Director of Community Development helps build the city’s future

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By Mike Cook

“Let’s find a way to get it built.”

That’s the personal mantra of City of Las Cruces Community Development Department (CDD) Director Larry Nichols, who has dedicated his adult life to building, as a volunteer, contractor and public servant in three states and two countries.

While in the Peace Corps, Nichols built schools in Afghanistan and tried to teach Afghan boys and girls how to play basketball. Other Highlights: He was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and he met President George W. Bush in the Oval Office.

Today, with Las Cruces experiencing record construction growth, Nichols oversees a department of more than 50 employees who are responsible for city subdivisions, zoning, and signs; building permits and licenses; and city and county transportation planning.

“It’s a question of land use,” said Nichols, who became director of CDD five years ago.

Nichols was born in Missouri and moved to Las Cruces with his parents when he was 7 years old.

He remembers a “Welcome to Las Cruces” sign showing the town’s population at 17,000 (it’s about 105,000 today).

Nichols attended Alameda Elementary School and Alameda Junior High School and graduated from Las Cruces High School, where he played on two state championship teams, one in basketball (coached by Lou Henson) and one on the track. He also played baseball and football for the Bulldawgs.

His grandfather owned a motel in town, and his father owned a Texaco gas station and an A&W drive-in, where young Nichols made root beer floats.

Starting at age 12, Larry swept the aisles of the Texaco station, checked the tires, washed the windows and cleaned the toilets. He still remembers the pride he felt when an inspector listed the station as having “registered clean toilets”.

“It was my proudest moment,” Nichols said.

After earning a degree in architecture from Arizona State University, Nichols joined the Peace Corps, serving as a school architect in Afghanistan, helping build eight to ten schools. Teaching Afghan children to play basketball was a particular challenge, he said, as they developed their own version of the game that was more like rugby, tackling the opponent, picking up the ball and trying to score.

“They had a great time,” recalls Nichols.

After returning to the United States, Nichols joined the United States Army, where he served as a field artillery officer and battalion intelligence officer and taught leadership. Nichols served six months “in the bush” near the Cambodian border in Vietnam, rising to the rank of first lieutenant and becoming a decorated veteran.

After four and a half years in the Army, Nichols returned to Las Cruces and started his own business as a construction contractor.

“I had a van and a toolbox,” he said.

Nichols has worked on small government contracts throughout the region, including White Sands Missile Range, Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases and Fort Bliss.

He then became a building inspector for the state of New Mexico, working in the southern part of the state. This was followed by several years as a planner for Luna County, with an office in Deming, then as the city building department manager of Yuma, Arizona.

After five years in Yuma, Nichols moved to El Paso, where he worked in the construction and planning department before becoming director of the city’s General Services Department, which oversaw 256 buildings covering 4 million square feet. .

In El Paso, Nichols worked with Stuart Ed, who would become Las Cruces city manager in October 2016. Ed invited Nichols to apply for the position of CDD manager at Las Cruces. Nichols was chosen for the position out of eight applicants, telling Ed and other city leaders, “I think I can make a difference.”

There’s a photo in Nichols’ office at Las Cruces City Hall of him and his wife, Denise, and their son, Grant, during a 2008 meeting with the then-president, George W. Bush, at the White House.

“It’s my office; that’s where I work,” Nichols recalled, telling them Bush. The meeting took place because Grant worked in the president’s office.

There’s also a photo in Nichols’ office of Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, stars of the 1949-57 television series “The Lone Ranger,” which Nichols uses to illustrate how he runs his department.

“There is no Lone Ranger,” he said. “It’s teamwork.”

“I’ve had an amazing life,” Nichols said.

And despite traveling twice around the world and living in four other states, “I’ve always considered Las Cruces my home,” he said.

It is an honor and a pleasure to work with Larry Nichols, said Deputy City Manager Eric Enriquez. “He changed the culture of community development to focus on customer needs and requests in a friendly and efficient way. We are very lucky to have Larry as our Community Development Manager.

City building at record pace

The Community Development Department had a banner year in 2021, Nichols said in a City of Las Cruces news release. There were $321.7 million in permit assessments in 2021, according to department reports, as 907 new homes were built in Las Cruces, 9,641 permits were issued, more than 18,800 inspections were completed , 137 planning development projects have been submitted, and 644 solar system permits have been issued. .

The permit valuation at Las Cruces for December 2021 was $27,034,884, 54% higher than the permit valuation of $17.4 million collected in December 2020.

The city continues to experience downturns in the construction industry due to the pandemic, according to the news release. “Shortages of labor, unavailability of equipment and appliances, and some shortages of building materials have been experienced in Las Cruces, and these continue to have a limiting impact in some cases on the residential construction activities,” the city said.

And, if you think Las Cruces is a retirement community, consider this: Only 16% of new home buyers in 2021 were retired. Most are younger, and a significant majority have moved to Las Cruces from other locations, Nichols said.

That growth “is going to continue,” Nichols said. “I’m just happy to be part of it.”

Construction in Las Cruces hasn’t stopped or slowed down during the pandemic, he said, but the city has begun interactive video inspections (IVIs), allowing the city’s eight inspectors to track the growing volume of work by performing approximately 30 IVIs per day, compared to the previous 12-15 on-site inspections.

CDD has a good rapport with the construction industry, Nichols said, because he and his staff are “finding ways to be less governmental and more entrepreneurial.”

“I like to see things progress,” Nichols said.

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