Polly Raye calls herself a “serial entrepreneur,” and in the nearly 40 years of building a life in Taos, she’s been involved in everything from a restaurant to nonprofits to the iconic John Dunn House Shops, which she owns. Raye sat down with The Taos News to share her thoughts on the state of retail, 21st-century jobs and economic development in Taos.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I grew up outside Boston. I spent my early post-college years working in finance. I actually went to three different business schools because of my husband’s transfers. I worked as a stock broker and a financial analyst. So that’s my business background.
So how did you get to Taos?
I moved here in the mid ‘70s to live at the Lama Foundation with my three small children. I lived there three years, and by that time had fallen in love with New Mexico. I couldn’t find a job and neither could any of my friends. We had a little meditation group and out of that we started the Apple Tree Restaurant. We were trying to practice the Buddhist idea of right livelihood. I was trying to do something to create employment because everybody needs a job. I ran that for almost 10 years. When I sold it, I had about 70 employees.
And how did you come to own the John Dunn House Shops?
There was a man named Harvey Mudd. Harvey had lived at New Buffalo commune. While he was there, he had some friends who wanted to start business, so he converted the John Dunn House into seven small shops. In 1982, he asked me to buy the building because we had a similar commune background and knew I’d take care of his friends. It was a very close trust.
Are you still involved in the management of those shops?
Very involved. The two things that really motivate me are the beauty and the sense of community. I put in a lot of effort to make it a welcoming place for people, and a beautiful place. The sense of community among all the shop owners and all the people who come to visit. That’s where I put in a lot of energy.
Do you have any guiding philosophy for the John Dunn shops?
What I’ve tried to do over the years is put in real shops for real people. There’s a fabric shop, a kitchen shop, a really nice men’s clothing shop and two galleries that showcase local artists. Shops people actually want and need to go to, rather than shops you go in just because you happen to walk by.
What’s been a challenge of managing that operation?
When I have a vacancy, the biggest challenge is finding a shop that sells real goods, not walk-by goods. Every time I get a vacancy I get 10 phone calls. Finding people who also have a big heart and vision and energy is key.
Tell me more about good energy.
I think if you put out good energy, good energy will come back to you.
With over 35 years of experience as a downtown businessperson, what’s the most essential piece to improving the historic district?
The biggest need in the downtown business community is good parking. It’s been the biggest need for 30 years. There are 900 [parking] spaces downtown. That’s nowhere near enough. What we’ve dreamed of is a big parking garage, ideally located at the intersection of Paseo del [Pueblo] Sur and Placitas. There was a negotiation years ago, but it fell through. It’d relieve traffic congestion, and it could accommodate hundreds of cars. Right now, if a tourist parks at a parking meter, they feel rushed and anxious. If we had a parking garage, they’d have time to fall in love with Taos. The long-term vision of creating the Taos Historic Walking District can be realized, and the first step is adequate parking.
Where do you see tourism fitting into Taos’ economic growth?
It’s an important part of our economy. We need to nourish it. People used to come here and love Taos. That hasn’t been happening recently. I think we’ve been marketing to the wrong demographic: 20- and 30-year-olds. They love to come here and ski and river raft, but most of them don’t have a lot of free time and income. The 50-80-year-olds are approaching retirement, with free time and income. It’s still an active age group. They’re the ones that’ll come and stay for a week. That’s what we need to market: stay for a week, not just a day.
But retail is looking good?
There is a huge disruption in retail right now.
With e-commerce, which is growing at 16 percent a year right now. People aren’t going to department stores like they used to. If they need that stuff they’ll go online. The shops that are doing well are those that are creating an interesting experience for people.
Thinking about long-term economic development, what do you think is important?
The field of vision needs to be big. The kinds of jobs at the [Questa] mine were good jobs for good people. They learned on the job. But those jobs are disappearing from the world economy. The jobs that are really out there are in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields. That’s where the best ones are going to be for the next two generations at least. And our kids need after-school activities.
How else is education important?
The University of New Mexico-Taos. [It will] spend $4.6 million in the next 18 months renovating their two big buildings downtown. UNM is the 17th fastest-growing community college in the U.S. in its size class. UNM students can learn the skills they need for well-paying jobs in computer sciences, commercial driving, forestry and a variety of medical fields, including dental work and nursing.
For 28 years, Taos County Economic Development Corp. has been teaching Taoseños to create profitable businesses from agriculture. Today there are 30 to 40 small businesses operating from TCEDC’s commercial kitchen, most employing one to three people. Over 100 small businesses have “graduated” to other locations and are operating profitably. They’re supporting the agricultural lifestyles. Families that farm and ranch carry on and preserve the cultural traditions of Taos.