The Voice of the Underdog®
It was 10 p.m. and pitch black in the desert, and we were leaning forward in a futile attempt to help our 33-year-old 70 horsepower Volkswagen van struggle its way up a mountain on US 70. Our destination that night was Roswell, New Mexico, which was a full 100 miles off course—or two-and-a-half hours out of the way at our ambling pace. The three of us were driving from Tucson where we had flown in that morning to pick up the van, a classic orange beauty we planned to use for a special promotion for a client. It had taken us every bit of 12 hours to make just 400 miles but we were determined to swing north and hit Roswell on our journey back to Dallas. Passing up the opportunity to stay the night in alien country wasn’t an option.
Roswell is one of a million small towns that dot the American landscape, and it’s known for just one thing—the 1947 UFO incident. From a marketing standpoint, the “incident” is what I call a Lucky Strike Extra. But it was an opportunity that lay dormant and largely untapped for 30 years until Jesse Marcel broke his silence about the incident in a 1978 interview and became the first in a long string of Roswellians to talk about the subject and breathe life into the legend.
Not everyone jumped on the UFO bandwagon at first. There were some short-sighted civic leaders and a faction of townsfolk back in the day that preferred to toil away in their chosen fields revolving around agriculture, ranching and light manufacturing. But the only industry that has really mattered much over the years in Chaves County is the military, and the economic fortunes of the town have risen and fallen with the government’s interest in supporting it. And, unfortunately, many have been left out of the local economy altogether with more than 20 percent of residents living below poverty level. But the resurgent interest in the UFO incident has given Roswell a brand new industry: tourism. And enough of the citizenry has embraced the new industry to turn it into something financially meaningful. For instance, the local International UFO and Research Center, which operates out of a failed movie theater on Main Street, has contributed an estimated $35 million to the local economy since it opened in 1992, according to its director.
And let’s face it, the only reason we deviated from the more direct route recommended by Mapquest was our boyish curiosity. And we were not disappointed. Sure, it’s hokey in its presentation, but we found a town in the middle of the New Mexico desert that knows who it is and delivers on its identity. From the McDonald’s that looks like a UFO to street lights painted to look like alien heads, you get the sense that Roswell knows that the public’s appetite for high strangeness is money in the bank.
And so they feed it. They give the customers what they want. It’s an all-you-can eat buffet of aliens, UFOs, weird people and strange stories. And there’s more on the way. Two entrepreneurs have plans to build a $67 million resort conference center for UFO enthusiasts, and the city recently green-lighted a UFO-themed amusement park. The target audience: anyone who likes UFOs, Star Trek and the Sci-Fi Channel.
“We’re still in the infancy of our UFO-related economic development,” said city planner Gene Frazier. “Eventually, when people come to town, they’re not going to have enough time to do everything they want to do.”
As it was, we could only spend the night and stick around for a few hours the next morning. Still, we left behind $600 bucks at a hotel and a local gift shop between the three of us. And it sure beat staying in Nogal or Tinnie. Who’s ever heard of those places, anyway?
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