LAS CRUCES – It was more than symbolic that Saturday’s dedication of Plaza de Las Cruces began with a parade Grand Marshalled, in part, by three Las Cruces mayors — dating back to 1991. Former mayor Bill Mattiace rode with M*A*S*H star Loretta Swit and Mayor Ken Miyagishima in a 1935 Ford Phaeton driven by former mayor Ruben Smith.
As the parade crept down Main Street, children played in the city’s newest splash pad — created by Guy Marsh of Sundance Water Designs in memory of late Las Cruces businessman Colonel J. Henry Gustafson and his wife, Caroline Kiser Gustafson. The project was funded by donations from the Gustafson family and the family of the late Cynthia Ott-Askew. Both were longtime champions of the downtown revitalization project. Saturday would have been the 97th birthday for Henry Gustafson, who died in 2006.
“Who’s ready to dedicate a plaza,” asked former Las Cruces City Manager Robert Garza, kicking off the dedication ceremony to a wave of applause from the hundreds gathered for the occasion. After an invocation by Bishop Oscar Cantú and the National Anthem, performed by Janice Jones, Miyagishima addressed the crowd.
“This is an example of what we can accomplish when we work together,” he said. State Representative Jeff Steinborn, who has been involved in the project for nearly a decade, said the plaza heralds “a new chapter in Las Cruces’ history.”
Former Mayor Ruben Smith, the city’s longest-serving mayor (1991-2003), began the project early in his first term — and has helped spearhead it through to its ultimate unveiling. Fighting back tears, he recognized his godfather, former New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Sosa, who died earlier this month.
“The entertainment you will see today — on the floor, on the stage, all around — that’s what the plaza is meant to be,” Smith said. “We needed to bring it back to create the heart of Las Cruces. Each and every one of you, I thank you very much for being here, for helping celebrate what I think is one of the most glorious days in the city of Las Cruces — probably in my lifetime.”
Steve Newby, the architect who designed the plaza, called the unveiling “the culmination of about 40 years of advocacy and standing on the shoulders of giants.”
“It literally took hundreds, if not thousands, of people to get to this day,” Newby told the Sun-News. “All day, I’ve been brought back to the quote by Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, ‘If you wisely invest in beauty, it will last all the days of your life.’ And I truly believe that this community has truly created something of beauty.”
Miyagishima did not think the significance of Saturday’s dedication could be overstated.
“This is a very historic day for Las Cruces — probably right up there with the incorporation, back in 1849,” he told the Sun-News. “This is almost like a rebirth of the city. I predict, in the next four years, you’re going to see an investment of between $30 million and $60 million in private and public investment. It’s almost like the roots of a tree — you’re going to see it start spreading to other parts.” Steinborn agreed.
“This is significant beyond what we can appreciate today,” he said. “It’s a new chapter in Las Cruces’ history. And it’s, visually, just a beautiful piece of architecture. It’s an incredible addition to Las Cruces.”
Cheryl Calzada, born and raised in Las Cruces, sat on the wall surrounding the splash pad and watching her daughter and grandchildren playing in the water.
“I’ve been hearing about a downtown plaza for nearly my whole life,” she said. “It means a lot to be here today. As I was growing up, the downtown area was basically closed off. The only time we ever came down here was for the Whole Enchilada Fiesta. This is an awesome space. I’ve been waiting for the splash pad to open up. The kids just love it. I think this is wonderful for Las Cruces.”
Sigrid Gustafson, Henry and Caroline’s daughter, said the project has been driven by passion.
“My dad was really attached to downtown,” she said. “One of his visions was for it to be lively and vibrant, and open to everybody. We finally got the opportunity create this fabulous splash pad for the plaza.”
Sigrid’s brother, Stuart Gustafson, spoke during the dedication ceremony.
“We wanted a water feature that was more than a fountain. We wanted something that would inspire joy in people as they interacted with it,” Gustafson said, over squeals of joy that could be heard from the children playing in it as he spoke.
At night, the splash pad is synced with a light show that accompanies the bursts of water. It can be programmed for special occasions.
“I really think this marks the beginning of Las Crucens being able to visualize how amazing downtown can be,” said Arianna Parsons, executive director of the Downtown Las Cruces Partnership. “People are very visual. They need to see big, catalytic changes like this. But I hope they also understand that this is not the end product. This is a jumping-off point; this is really just the beginning.”
Russ Smith, chair of Project MainStreet, agreed.
“I’ve seen so many little things in the past few days that tell us we haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities,” Smith said. “This is an instant multiplier for downtown. We have seen nothing yet. There are ways of celebrating on this plaza and with this stage that have not even been thought of yet.”
Photos: Anayssa Vasquez/SunNews