The land now known as Rio Rancho was long uninhabited open mesa land in the semi-arid, high desert, with an elevation of approximately 5,700 feet above sea level, and an average annual precipitation of 8.5 inches. It was part of the Town of Alameda Grant to Spanish colonial settlers in the early 1700s.
With a wide variety of grasses, yucca, sagebrush, cholla and other desert flora growing in its fine sandy loam soil, its higher elevations support juniper and sparse growths of piñon. Upper Sonoran zone wildlife is plentiful, including coyotes, prairie dogs, scaled quail, horned toads, jackrabbits, badgers, snakes, and predatory birds. The land was utilized by ranchers for cattle and sheep grazing, due to its proximity to the Rio Grande as well as Albuquerque, an early and major trading post along the historic Route 66 corridor.
Rapid Suburban Development
In the early 1960s, the American Real Estate and Petroleum Corporation (AMREP) purchased 55,000 acres of the Koontz Ranch, which at the time was home to 500 head of cattle. Within a decade, AMREP had purchased an additional 35,000 acres, encompassing a total geographic area larger than the city of Albuquerque.
AMREP platted the land and built model homes, calling the development Rio Rancho Estates. It aggressively marketed both the planned community development, and New Mexico itself, to residents from the Midwestern and Eastern states. Rio Rancho Estates was one of the most widely marketed land development programs in the U.S. and mainly attracted middle-income retirees who desired to escape crowded cities for the open Southwest.
Rio Rancho Estates’ population grew to more than 5,000 residents by the mid-1970s. It soon had its first shopping center, a golf and country club, and it began attracting young families in addition to the original retirees and real estate investors. With more young families moving in, a need arose for schools and the first elementary school was soon opened.
Residents formed community organizations and established churches, but they still had no local government. Services were provided by Sandoval County which historically dealt with rural issues of the surrounding Hispanic and Native American communities. Services could not keep up with the rapid influx of population. Additionally, the need for more schools increased.
After much local debate, Rio Rancho was incorporated in 1981. Its newly established city council quickly formed its own department of public safety, as well as a library, and a planning and zoning commission. The city also began developing park and recreation programs, which continue to this day.
From its inception, Rio Rancho built itself with a fresh approach, calling itself the City of Vision. After all, Rio Rancho had sprung out of “nowhere” — dry open mesa land with no history of ancestral settlement and few archaeological sites thus far discovered. By the time of incorporation, more than 10,000 residents had settled upon only 18,000 of the total of 90,000 acres — Rio Rancho still had great room to grow.
As a result, many young families kept moving to Rio Rancho, and nearly 80 percent of the arrivals now came from Albuquerque, rather than from the East and the Midwest. These New Mexican families came to Rio Rancho for reasons such as less expensive land and lower taxes, but also for the convenience to commute to Albuquerque for work.
As Rio Rancho’s population grew, its businesses expanded to meet the growing demand for services. As more residents came to call Rio Rancho home, they wanted to work closer to home. Rio Rancho’s economic development group worked together with AMREP, the city, the chamber of commerce, and state and area agencies to successfully attract businesses to provide nearby jobs for residents.
For example, Intel Corporation opened a large plant in 1981, creating numerous jobs which have impacted both the city and the state of New Mexico positively. Intel recently announced its $3.5 billion expansion in New Mexico to enable the manufacturing of cutting-edge semiconductor packaging technologies at the Rio Rancho site, one of the largest in the world.
Still, this explosive growth required extensive and careful planning. As of the 1990 census, Rio Rancho’s population had more than tripled and had become the state’s sixth-largest city. More than a third of its population was under the age of 18. In 1992, a voter-approved “Home Rule Charter” gave Rio Rancho a greater ability to govern itself and make its own rules and regulations.
Not only did it create its own Rio Rancho Public School district in 1994 (with now more than 17,000 students), but it also established its first high school in 1997. Rio Rancho has grown exponentially, and the City of Vision has implemented environmental and sustainability programs to accommodate this growth.
City programs include waste treatment, water use and auto emissions reduction policies, and waste management recycling. The city actively encourages community volunteer involvement through a variety of programs, including its tree stewardship program.
The City of Rio Rancho Today
Begun as a real estate development venture in the high desert, Rio Rancho is now the most populous city in Sandoval County, just on the outskirts of the Albuquerque metropolitan area. Nearby are national parks, archaeological ruins, world-class museums, and awe-inspiring vistas any time of the day.
Rio Rancho schools, public, charter and private, receive accolades for their academic success and athletic championships. The University of New Mexico’s West Campus is located in Rio Rancho, as well as the Rio Rancho Campus of Central New Mexico Community College, which recently moved its automotive program, including electric vehicles, to Rio Rancho.
The City of Rio Rancho’s strengths lie in its continued affordability, with a strong job market and good wages. It also boasts a high quality of life and a crime rate much lower than both the overall state of New Mexico and the National Median. As of the 2022 U.S. Census, Rio Rancho’s population has grown to over 108,000, making it the third largest city in New Mexico.
Rio Rancho calls itself the City of Vision, possessing a strong sense of community, diverse but united. After all, the town grew itself from nowhere and is proud of where it is today. It has great schools. It is known for its public safety and low crime rate. It has an enviable low cost of living, top employers, conservation-minded environmental policies, and exhilarating desert vistas. Open spaces and opportunities — Rio Rancho delivers all of this.