Sixty years after bigheaded, toothpick-limbed green aliens allegedly crashed in the New Mexico desert — leaving little but paranoia in their wake — Roswell embraces the extraterrestrial.
To a point.
A McDonald's mimics a UFO. A wall of Wal-Mart displays a large rendering of a green spaceman. Arby's restaurant is hospitable: "Aliens Welcome," reads the big sign out front. The city draws thousands of enthusiasts to its annual UFO festival, which runs this weekend.
But when it comes to support for space oddities, it seems that the sky is not the limit.
Gene Frazier and Thomas Armstrong have a dream: Earth Station Roswell, a $67 million resort and conference center for UFO enthusiasts featuring a 1,000-seat concert center, an exhibit hall, fine-dining restaurant, cafe, deli, lounge, a 400-seat theater and lecture hall, an RV shop, lagoon-style swimming pool and a massive underground parking garage.
The anchor would be the "Mothership," a 75-foot high, 300-room hotel that Frazier calls "the world's largest replica of a flying saucer."
There had already been those, like Julie Shuster, director of the International UFO Museum and Research Center, who questioned whether UFO exploitation had gone too far. "Greed and ego are rampant among the UFO field and among everybody who is trying to capitalize on it," she says, shaking her head.
Now the resort proposal — and another by city officials to build a UFO-themed amusement park, complete with an indoor roller coaster that would take passengers on a simulated alien abduction — have fueled some talk: How much should Roswell exploit its little green men?
"Anytime you talk UFOs, aliens or the paranormal, you're going to get a divided room," says city planner Zach Montgomery.
Shuster grew up in Roswell. "I don't want to make it sound like Mayberry or 'The Donna Reed Show,' but we were never inside in the summer," she says. "You knew everybody. Good Lord forgive you if you ever got in trouble because your parents knew about it before you got home."
She describes Roswell residents as cautious people who "don't typically jump in unless you know the depth of the water, you know if there's rocks under there."
The economy relied upon petroleum exploration, banking, dairies, ranching and the military, at least until the Air Force base closed in 1967.
Folks never talked about the UFO affair.
"People were told — people in the military, in particular — if you want a VA loan or any government assistance for you, for your kids or your grandkids, you won't say anything about it now or ever," she recalls.
Shuster's father, Walter Haut, played a small part in all that. As the public information lieutenant at Roswell Army Air Base, he was ordered by a colonel to issue the July 8, 1947 news release disclosing the recovery of "a flying disk" at a ranch near Roswell.
The next day, higher-ranking officers said the debris came from a weather balloon that crashed; authorities displayed some bits and pieces.
More than 30 years passed, and the incident was generally forgotten. But then, an Army officer who took part in the recovery of the debris came forward to assert that it had been from an alien spacecraft, and that the government had engaged in a cover-up.
Eventually, the Air Force disclosed it had been part of Project Mogul, a top-secret effort to monitor Soviet-era nuclear testing. But that story never satisfied believers who advanced tales of alien bodies recovered in the desert.
The Roswell Incident was born — and with it, a fascination that spread from supermarket tabloids to the popular imagination.
But the local UFO boom really began in 1992, when Haut and Glenn Dennis — a local mortician who claimed that a nurse on the base had told him of autopsies performed on aliens taken from the wreckage — founded the UFO museum.
The point, Shuster says, is not to prove that an alien spacecraft really crashed, but simply to present information from both sides of the debate and let visitors make up their own minds.
"All we do is ask people to think outside the box," she says.
Each month, the museum greets visitors from all 50 states and 35 countries — 2.5 million since its founding. According to one analysis, it generates $35 million in indirect spending each year for the city of 50,000 residents.
Shuster said her father never imagined it would be so wildly popular, but now she sees herself as the caretaker of his legacy.
The museum has outgrown its home at a former movie theater and soon will occupy a new $25 million building. Shuster acknowledges there's been friction with some souvenir shop owners who complain retailers will be hurt when the museum moves five blocks up Main Street. She jokes that she no longer feels all the knives thrown into her back.
Still, it's clear she can't entirely ignore what is being said.
"Yes, it's personal for me," she says, sniffing back tears during an interview at her museum office. "People say, `She's too intense. She takes it too personally.' Well, how much more personal can it get than running your daddy's business?"
"We're beginning to wonder," says Brian Lewis of Paso Robles, Calif., passing through Roswell recently with his family, "if the real conspiracy is to draw in all the tourists."
In Roswell, there are aliens everywhere. They're on T-shirts, postcards, refrigerator magnets, socks and keychains. They play drums and guitars — a band, The Pleiadeans — in a music store window display.
There are T-shirt shops, gift boutiques and even an Army-themed restaurant, a former Denny's called the Cover-Up Cafe ("Where all the recipes are secret").
Painted on the wall outside the Roswell Alien Corner store: "Indian Jewelry, Mexican Imports, Alien Gifts."
Armstrong, one of the would-be developers of Earth Station Roswell, recently opened Planet Roswell, an outlet store for "Roswell Gear" jeans, jackets and other apparel. The target audience, Armstrong says, is "anybody who likes UFOs, Star Trek and the Sci-Fi Channel."
"Our demographic represents a cross-section of America," he says, moments after hoisting and securing a large planet Earth display 20 feet above a sidewalk.
On one downtown sidewalk, green, two-toed footprints meander a half-block from Main Street to the Roswell Space Center, Larry and Sharon Welz's souvenir shop.
Larry Welz is an artist (he once dabbled in pornographic comic books). His space-themed artwork is scattered on signs and buildings around town, including a magnificent 110-foot mural on a building near McDonald's.
Their shop features a "space walk" — Larry's look at the Roswell Incident, a tunnel of painted scenes colorfully glowing under black light. Tourists drop $2 in a plastic tube and step into the portal.
"People come from halfway around the world to see something in Roswell, but they're not sure what they want. This is my attempt to show them," he explains.
The Welzes lament that Roswell hasn't done even more to embrace the UFO phenomenon.
"The signs coming into town say, 'Welcome to Roswell, Dairy Capital of the Southwest,'" Sharon Welz says. "Are you kidding? You should exploit the UFO thing. It's a commodity. When you say Roswell, everyone thinks about aliens."
They confess to being UFO commandos. One night in the summer of 1998, the Welzes loaded a ladder into a convertible and drove down Main Street, painting black alien eyes on street lamps.
"They didn't give us permission," Larry says, "but they didn't really blame us for doing it, either."
More to come
It's not just Roswell's business people who see dollar signs on space aliens. The city is accepting proposals for a builder-operator to run the UFO amusement park, a multi-million-dollar project that could open by 2010.
"We're still in the infancy of our UFO-related economic development," says Montgomery, the city planner. "Eventually, when people come to Roswell they're not going to have enough time to do everything they want to do. That's our goal."
Gene Frazier is banking on it, pointing to the tourism boom in Branson, Mo., a town of fewer than 10,000 residents that attracts 7.2 million visitors a year for country music.
He's also encouraged by the startup of daily flights this fall between Roswell and Dallas-Fort Worth. If tourists will drive 200 miles from Albuquerque, Frazier reasoned, imagine the boost from commuter jetliner service.
He scoffs at old-timers who complain about tourists and increased traffic. "They want this to stay a quiet old town because they've already got their bags of gold," he says.
"You shouldn't turn business away," he said.
Shuster has mixed feelings about this growth. She doesn't mind anyone making a living off the UFO phenomenon, and she's pleased to see souvenir shops filling otherwise vacant buildings, but Frazier's bare-knuckles approach grates on her.
She complains that his cost estimates keep rising, and she fears that Earth Station Roswell might never deliver on its promises, receding into the desert like a phantom spacecraft.
Mostly, you get the feeling that she yearns for the simpler days in Roswell, though she knows that there's no stuffing the alien back into the saucer.
"I always tell people I wish I was 40 pounds lighter and 20 years younger but that's not going to change," she says with a laugh.
Frazier agrees, and says businesses should give tourists what they want. And Montgomery points out gross receipts taxes from the UFO theme park alone could generate "tens of millions of dollars" for Roswell each year.
"Everyone's on a bandwagon," Shuster says. "The problem is that not everyone is sure they want to be along for the ride."