Like many other sunbelt communities, Las Cruces' economy is booming. The city is the fastest-growing metro area in New Mexico and among the top 10 in the United States. The median age is younger than the state or national average, providing a prime, mostly bilingual, labor source. Private and public sectors continue to fuel the economy, whereas the conditions in other parts of the country, such as climate, cost of living, and quality of life, are less attractive to people and companies looking to relocate.
The four mainstays of the local economy are agriculture, commerce, education, and defense/aerospace. Since World War II, federal, state, and local government have become the main source of jobs in the area, due to the proximity of New Mexico State University (NMSU) and White Sands Missile Range. NMSU is the city's largest employer, and it also provides training and education for research facilities at White Sands. White Sands Missile Range is the Army's largest installation, and the largest military installation in the Western Hemisphere covering more than 2.2 million acres, and is used by the Navy, Air Force, and NASA. Other government agencies, universities, private industries, and even foreign militaries conduct research there as well.
Although Las Cruces was never primarily an industrial town, manufacturing and commerce has been growing in importance. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, passed in 1994, has influenced this trend, as has the opening in 1991 of the border crossing at Santa Teresa, just 40 miles south of Las Cruces. Many companies are finding it advantageous to relocate in the Mesilla Valley area in order to do business with maquilladoras, (factories) in Mexico. NAFTA and the Mexican government's maquilladora program enacted in the 1960s encourage this type of trade by lowering or completely eliminating tariffs. For example, a U.S. company may send automobile parts to be assembled in Mexico; when the assembled car is shipped back, duties are paid only on the value added in Mexico. Molded plastics and electronic components are the top materials purchased by the maquilladoras.
On the U.S. side of the border, there are nine industrial and research parks in Dona Ana County. Reports from 2000 indicate the sale price of land in these developed lots ranged from only $.50 to $2.50 per square foot. Some are municipally owned and some private, but most have rail and interstate access and utilities included.
Las Cruces is definitely a land of peppers. Chile, cayenne, jalepeno, and bell peppers in every color imaginable are all raised locally. The pungent aroma of roasting peppers and the sight of strings of red peppers drying on rooftops enliven the local scene. Stahmann Farms on Highway 28, which originally focused on cotton and tomatoes, is now the world's largest producer of pecans. Other agricultural products include cotton, onions and various other vegetables, and dairy products. Research into developing new plant strains, particularly of peppers, takes place at New Mexico State University.
An enormous influx of retirees, students, and tourists has boosted the economy and has led to a building boom, including many senior citizen residences. A total of 796 new building permits for single-family units were issued in 2003, at an average cost of $144,900.
Items and goods produced: peppers, pecans, cotton and other agricultural products, electronics parts and molded plastics, repair parts for machines, packaging materials, chemicals.