SANTA TERESA – The original developer’s grandiose dream for turning this wide-open swath of desert into a modern, bi-national industrial hub complete with country clubs and residential neighborhoods filled with workers was written off years ago as just another border boom gone bust.
But some 40 years after the idea was born, this still unincorporated community that has long been dominated by El Paso and Juarez is beginning to make its bankrupt founder’s vision appear prescient.
Situated 40 miles south of Las Cruces, Santa Teresa has become a U.S.-Mexico border development hot spot. It is literally a stone’s throw across the border from computer and electronics manufacturing giant FoxConn, which operates Mexico’s largest border assembly plant, or maquiladora. Then there’s the $400 million rail hub being developed by Union Pacific on 2,200 acres on the U.S. side of the border.
There are new roads on both sides of the border and an expanding border crossing that enables commercial carriers to avoid the congestion between Juarez and El Paso. Some Mexican companies are relocating north to escape the drug violence in their country, and a trend continues toward moving some manufacturing from Asia to Mexico.
Combine that with thousands of acres of still available open land and Charlie Crowder’s dream seems within reach.
“We are very bullish on the future of Santa Teresa,” said New Mexico’s economic development secretary, Jon Barela. He and Gov. Susana Martinez made the trip here last month for a distribution center groundbreaking for Interceramic Inc., a Chihuahua, Mexico, company that is one of the largest ceramic tile manufacturers in North America.
In the 1970s, Charlie Crowder’s first development here was a country club community. And that was supposed to be just the beginning. According to locals and news reports from the time, the developer had grand plans for a massive residential and industrial area complete with a new border crossing.
Crowder won the border crossing in the ’90s, but he went bankrupt before the key roadways and other new infrastructure was completed to help attract business.
“What happened was that Charlie Crowder didn’t have the capital and he went bankrupt,” said Jerry Pacheco, an economic development adviser who has been working on the border for more than 20 years. “While the … courts were settling all that, we lost a lot of momentum.”
In the ensuing years, three new major developers came in and built the industrial park space but housing starts failed to keep up, Pacheco said.
The “game-changers,” he said, were FoxConn – “that gave us a lot of ammunition to go out and recruit companies” that help supply and distribute their products – and now the Union Pacific project, which he called the “biggest thing since the port of entry opened.”
About 50 companies have moved to the area in the past 15 years, including TE Connectivity, Georgia Pacific, Monarch Litho, Northwire, Menlo Logistics, and Expeditors. Pacheco estimates they have created as many 2,000 jobs.
The rail hub, he said, will bring another 600 permanent jobs for what will essentially be an inland port of entry for cargo from Mexico and points south as well as shipments from Asia. Because the area has been designated a foreign trade zone, freight from overseas can be loaded directly onto trains from West Coast ports for processing and shipment to Mexican maquiladoras and distribution by rail across the United States.
The $10 million expansion of the border crossing will add a new commercial lane, two non-commercial lanes and a new southbound inspection facility. Truck traffic at the crossing nearly doubled between 2007 and 2011 to 70,000 vehicles, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“All of a sudden we start inching toward that vision long ago of this being a true bi-national community,” Pacheco said. “Finally. It has taken this long for all the pieces to come together.”
The newest arrival, Interceramic, said it chose Santa Teresa because of state action to allow overweight cargo on roads within six miles of the Santa Teresa Port of Entry. Interceramic can move huge shipments from Chihuahua north through the less congested port and into Santa Teresa for distribution across the United States.
“This place used to be a barren desert, now it’s growing fast,” said Jeremy Watson, a 28-year-old Santa Teresa resident.
Miguel Angel Torres, who sells refreshments at the border crossing, said his business is booming: “It’s nonstop truckers coming through.”
Both Barela and Pacheco said there’s an increase in companies interested in moving to Mexico and the border region from Asia.
“There are three reasons,” Barela said. “First, transportation costs from China and other parts of Asia have increased. Labor rates have increased in Asia as well. The other thing we continue to hear is that the quality doesn’t measure up to what is being produced in our country and Mexico.”
As for Crowder, now 80, he told The Associated Press he had just moved back to Santa Teresa in January after settling a 15-year-long bankruptcy.
“I think it worked out pretty well,” he said of his vision for Santa Teresa, which he said was originally suggested by former Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos.
“I can’t do anything in moderation,” he said. “Including quit.”
El Paso correspondent Juan Carlos Llorca contributed to this report.