss Ware said.

They also took 800 “very authentic snapshot-type photos” before getting down to the nitty-gritty of writing short descriptions, editing the photos and collaborating with a consultant and a graphic designer. The Web site includes brief descriptions of towns and sightseeing, along with a slide show.

For example, the promotion for the Four Corners area promises “fabulous Indian jewelry and succulent Mediterranean food in Gallup, good barbecue … in Grants and one heck of a microbrew selection in Farmington.”

The accompanying slide show presents images such as a mural of Navajo Code Talkers in downtown Gallup, the marquee of a theater being restored in Farmington, and a popular coffee shop in Grants.

Miss Ware and Miss Papin asked locals where to eat and where to go. “That’s what made it fun,” Miss Ware said.

Most of the downtown districts are small, so it was possible to check out everything, she said. “We did open the door and go into every store, and we did write about it if we did think it was something of note.”

They made little discoveries, such as the fact every place seems to have its own way of serving chili. In Roswell, it’s green chili as a creamy sauce; Clovis restaurants set out red chili salt on the table along with salt and pepper.

Local history and landscapes are mentioned in passing, but because the project is designed to stimulate economic development, the focus of the Web site is on where to shop and eat. “Our ultimate goal is to keep the MainStreet project thriving. The emphasis was on shopping or places where you could spend your money downtown,” Miss Ware said.

Would-be visitors to New Mexico often check out the Tourism Department’s Web site, and its link to the off-the-road project will be a tremendous help in bringing tourists to places like Hobbs.

“We know we need to look at that lucrative market,” said Brenda Brooks, executive director of MainStreet Hobbs.

Hobbs has a casino, the Zia Park racetrack and a seven-block downtown historic area. Its inclusion in the off-the-road project has already paid a dividend to a local restaurant, Casey’s, which is mentioned on the Web site. One couple who planned a trip to the racetrack told Casey’s owner they found out about the restaurant from the Web site, Miss Brooks said.

Miss Ware looks back on the project as “my summer of high adventure.” She came to New Mexico in 1996, and said she had traveled extensively and thought she had seen everything. The road trip showed her otherwise.

“I found so many fun bargains, so many one-of-a-kind things. People say, ‘Where did you get those shoes?’ Roswell. ‘Where did you get that painting?’ Portales… . Why shouldn’t you shop there and help our downtowns to thrive?”

Much of what the women bought is amusingly catalogued on the Web site. One entry reads: “Purchased: I can’t imagine how I ever survived without their zebra striped flip-flops (yes, another pair).”

• • •

For more information, visit www.offtheroadnm.com, www.newmexico.org or call 800/733-6396.

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