Sunland Park accelerates push for a new border crossing

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Will the City of Sunland Park’s old dream of a new international border crossing with Mexico finally become reality? That’s what elected leaders and city officials wish to realize within the next two or three years.

Sunland Park City Hall (Photo by Heath Haussamen)

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

Sunland Park City Hall

“The whole concept of a port of entry is going to be vital for the economic growth and sustainability of Sunland Park,” Bob Gallagher, Sunland Park’s city manager, said in a phone interview.

Envisioned to handle both pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the new port of entry would provide easy access from Mexico to the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, where a new hotel was recently opened, as well as a walking pathway for people desiring to visit relatives on either side of the border or simply pass a day in Sunland Park. On the U.S. side, points of convenient attraction include Western Playland located across the street from the racetrack-casino and Sunland Park Mall, situated just over the state line in neighboring El Paso, Texas.

In a budget-strapped era, the promoters of a Sunland Park international crossing plan to interest a private company in building the structure and then recouping the costs through user fares.

If all the ducks fall in place, a border crossing at Sunland Park would be the fourth that New Mexico shares with Mexico, joining the ports of entry at Santa Teresa, Columbus and Antelope Wells. A new international crossing for the small southern New Mexico city would connect with the northwestern edge of Ciudad Juárez, where the working-class colonias of Anapra and Lomas de Poleo are nestled.

With their eyes on the prize, Sunland Park City Council members voted unanimously May 2 to approve a two-month extension of a temporary professional services contract with JDLR & Associates, which is doing preparatory work necessary for opening a port of entry. Previous to the vote, JDLR & Associates had been providing consulting and planning services for about six months at the cost of $8,000 per month, according to Gallagher.

Per state procurement rules, a request for proposals (RFP) for a long-term contract to manage the port of entry project “will be out in the streets in a couple of weeks,” Sunland Park’s city manager said. Meantime, the temporary contract extension will allow JDLR & Associates to attend a May 24 meeting with federal officials in Washington, D.C.

City Council questions and answers

Joe de la Rosa, JDLR & Associates principal, delivered a report with final recommendations at the May 2 city council’s regular session. All of the city councilors were present for the meeting except Olga Nuñez, who participated by phone.

De la Rosa outlined general tasks awaiting completion, including the submission of required studies to the U.S. Department of State by the end of the year and the mandatory obtaining of a presidential permit for the crossing. Under the “best case scenario,” construction could commence in 2018 and vehicles begin crossing over the border in 2019, the Las Cruces-based consultant said.

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De la Rosa recommended City Manager Gallagher serve as “project champion,” assemble a working team and report to the mayor and city council. Central to the success of the project, he said, will be workshops and meetings with city leaders, municipal government staff and other stakeholders so everyone involved has a common understanding of the approval process, the pertinent issues at hand, and the project goals.

City councilors posed questions about the design, cost, management and location of the border crossing. De la Rosa said a “high end” crossing could be similar in price to a new Otay Mesa crossing in California-Baja California — which cost $120 million but faced higher California expenses.

Another less expensive port of entry could be constructed in the $36 million price range and encompass a pedestrian crossing like the one that connects the two sides of Las Cruces High School over El Paseo Avenue in Las Cruces, he said.

Quoted in different media outlets, Arturo Alba, Sunland Park’s spokesman in 2011, estimated the cost for a new port of entry as falling between $110 and $130 million. In 2015, Roberto Diaz de Leon, then Sunland Park’s port of entry project manager, put the number at $30 million.

Council member Don McBride provoked laughs when he jokingly prodded de la Rosa, “And the El Chapo idea (tunnel) you didn’t go after?” City Councilor Francisco Jayme asked De la Rosa why his recommendations didn’t include a “project champion” in Mexico as well.

Naming one Mexican representative to co-lead the project could “leave open the door” to political problems since all three levels of Mexican government will have some sort of stake in a new crossing, the consultant replied.

The preferred way to partner with Mexico would be for the City of Sunland Park to contract a Mexican liaison, de la Rosa asserted, adding that he already had one person identified with the appropriate experience to serve in that position.

Getting down to particulars, McBride and fellow council member Ken Giove expressed doubts about the potential location, costs and design of the proposed crossing.

At the moment the tentative site for the port of entry is on a 2.3 acre parcel of land where U.S. Customs and Border Protection is replacing an old fence on the edge of Juárez’s Anapra neighborhood with a sturdier barrier. McBride questioned the site because of its geographic location and capacity to handle large volumes of traffic, which some preliminary estimates peg at thousands of vehicles per day. “We have one chance to get this right,” McBride remarked.

In response, De la Rosa said the final site for a border crossing is not carved in stone.

Insisting that the information before city councilors lacked “specifics,” Giove expressed misgivings about the concept of separating the vehicle and pedestrian crossings. The elected official favors placing the two functions in the same structure, as is done at the Bridge of the Americas, Stanton Street and Paso del Norte (Santa Fe Bridge) ports of entry in neighboring El Paso.

Speaking in Spanish (Sunland Park City Council meetings offer live translation services), City Councilor Carolina Renteria greeted de la Rosa’s presentation with enthusiasm. “I’m very excited. I want it to happen as fast as possible,” Renteria said. Saying she had relatives across the fence in Anapra, Renteria called the Las Cruces High School-style pedestrian crossing concept “magnificent.” “We’ll recuperate the money that is spent,” she said.

Ultimately, the city councilors voted to give de la Rosa at least another two months on the job.

Though he’s in favor of a port of entry, Giove later expounded on his criticisms to this reporter. Regarding a pedestrian bridge, he contended that the crossing would essentially connect a “village (Anapra) with a village (Sunland Park)” and not draw large enough numbers of people with spending power from the immediate vicinity to justify the expense for a separate pedestrian crossing. As Giove pointed out, no commercial zone is currently located in Sunland Park that’s within walking distance of Mexico.

For the pedestrian crossing to be truly successful, significant attention to detail and improvements will be required on both sides of the border, including coping with the train tracks running near the border, Giove contended. In Mexico, secure parking spaces for visitors driving into Anapra will be needed adjacent to the crossing, as will a greater commitment to public safety in the Mexican neighborhood, a place where gangs and crime remain an ongoing problem, he said.

On the U.S. side, an opportunity exists for Sunland Park to profit from developments in downtown El Paso by luring new businesses appealing to the cross-border crowd, Giove added. “You can put in a commercial district. El Paso is chasing out all the shopkeepers who cater to the Mexicans, and I’m sure they’d love to have a place catering to the Mexicans,” he said.

The politics of an Anapra-Sunland Park port of entry

The rejuvenated effort to open a port of entry at Sunland Park comes after decades of failed attempts attributable to politics, scandals, timing and money.

Writing in his 2010 autobiography, Dave Cargo, who served as New Mexico governor from 1967 to 1971, noted his interest in a port of entry at Sunland Park long before the city was incorporated. Cargo’s intentions, however, were blocked by U.S. Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, who was opposed to the project on the grounds that the primary beneficiary would be “wholesale liquor dealers not subject to pay taxes (and) license fees,” according to the late Republican governor.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and the possibility of an international crossing got a serious boost when Stan Fulton, owner of the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, donated nearly $12 million to the city government for a new port of entry.

Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of dollars of the gift money was squandered amid the Sunland Park political scandals of 2011-12. According to Gallagher, $9.8 million of the money donated by Fulton remains available for border crossing project expenses.

To keep the project on track, the City of Sunland Park in 2012 hired Roberto Diaz de Leon, making him a city employee. Despite past experience in obtaining presidential permits for border crossings in Texas, Diaz de Leon lingered on the job for four years without making comparable progress for Sunland Park.

Labeling Diaz de Leon’s job performance “unsatisfactory,” Gallagher said he requested the project manager’s resignation last summer. This reporter was unable to contact Diaz de Leon, but the former Sunland Park employee was quoted in El Paso Inc. last year painting his job termination as more of a mutual parting of ways.

“The city exercised their option to close the project, and that’s what they did. They closed the project and paid me off,” he said. “My contract was going to run out at the end of the year anyway.”

For his part, Giove was not fully satisfied with historical reports he requested on previous Sunland Park port of entry initiatives from either Diaz de Leon or JDLR & Associates. “These are little things that if you look at history, you say, ‘Don’t do it again,’” he said.

Whatever the quality of Diaz De Leon’s job output, it should be noted that while he was project manager a Sunland Park new border crossing was not supported by Gov. Susana Martinez, the New Mexico Border Authority and industrial interests in nearby Santa Teresa, where the existing port of entry witnessed stellar growth in recent years.

Now the stars might be aligning in Sunland Park’s favor. According to Giove, a big rationale for opening a new port of entry — relieving traffic congestion at the current crossings in El Paso — is only likely to get stronger.

In New Mexico, Gov. Martinez’s departure from office in early 2019 could likewise be an upcoming, major plus for a new port of entry. “(Border crossing studies) will probably take a couple of years, and at that time it will probably be a different political climate, (new) people here in New Mexico and Washington,” Giove said.

At the May 2 city council meeting, Joe de la Rosa reported that he had received a thumb’s up on the proposed port of entry from two of the three announced Democratic contenders angling for Martinez’s seat, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Jeff Apodaca, a businessman with southern New Mexico roots. “They’re committed to moving this forward,” de la Rosa told city councilors.

What’s more, Steve Pearce, the Republican congressman for southern New Mexico who is reportedly mulling a run for the top job in Santa Fe, is up to speed on the project, de la Rosa said. Peter Ibarbo, who’s served as a Pearce staffer, was recently hired as Sunland Park’s new public information officer.

Locally, widespread support exists for a new port of entry, Giove insisted. “The issue has come up at every city meeting with the public I’ve been to,” the elected official said. “This is what people have been waiting for a long time and (they) want to discuss it.”

Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.

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