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El Paso billionaire invests in Santa Teresa

SANTA TERESA — A Texas oil billionaire has bought land in this fast-growing border industrial hub — a sign, observers say, that momentum is at last on New Mexico’s side and long-simmering tensions between two border communities on either side of the state line may be easing.

El Paso’s Paul Foster, chairman of Western Refining Inc., has bought more than 38 acres in an industrial zone of Santa Teresa from Albuquerque-based Titan Development for an undisclosed sum. Foster ranks No. 1,476 on the annual Forbes list of billionaires, which tacks his net worth at $1.22 billion.

The publicly traded oil refining and marketing company owns refineries in Gallup and El Paso, as well as more than 200 filling stations including Giant in the Albuquerque market.

“Santa Teresa hasn’t grown near as fast as anybody promised, but it is starting to fire on all cylinders now,” said Brett Preston, managing partner at Cushman & Wakefield in El Paso, who helped broker the deal. “That is why Foster bought land. He wanted a position out there. The land was bought with the intent to build investment buildings on it.”

Brent Harris, who represents Foster’s Franklin Mountain ST LLC, the listed owner of the six parcels in Santa Teresa, confirmed the purchases but said in an emailed response, “We are not in a position to discuss at this point.”

Santa Teresa, at the southeast corner of Doña Ana County, abuts the U.S.-Mexico border and is near the Texas state line. Despite decades of lip service paid to regional economic development, New Mexico and Texas — and by extension, Santa Teresa and El Paso — have long competed for deals.

The Santa Teresa port of entry opened definitively in 1998 and was seen as competitive with the Zaragoza port of entry in east El Paso, which opened six years earlier. Major industrial real estate developers in El Paso had, until recently, concentrated on developments heading east. Some are now looking west, developers and brokers say.

“To put it mildly, El Paso had been violently opposed to the crossing at Santa Teresa,” said Charlie Crowder, now-retired developer who for decades was the largest landowner in Santa Teresa and who laid out the vision for an industrial hub. “It wasn’t that they weren’t trying to invest; they didn’t want this to happen. I’m glad to see El Paso is taking some interest.”

New Mexico’s exports to Mexico rose 9 percent last year to nearly $1.7 billion after almost doubling in 2014, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, largely thanks to businesses recruited to the border region.

Property brokers credit increasing interest in Santa Teresa to the opening of the $400 million Union Pacific truck-to-rail hub in Santa Teresa in 2014, as well as to state incentives and attention devoted by the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.

“We have seen an increase in activity and interest,” said Anthony Mash, an industrial real estate broker with CBRE in El Paso. “I have a contract for 53 acres to be sold to a party in the area. Why Santa Teresa versus El Paso? Because of the incentives Gov. Martinez is offering.”

Santa Teresa has been hurting for speculative industrial space — the empty buildings ready for a tenant that can help attract companies. There is one 140,000-square-foot building near the port of entry and two smaller spaces in another park. El Paso’s speculative industrial market is also tight, Preston said.

Harris declined to comment but Preston, who said he has knowledge of the plans, said Foster’s firm is actively looking at building two “spec” industrial buildings in Santa Teresa. That’s important, he said, because “a lot of (prospects) won’t wait for a building to be built; they will go to another market.”

“I think it’s an affirmation that he sees growth here for the future,” said Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association in Santa Teresa. “Having someone of his stature putting his investment money here is a very positive thing.”