ALAMOSA – On Thursday night, when upwards of forty people walked into the Knights of Columbus building on the south side of Alamosa for a neighborhood meeting, they were each handed a packet of information containing three separate things: a petition; an announcement of an upcoming meeting of the Alamosa County Commissioners; and a sheet summarizing previous actions and projects that were proposed for the south side but stopped by south side residents over the last 22 years.
Four of the more than forty people who attended were staff members from La Puente.
The south side of Alamosa, separated from the north side by a set of railroad tracks, is one of the most historic, culturally and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city. It is also home to many limited and low-income families, including middle-aged and older adults who are living with their families in houses where they lived as children, themselves, plus others whose south side family roots go back generations.
The meeting was organized by an ad hoc group of south side residents to discuss the sale of Atencio’s Market to La Puente. Atencio’s recently closed its doors after being the third grocer to occupy a building that has served as the neighborhood grocery store for almost three-quarters of a century.
The sale of the building wasn’t the purpose for the meeting. The focus of discussion was the buyer of the building — La Puente, a non-profit 501(c)3 with a large and expanding footprint on the south side where they serve highly vulnerable populations via a shelter, a soup kitchen that serves three meals a day, outreach to a burgeoning homeless population and other programs.
La Puente has purchased Atencio’s to serve as the new site of the Alamosa Food Bank, which is currently located in a smaller space just four blocks away on the north side of the tracks.
While there are some who have praised the move for a multitude of reasons related to greater space, plus the dignity and comfort of the clients accessing the food bank, some residents on the south side have been harshly critical of the purchase for several reasons.
That sentiment seemed to be summed up in the six-word, 24-point, all caps, bold faced sentence at the top of the page handed to all who walked through the door.
“LA PUENTE SUCKER PUNCHES SOUTHSIDE AGAIN”
Penny Petty — longtime south side resident, business owner and one of the meeting organizers — headed up the meeting.
“We were blindsided by this,” Petty said. “We didn’t know anything about La Puente buying Atencio’s for a food bank until they’d already done it. There’s no transparency. There’s been no engagement with people living on the south side where their services are located — no engagement.
“We’re the people who live there and we have no voice. We’ve been shut out.”
Concern also was expressed about the food bank’s proximity to the four-out-of-five buildings all owned and occupied by La Puente located across the street, all four of, including one building used as a shelter with the capacity to serve 60 clients and a soup kitchen that serves three meals a day.
“La Puente already owns the west side of State and now they’re buying up the east side, too,” one man said.
Although specifics could not be confirmed by press time, information shared at the meeting stated that La Puente owns multiple properties in the city, including (aside from the buildings on State Avenue) six other properties on the south side, six downtown properties, four north side properties and one property on the east side.
When asked, La Puente’s Program Services Director Amanda Pearson confirmed that La Puente owns 26 residential properties overall.
Crestina Lucero, a lifelong resident of the south side, said that “enormous footprint” has greatly impacted her life.
“I’ve lived in that neighborhood all my life, and I used to have neighbors,” Lucero said. “I don’t have neighbors anymore. I’m surrounded by La Puente buildings on either side and behind my house. My daughter works late, and I have to stay up to make sure she gets home okay because sometimes we’ll have people sleeping on our porch. So, safety is a factor.”
At different points in the discussion, multiple conversations broke out at once with people sharing frustrations with what they see as declining neighborhoods and experiences with decreasing property value.
At no time was the need for a food bank questioned.
“We all understand people need this,” Petty said.
“But why does it always have to be in our neighborhood? Why don’t they spread it out a little?” another person called out.
“Because…’it’s okay, it’s the south side’” Petty answered. “They’re normalizing discrimination.”
Lisa Lucero, who is involved in multiple community efforts, expressed concern over the south side becoming a food desert with no place providing nearby healthy, affordable food to purchase. That comment led to discussion of Atencio’s being used as a possible combined food co-op and food bank.
“So where do we go from here?” Lucero asked
“Engagement,” Petty stressed again. “It’s never going to get any better if we don’t have communication and engagement with La Puente. Who knows? Some great ideas may come out of that. But if we don’t engage, we’ll never know.”
When asked if La Puente would be willing to include community engagement in their mission statement — which, Pearson said, had not been changed in decades — Pearson answered that it was something they would definitely consider.
“Engagement is messy, and it takes a lot of time,” Pearson said. “But it could be a good thing.”
The meeting ended with Petty reminding people that, on Sept. 28, the Alamosa County Commissioners will have a second public hearing on acting as the fiscal agents for La Puente to receive a Community Block Development Grant to fund the purchase of Atencio’s. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and people are encouraged to attend. Those who can’t attend are encouraged to submit comments either online or in writing to the commissioners’ office.
She also encouraged people to circulate the petitions they had received opposing the county being fiscal agents for the grant.
After the meeting, Lisa Lucero was asked if she felt the anything was accomplished.
“Although nothing was resolved, the meeting tonight could very well be a catalyst to change,” Lisa Lucero said.
Annalise Baer, director of La Puente’s Food Bank Network, was present at the meeting. Following its conclusion, she was asked for her reaction.
“I was really glad to hear everyone’s feedback and concerns, and I plan to work on the tangible and achievable requests neighbors offered for the plan last night,” Baer said.
“I did question the concept that there is ‘one south side voice’, specifically one voice that is uniformly against this project, as I have personally heard a lot of excitement and positive feedback from food bank clients and other south side residents who are not clients. I’m hoping community members continue to offer feedback and suggestions as we work on this project.”
Jayme Martinez, an Alamosa business owner, was asked the same question.
“I definitely feel that the community stepped up and voiced their input, and they were heard,” Martinez said. “This is big because this is where community engagement starts; by advocating for your community or any issue. WE first must hear both sides then talk about what works for everyone.
“This is true engagement and I saw this tonight.”
The south side community wasn’t clear as to what its desired outcome is. Many have said their quality of life has diminished as La Puente grows.
Many feel the headline “La Puente sucker punches south side” is valid. Many would say it’s how most south siders feel.