Playas, N.M., Bought as Homeland Security Terror Training Center

The quiet, nearly abandoned mining town of Playas, N.M., is about to explode with activity as an anti-terrorist training center begins operations in a matter of weeks.

The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology purchased the former Phelps Dodge Corp. mining town for $5 million on Wednesday, a day after getting the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

While plans to transform Playas into a training center have been in the works for months, the DHS's five-year use agreement allowed for the real estate deal to be finalized and for the creation of the National Emergency Response Training, Research and Development Center to move forward.

``My feeling yesterday was simply of elation,'' New Mexico Tech President Daniel Lopez said in a telephone interview. ``We've done a lot of legwork in anticipation, but we have not been able to pull the trigger because we did not own the property.''

Now that Playas, in southwestern New Mexico, has been sold to the university, Lopez said two projects are expected to get under way by next month.

The Department of Defense will work with a South American country on joint anti-terrorist exercises, Lopez said. He said he could not disclose which country.

And, the U.S. Army and Tech's Energetic Materials and Testing Center will conduct a joint test on a new sensor that can be used outside a building to detect people, ammunition and weapons inside, he said.

Playas -- built by Phelps Dodge in 1972 -- is a 640-acre township that contains 259 company-owned homes, a 25-unit apartment complex, community center, grocery store, medical clinic and air strip and has 1,200 surrounding acres.

The setting provides an ideal classroom to train police officers, firefighters and others in simulated terrorist attacks and other disasters. Trainers hope to set up mock scenarios using Playas homes and buildings, and fly airplanes and helicopters over the town.

About 60 residents still live in the town, which had a peak population of about 1,000 in the 1970s.

``Our hope is not to disrupt the few people that are still in the community,'' Lopez said.

But, with some of the anticipated anti-terrorist exercises involving aircraft flying over the town, he acknowledges that Playas might not be as peaceful as it once was.

``They may leave of their own choosing,'' he said. ``But the people seem very excited.''

Several Playas residents said Wednesday they are excited about the center beginning operations.

``Most people that I've talked to (who) live out here are welcoming it,'' said Norman Wright, who maintains the old Phelps Dodge smelter in town. ``They're looking for a new opportunity, a new employer.''

Joseph Bailey, 19, said he hopes the venture will bring in more people, especially young people to the nearby high school in Animas, which has about 100 students.

``I think it will bring a little progress to the town and will open up the area,'' he said.

Lopez said New Mexico Tech hopes to hire about 200 people over the next five years. He estimates the training center's first-year operating budget will be between $3 million and $5 million.

Tech -- a science and engineering university that grew out of the New Mexico School of Mines -- has done military research for decades and has helped train thousands of police and firefighters.

After the 1995 bombing of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City, it began moving more toward anti-terrorism programs and has racheted them up after Sept. 11, 2001.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a member of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee, helped the university to obtain funding from DHS to pay for the purchase of the town and for a $1.8 million operating budget for the first year of operations.

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