Roswell banking on a close encounter of the human kind

Photo: A welcome sign at the entrance to Roswell, New Mexico. Photograph: Bryan Smith/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

City leaders hope big news could bring a tourism surge as the town grapples with the pandemic economy

25 June 2021 | Cody Nelson  | ‘Something happened here’: Roswell prepares for Pentagon’s UFO report

On the eve of the release of the Pentagon’s highly anticipated report on unidentified aerial phenomena, life here in one of the world’s UFO hotspots was exceedingly normal.

Downtown’s alien souvenir shops and the International UFO Museum welcomed a steady stream of visitors escaping their pandemic malaise on Thursday as coronavirus restrictions continued to loosen in New Mexico.

The US government will release a declassified report on Friday detailing its analysis of various unidentified flying phenomena. City leaders hope that outsiders’ enthusiasm about the report will pique their interest in visiting.

“We are anxiously awaiting what the report says,” said Juanita Jennings, the city’s public affairs director. “And I believe most of the visitors that we see come through Roswell are also anxiously awaiting, because we have visitors that come here from all over the world.”

Senior members of Congress who were briefed on the report have been warned that UFOs present “national security threats”. But many folks in Roswell – where a flying saucer may have landed in 1947 – couldn’t care less about what the Pentagon has to say about aliens or UFOs. After all, mistrust over the government’s account of what really happened during the “Roswell incident” has lingered for generations.

“I think the average Roswellian just doesn’t think about UFOs and aliens,” said Kyle Bullock, who helps run a jewelry store on Main Street. “We’re concerned with the things everyone else is: your life, your family, your kids, your job.”

Bullock, a fourth-generation resident, said he had never had a serious conversation about the interstellar with others in this city of 49,000 people until he made a podcast about it.

A road sign indicating the site in Roswell where many believe a UFO crashed. Photograph: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

Like so many cities reliant on tourism, Roswell took a major economic hit during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hotels are usually 80% full this time of year, Jennings said, but they’re at just 45% capacity even as the US vaccination rate climbs and people once again take summer holidays.

“It has been devastating,” she said. “Our tourism has had probably the biggest economic injury we’ve ever seen.”

The city typically sees a quarter million visitors annually, making tourism one of its primary economic drivers. The other is agriculture.

“We have some very deep roots here in farming and ranching,” Jennings said. “It’s like Cowboys & Aliens.”

No matter what the Pentagon files show, Jennings said, “the report definitely adds more significance to our story of our city”. Whether it drives much-needed visitors back to Roswell remains to be seen.

At the International UFO Museum on Thursday, some visitors didn’t know a thing about the Pentagon report, including Jordan Hammond, a 22-year-old alien enthusiast.

She was visiting Roswell for a 10th time, making the 110-mile trip from her home in Clovis, New Mexico. While she wasn’t familiar with the report, she had some hopes for it: “I just wanna know what they have hiding in Area 51.”

Inside the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico, on the eve of the release of a US government report. Photograph: Cody Nelson for the Guardian

‘Not just a gimmick’

Roswell’s place in extraterrestrial history begins in July 1947, when either a flying saucer or a weather balloon – depending on whom you ask – crashed in a field outside town. A local rancher named WW “Mac” Brazel found the crash debris, which military personnel from the Roswell army airfield came to collect.

At first, the army told the public that the debris was indeed a flying saucer. The Roswell Daily Record printed a large headline saying as much. But the army changed its tune the next day, saying the debris was really from a weather balloon, kicking off a conspiracy theory that persists decades later.

The event has spawned numerous documentaries, articles and books, as well as two television shows – one titled Roswell, the other Roswell, New Mexico.

Today, much of the conspiracy theory lingers as kitsch around the city. One of three McDonald’s locations in Roswell is in the shape of a flying saucer. Many storefronts have at least one alien or flying saucer visible from the road.

But beneath the showy facade, locals know the crash is an integral part of their city. “It’s part of our history, it’s not just a gimmick,” Bullock said.

And many Roswellians believe their town hosted an extraordinary event seven decades ago. Among the believers is Dennis Balthaser, who has been researching UFOs for over 30 years.

“I think most people, they know the bottom line is something happened here in 1947,” he said. “We know that. And as far as we know, it’s still covered up.”

Balthaser, 79, is a retired civil engineer from Texas. In the 1980s, he became interested in the night sky, wondering what was going on up there. Balthaser said he had retired in 1996 and moved to Roswell so he could dedicate more time to researching UFOs.

Dennis Balthaser, a UFO researcher, still believes something strange happened in 1947. Photograph: Cody Nelson/The Guardian

He has been following the news on the Pentagon report but said he didn’t expect any valuable information to come from it. Balthaser said government officials could not afford to admit anything about the Roswell incident, or anything else, now.

“What politician is going to say: ‘We’ve lied to you for the last 70 years?’” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Through his research, Balthaser has met eyewitnesses to the Roswell incident, pored over countless pieces of evidence and met with self-proclaimed alien abductees including Betty and Barney Hill.

But when asked for a single story that makes him confident we aren’t alone, he shared an anecdote from one of his friends, the editor of the old Roswell Morning Dispatch newspaper.

That editor, Art McQuiddy, was friends with Air Force Col William Blanchard, who penned the initial press release purporting that the crash was a flying saucer. The pair were having a drink shortly after the crash when McQuiddy asked, “What happened here a couple weeks ago?”

The colonel said he couldn’t talk about it. A couple of drinks later, according to Balthaser’s recounting, McQuiddy asked again.

The colonel replied: “I saw something here in Roswell I had never seen before, and I never want to see again.”


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