Local Officials Agree on Unified Approach to Economic Development

Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:30 pm | Updated: 3:01 pm, Mon Feb 24, 2014.

By Cesar Neyoy, Bajo El Sol

SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Son. – Private and public sector officials from this border city and the Yuma area agreed Thursday to make a unified push for improvements to the border crossing here and other bilateral projects they say are key to the region’s economic growth.

The Binational Economic Forum brought together mayors from Yuma, Somerton and San Luis, Ariz., their counterparts from San Luis Rio Colorado and other Sonora cities, Yuma County Supervisor Tony Reyes, and private sector officials from both sides of the border in work sessions to discuss such topics as border infrastruction, regional trasportation, tourism, medical tourism and regional economic development.

One subject they agreed on was the need to jump-start plans for improvements at the port of entry to expedite the flow of commercial and non-commercial traffic among the two countries, including a 24-hour SENTRI lane that allows for expedited crossings by motorists who have been granted trusted traveler status by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The port currently has a SENTRI lane, but it closes nightly at 10 p.m.

Gerardo Sanchez, mayor of San Luis, Ariz., raised the issue of the SENTRI lane during the gathering with Chris Leon, assistant port director at San Luis for the CBP. Leon said his agency is ready to keep the lane open 24 hours a day but can’t do so until needed roadway improvements take place on the Mexican side to accommodate an around-the-clock schedule.

San Luis Rio Colorado Mayor Leonardo Guillen said the city is awaiting approval from Mexico’s federal government before it can make those improvements. He said that approval is expected shortly.

Sanchez said he was optimistic that the dialogue at Thursday’s meeting would lead to substantive results.

“This is an example of how these forums can be useful,” he said. “Here are the key people and those who can make things happen.”

However, the officials agreed that a 24-hour SENTRI lane is only a partial solution to a problem of traffic congestion at the border that they believe can only be fixed by expanding the port of entry. But Ramon Riesgo, projects director for the General Services Administration, said there are no funds in the federal budget for an expansion anytime soon.

Given that, local officials said, they must lobby their representatives in Congress to make port of entry improvements a priority in future budgets. But they also agreed that given limited federal funds, local officials must also look seriously at private-public partnerships to fund border improvements.

Border infrastructure wasn’t the only issue that occupied forum participants. Also discussed was the area’s potential for economic development.

Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls said his city mas maintained close ties with communities in south Yuma County and nearby cities in Mexico in a regional approach to economic development.

“Our economy depends on what happens both in the rest of the county and in Mexico. It is very important that we join with all our partners, and truly all these organizations and cities are our partners,” he said, adding that the cities must approach economic development “globally.”

Somerton Mayor Martin Porchas praised the initiative of those gathering for the forum, and he said that while his city is not located immediately next to the border, it stands to gain when residents from both sides of the border can travel more easily among the two countries.

“The faster the traffic and the more people that cross, the more we benefit, because that means more jobs and more consumer spending in the region.”

He said the forum’s biggest success will be unifying local officials and giving their appeals more weight in Washington, D.C. He said he was confident that the forum would ensure that planned port of entry improvements “won’t remain on the shelf.”

Sanchez agreed.

“This is something that hasn’t been seen for a long time. We are all agreed that we are going to promote our communities as a region. Together we have close to a half-million residents. To say that there are no funds for our border has always been an excuse. Meanwhile, we see (border) projects being funded in other areas and certain other ports of entry getting resources.”

Also attending the forum were representatives from the Mexican cities of Sonoita, Puerto Penasco, Caborca, all in Sonora, and Mexicali, Baja Calif.

Besides Riesgo, participants heard presentations from the Yuma Visitors Bureau, Greater Yuma Port Authority, Arizona Department of Transportation, Greater Yuma Economic Development Commission and the Regional Centers for Border Health. The forum was organized by the Yuma Metropolitan Planning Organization in coordination with agencies on both sides of the border.