BELEN — Even though the Belen Harvey House Museum isn’t on the market, the city has been showing this property and others to potential investors.
Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova confirmed to the News-Bulletin that he showed the museum to a couple from New York last week, saying they were looking for property to relocate their investment.
“We’ve done this a few times; this isn’t the first time we’ve shown downtown historic properties to potential investors,” Cordova said. “We’ve toured the old City Hall, the Harvey House, the Kuhn Hotel and we tried to get into the Shoelle building, or what they call the Thompson building, but we couldn’t get a hold of the owner.”
Cordova said the city has been contacted by several investors in the past year or so who are interested in investing in downtown Belen. He said they are “doing the dog and pony show,” showing them everything they can to get them excited about the Hub City.
“I like to leave all options on the table because that’s where we find more success in the long term as a city,” Cordova said when asked if he would be willing to sell the Harvey House, which is located on First Street. “Each building comes with its own difficulty … but if it’s in private hands, it’s a little easier if it’s not in public hands.”
Cordova said he met with an investor who approached him about two and a half months ago who was looking for a historic, dilapidated building and to redevelop residential areas. He said that person was able to buy several homes, including a city-owned home on Aragon Road.
“That developer was also very interested in the potential in having a historic hotel in downtown Belen,” the mayor said. “We showed him options and what was possible.”
Saying he understands people might not like the idea of the city selling the Belen Harvey House Museum or other historic buildings, Cordova wanted to make it clear that no official offers have been made.
“I’m absolutely, 100 percent willing to consider the options because that’s how we move Belen forward,” Cordova said. “(The Harvey House) is the most valuable — from a historic standpoint and because it’s in the best condition. That one is pretty tough,” he said. “Old Belen City Hall is a little easier.”
The mayor said the city was considering selling the old City Hall building, located on the corner of Becker Avenue and Fifth Street, about 10 or so years ago for $146,000 but the deal never went through.
The potential investors who toured the Harvey House last week was a couple from New York and, from what Cordova understands, have an art-related investment in New Mexico.
“It sounds to me that they are trying to relocate their New Mexico investment to our arts district,” Cordova said. “We haven’t gotten past just looking at multiple buildings. That’s about as far as we are, but I’m sure that this article will do a great job in chasing them away.”
Cordova said he hasn’t brought this in front of the city council, and isn’t required to at this point.
“When the time is appropriate and I have to file certain paperwork or need certain approvals, it will go in front of the council,” he said.
When asked by the News-Bulletin if he thinks the public has a right to know that he is showing and contemplating selling publicly-funded and city-owned property, the mayor said he is making strategic approaches to ensure sound investment in the city.
“When we get ahead of those strategic approaches, all we do is stir up unnecessary controversy and you chase away people with money. That’s exactly what is going to happen here,” he said.
Cordova said the investors have not made an offer, and are touring other properties in Albuquerque.
While two city councilors — Danny Bernal Jr. and Robert Noblin — told the News-Bulletin they were informed by the mayor of the potential investors and the tour, the other two — Ronnie Torres and Frank Ortega — were not aware.
Torres, who worked as the museum tech for several years and volunteered at the Harvey House for years before that, said he was stunned when he learned of the news.
“When I first heard they were showing the Harvey House, we were at a meeting at Jaramillo Vineyards for an upcoming Judy Chicago event,” Torres said. “It was a couple of people from New York, and they started talking about possibly buying it.”
Torres said he didn’t speak to the couple, but was surprised that he, as a city councilor, wasn’t informed.
“I was completely surprised,” Torres said. “How do these other people know about it and I don’t?”
Torres said he believes the Belen Harvey House Museum is “Belen’s gem,” and “it’s a piece of history that we have in our community that is open to the public.”
He said the building is one of the only publicly-owned Harvey Houses in the United States.
“Ours is alive and well, where people come to learn about the history of the Fred Harvey Houses, the railroad and Belen,” he said. “ Before anything happens, it should come before council. This building doesn’t belong to just a couple of people. We need to know how the community feels about it.”
Torres said he’s not against growth, but says the city, the council and the community should all have a say in it.
“We should all do this as a team and do it together,” he said. “Let’s talk about it, let’s discuss it and let’s have a conversation.”
Bernal said the mayor made him aware of the situation about a week ago.
“I wasn’t necessarily thrilled,” Bernal said. “I don’t think it should be on the market without the whole council knowing,”
Bernal said at this point, he wouldn’t consider selling the Harvey House or the old City Hall, but said, “I don’t want to back myself into a corner.”
“If we are ever going to consider selling it, it would have to be for an extremely good price,” Bernal added. “It’s a national historic building, and I’m just worried it would be cut off from the public (if sold to a private buyer). It hasn’t officially come before the council, and we need to get public input and then I would consider.”
He also said he was concerned because a lot of taxpayer money has been utilized to maintain the Harvey House, including the current reroofing of the building which was funded by $120,000 in state capital outlay.
Bernal also said the old City Hall building might be sufficient to house the Belen Area Food Pantry, which is needing to move to a new location.
Noblin said he did know the couple had reached out to a local real estate agent for properties, and the mayor had asked his opinion regarding the city selling the museum.
“My thoughts are is it has to go to the council before we entertain the thought of selling a landmark like that,” Noblin said. “We would have to look at everything — will it be cared for in a timely manner? Is it going to be somehow endowed back to the city sometime in the future? And how do you value a historical landmark like that?”
Noblin said any time one looks at selling a historic property, he would weigh whether the long-term care of the building would be sufficient, would the citizens be better off continuing to fund the museum or would it be better served by a private property owner.
“There’s nothing wrong showing it, but before making any decisions moving forward, it should certainly come before the council and the public, and get input from local historians and those closely involved with the Harvey House for years,” he said.
“The city of Belen is very reactive in its care of these historic properties,” he said. “I’d really like to see a plan in place for the long term care of these sites. Under the current conditions, I wouldn’t trust the care of my historical chapel to the city.”
When called and questioned about the city showing the historic properties to potential investors, Ortega said he was not made aware of it.
“No one told me; this is the first I’m hearing of it,” Ortega told the News-Bulletin on Tuesday. “I would think it would have been brought up in front of the council.”
Ortega said he wants to hear from the community about the possibility of selling the Harvey House before he comes to his own conclusion.
“We have to get public input, then make sure what the fair market value is for the property,” Ortega said. “There’s a lot of variables before we say yes or no.
“I’m in shock that I didn’t know something this important,” he added. “I guess transparency isn’t being practiced by everyone.”
The historic building, which is 11,200 square feet and sits on 1.26 acres, is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties.
According to the Valencia County Assessor’s Office, the actual value of the property is $1,056,769, which is not necessarily the market value.
It has had many uses in its more than 111 years, from a Harvey House with its first-class dining room and lunchroom from 1910 to 1939, to a reading room for railroaders and finally a museum. In the 1950s, the building became the Santa Fe Reading Room for railroad employees, serving as a break room and dormitory through the 1970s.
When the railroad didn’t have use for the building any longer, they boarded it up, and after several years, the railroad decided it was going to demolish the building. It was a group of like-minded citizens who successfully campaigned to save the building, and in the early 1980s, the Santa Fe Railroad donated it to the city of Belen.
Volunteers began restoring the building and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in October 1983.
The Harvey House reopened two years later as a civic center, and to ensure its preservation, the city turned over operations to the Valencia County Historical Society, who operated it as a museum. In 2013, the city took over management. Now, the Belen Harvey House Museum specializes in Harvey House, railroad and Belen history.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.