The two founders of a three-decade old community development incubator that helped launch dozens of businesses in Taos County have moved on to their next project.

Terrie Bad Hand and Pati Martinson lead the Taos County Economic Development Corporation from its start in an office above the old Apple Tree restaurant on Bent Street to a 6-acre campus with a community commercial kitchen and space for startups. Businesses such as Taos Bakes and many local food trucks and restaurants over the years got their start in the TCEDC Food Center kitchen.

Longtime IT director and management assistant Mercedes Rodriguez will take the helm of TCEDC as the executive director. Bad Hand and Martinson will work on a new endeavor – the Native Alliance for Food Sovereignty. “We’ve been working on the transition for three years,” Rodriguez said. “Having them still in town will be great because of their 33 years of experience.”

The two retired from TCEDC in May. But, “they never liked to toot their own horns,” Rodriguez said “They didn’t want a mention of their retirement. (They) wanted us to just little by little let people know they were leaving.”

Right time

Through good times when grant money was easy to come by and they could expand programs to the rough times after the 2008 economic meltdown when Bad Hand and Martinson more than once went without pay, the two friends have kept the center going.

They landed in Taos in 1986 with an invite from Taos Pueblo to work on community development and social justice programs. They ended up working on those same projects for the whole community.

The timing was right. The Molycorp molybdenum mine had closed near Questa. Unemployment was high. A 19-person community council was trying to figure out what to do to reboot the economy.

The two pitched a community development nonprofit with them as co-directors splitting whatever grant money they could bring in. “Our mission was to support food, land, water and the cultures of the peoples of Northern New Mexico,” Martinson said in a recent video interview with Rodriguez’s niece, Marta Rodriguez.

With seed money from the Levinson Foundation, the two started pulling in grants and building partnerships. “We had good relationship with the mayor then, Eloy Jeantete, who was not only on the original council but transitioned onto our board,” Martinson told Rodriguez. “He was very supportive.”

They met with neighborhood groups to “find out what they were thinking, what they needed. It really was a time of crisis not unlike the crisis we are going through today, minus the pandemic, but there were a lot of health issues as well,” Martinston said.

Taos County was still heavily a land-based economy and, similar to today, everyone worked several jobs to survive. The difference back then is many of the jobs people did were small independent businesses. “People here always had several different income streams. Artist, santero, cook, someone who got wood, someone who worked on cars,” Martinson said. “Everyone in a family had a hand in maintaining the lifestyle.”

Inspectors began to crack down on the free-wheeling nature people selling street food. There was no commercial kitchen where people from the community could process and sell their products with the state’s blessing.

Building a community campus

TCEDC obtained a $1 a year lease for office space adjacent to the old Smith’s grocery store in Taos and for 15 years provided space for trainings and workshops and a place for some entrepreneurs to get their start. “It was one of first small business incubators in Northern New Mexico,” Bad Hand said.

But the long-range vision was for a separate campus with a commercial food center that was certified and met health standards so that people could sell their food commercially.

Mel Weimer, who owned a few acres off of Salazar Road, “was a philanthropist in his own right, and was very interested in what we were trying to do,” Martinson said.

He donated 6 acres of land to TCEDC, which gave the nonprofit the equity to leverage loans from the USDA and obtain Community Development Block Grant funds to build the kitchen, offices and spaces for tenants from the original business incubator and “for other nonprofits who couldn’t afford downtown space at all,” Martinson said.

The new campus became the home for the Leaping Lizards preschool, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, the Hispanic Art Council and other groups.

“We had a very complete picture of what a community might look like, from the very young to [those in] middle age, those trying to do employment training and we had seniors,” Bad Hand said. “The vision for the business park was not your usual vision for a business park. It was more of a venue for many different things.”

But “our baby was and always will be the 5,000-square-foot commercial kitchen,” Martinson said.”The idea was to keep it open 24-7 and try not to charge, as much as possible.”

Marshall Thompson, owner of Donabe Asian Kitchen, got his start at the TCEDC Food Center with his Asian noodle cart. He utilized their commercial kitchen and they helped him find small business loans and navigate the bureaucracy of food inspections.

“I did the legwork, but they pointed me in the right direction,” Thompson told the Taos News in 2012. “Being the new kid on the block, I probably wouldn’t have made it without them.”

And years later, he’s one of the TCEDC success stories.

Over the years, TCEDC and the Food Center won accolades, including, in 2016, the Food Center Award from the state Economic Development Department.

Hard times

In 2008, as an economic crisis rolled across the United States, TCEDC wasn’t immune.

Grant money and funds from federal agencies became harder to get, in part because the requirement from grantees changed, according to Martinson and Bad Hand. They saw their funds fall by half by 2010.

They had to lay off half the staff and those left, including Martinson and Bad Hand, took a hefty pay cut. In some months, the co-directors went without pay altogether, just to keep the doors open at the campus.

Grant organizations began favoring groups that could pay their own way through revenue-generating programs, a “self-sustainability” rather than a “social service” model.

“I was really shocked to see how quickly the foundations bought into this new paradigm and shattered one of our last illusions about their true purpose,” Martinson told the Taos News in 2012.

While TCEDC recovered to some degree, the funding framework around it had changed.

“We’ve managed to be innovative, culturally relevant and nationally recognized by responding to the needs of our community,” Martinson said in 2012, describing all of their work as “hands-on.” “We’ve brought the past into the future and vice versa, so I don’t think anyone can accuse us of not being adaptable.”

In 2014, with support from the late Sen. Carlos Cisneros and then Rep. Bobby Gonzales, TCEDC received a much-needed boost in state funding of $100,000 to repair the commercial kitchen.

“It’s timely,” Cisneros said then, after another and final closure of the Questa molybdenum mine. “This facility is going to play an integral role in developing agricultural businesses.”

Six years later, the county is grappling with a pandemic and TCEDC is once again in the position to help.

Moving on

The COIVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the weaknesses in a food supply chain that depends on produce and meat hauled in from afar. It renewed interest in the need for stronger local food systems, the kind that helped Taos County survive through many hard times before.

Bad Hand and Martinson will be working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on funding and technical training for the commercial kitchen and the mobile matanza, which would allow local livestock owners to process and sell their meat. They’ll also be working on a contract for a native seed-saving project.

As for TCEDC, “we need to position ourselves to be at the center of it all again as far as food processing,” Rodriguez said. “We need to develop a marketing campaign to bring more people into the center to have more locally made food. We need to relaunch the mobile matanza, which has been down for five years. Now it is the biggest item in town. Everyone wants it.”

She’s wrapping up a farm-to-school planning grant and wants to relaunch a mentorship program that TCEDC was once known for.

Rodriguez said TCEDC needs to reconnect with its mission and promote its purpose to the community. “We need to recognize where we are at, where we came from, who put it there and really bring it to the next generation,” she said.