During the last couple of months of the novel coronavirus pandemic, local business — large and small — were forced to either close or curtail services to help contain the spread of COVID-19.
As Valencia County, the state and other areas across the country continues to gradually reopen, there’s a new reality — some businesses couldn’t overcome the economic hardship, forcing them to shut their doors for good.
The Torres family had to come to a difficult decision at the beginning of the closures — to not reopen the historic Luna Mansion, which has been a fine-dining restaurant for many years. Joell Himeur, daughter of Pete and Hortencia Torres, who bought the building in 2009, said the decision to close was based on different factors, from the cost of food to family.
“As we talked about it more and more as a family, we just decided that lucratively it was going to take a lot to open the mansion,” Himeur said. “The cost of food there is so high, beef prices have gone up tremendously, and we’re just at a point where family became the priority. It takes a lot to run two restaurants and I think we were at the point where we took this as a sign.”
Himeur said it had been for sale last year, but it is currently not listed. In terms of what will become of the Luna Mansion, she said the family is open to different possibilities.
“We’re just kind of biding our time to see how the next couple months play out. We’re not really under any pressure to put it for sale and we’re open to offers,” she said. “We just really want to see the building taken care of and we want to see the building thrive.
“It’s really bittersweet. It was a hard decision for us. We feel like it is such an iconic part of Los Lunas and New Mexico history and it’s such a beautiful building.”
The Luna Mansion is a national historic registered building and she said it was an honor for the family to have taken care of it up to this point. Because of its designation, the village or state will still not be able to widen the road in front of the mansion, which is a question the family gets asked.
“We just want to thank you for the past 10 years, the community really supported us and we’re really grateful for that,” she said. “We hope the future holds something bright for that place.”
The decision to permanently close The Porch in Belen was bittersweet for owner Ruth Wessels as well. She opened the business, which had offered massage therapy, reflexology, foot baths and energy work, on July 2, 2009.
When she was forced to close her business at 515 W. Reinken Ave in mid-March, it was the beginning of the end, Wessels said.
“We did the best we could,” said Wessels, who has been a massage therapist for 32 years. “We went along with the orders given because we wanted to keep everyone safe.”
In the meantime, she and the two other independent massage therapists who worked at The Porch weren’t making any money, and Wessels was still on the hook for rent and other business-related expenses.
At 72 years old, Wessels had been thinking for awhile about retiring, but in the wake of COVID-19, the decision was essentially made for her.
“I had been looking at slowing down next year anyway,” she said. “I just thought this was the time to get it done. I made the decision in May so I wouldn’t have to try and make another rent payment for June.”
Wessels said the other two massage therapists have since found work, one in Valencia County and another in Albuquerque.
While she is figuring out the retired life, Wessels is sad to leave her customers, saying many have wished her well on her new adventure.
“It was a sanctuary for a lot of people,” she said. “We’re still here to be with people, we can talk and support. If they want to call, I can refer them to the ladies that were there, or I can just be here to talk with them.
“I want to thank the community because they’re awesome, and we love this place and we appreciate those who we’ve been able to help.”
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has rippled through every industry, including gyms. Extreme Fitness in Belen couldn’t outlast the coronavirus pandemic, and owner Deanna Montoya permanently closed the group fitness center after 12 years in operation.
Montoya declined to comment for this story.
Steven Tomita, the city of Belen’s planning and economic manager, said he feels for these locally-owned business owners who have been forced to make these hard decisions.
“When you have to close down, it’s tough,” Tomita said. “Everyone is still concerned the virus can do an upswing and everything can be shut down again. That’s a big fear.”
While several business in Valencia County are closing, one national chain has reversed it’s initial decision to transition into another and will close its retail business in Belen.
Stage Stores, which owns Bealls and Gordmans department stores, recently filed for bankruptcy. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the company had been planning to close the Belen Bealls store, but was going to transition the space to open a Gordmans. Tomita said that is no longer the case.
As the orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham continued to close or curtail business practices across New Mexico, there was a concerted push for people to shop and eat at locally-owned businesses. Tomita said he believes that campaign has helped a lot of small businesses.
“Before the coronavirus, I had a feeling Belen was losing a lot of money from people going to Albuquerque to shop and eat,” Tomita said. “I think they were skipping Los Lunas to go into Albuquerque.
“But, in the past couple of months, people have stayed home, and are supporting local business,” he said.
According to the most recent gross receipts taxes reported to the city, it was better than the year before. In March, $621,291 in GRT was reported in Belen, compared to $536,401 the year prior.
“I’m hoping because people had to stay here, they were shopping here,” Tomita said. “So far, so good. We’ll see when we get our May report. Hopefully the hit will be pretty mild.”
While some businesses have closed, several new businesses have opened or are planning to open soon.
Tractor Supply opened its newest location next to Walmart in Belen in April, and Tomita said a wine company out of Corrales will soon open a tasting room in the Thompson building on Main Street.
Margie Rende is reopening her consignment store, Anew, on June 20, at the location of the old Domino’s on North Sixth St. She closed the shop in July 2018 after flood waters damaged the old storefront.
A new flower shop, Floressence Floral Boutique and Gifts, is scheduled to open on June 22 at 619 N. Main St. in Belen, where the old Sunshine Flowers used to be.
When asked why the construction of the new Circle K on Main Street and Aragon has been stalled, Tomita said the company is having trouble finding a contractor to relocate the storm drain.
“The water table is the problem; they’re hoping for the water table to go down,” Tomita said. “They have to dewater. The gas tanks will be above ground.”
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.