‘EXPLOSIVE GROWTH’ SPURS DEVELOPMENT IN SOUTHERN DOÑA ANA COUNTY

‘EXPLOSIVE GROWTH’ SPURS DEVELOPMENT IN SOUTHERN DOÑA ANA COUNTY

The drive to Santa Teresa along the old highway from Las Cruces is a study in Doña Ana County’s character: farmland stretches out between small villages that are home to old churches, Mom & Pop stores and legendary family restaurants. Access is primarily by two-land roads, where slow-moving farm equipment often causes traffic to back up. Nothing much looks new from the road.
And then you get to Santa Teresa.
New homes – big homes – are sprouting like chile plants, which is amazing enough. And then, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere, the rural two-lane road intersects with a brand new, four-lane highway.
A turn to the west on the recently dedicated Pete V. Domenici Highway leads to a key component in Doña Ana County’s economic future. Rising up off the floor of the desert mesa are gigantic manufacturing and storage facilities, some as big as 225,000 square feet. Cars and pick-ups festoon the parking lots, windshields glinting in the fierce sun. Big rigs bustle in and out from the loading docks of massive, brand new buildings. The palpable hum of industry is in the air.
Mark Lautman, president of Santa Teresa Real Estate Development Corporation (STRED), calls the growth “explosive.” He attributes the transition of the area – from lizard-tracked desert to people-packed commerce – to a committed number of “players” – people and entities who have come forward, worked together and “made things happen.”
As fast as the buildings go up, they are occupied, Lautman said, adding that investors are pumping about $1 million each week into the development effort. As a result, Santa Teresa currently is home to more industrial-grade spec-building space than can be found in the rest of the state’s communities combined.
The economic miracle in Santa Teresa is the culmination of one visionary’s plan and the subsequent partnerships of private industry, multiple government agencies and a treaty called NAFTA.
A generation or so ago, a man named Charlie Crowder looked at the desolate desert around Santa Teresa and saw a bright future twinkling in the grains of sand: a bustling bi-national trade hub, which would spawn residential and commercial development. Crowder was forced into bankruptcy before he could realize the dream on his own, but his vision today rises up in great slabs of concrete that form one after another of giant buildings dedicated to trade and commerce.
As the buildings rise, the companies that build or lease them hire people to work inside. Lautman said Santa Teresa currently boasts a job-creation rate of 2.5 new jobs each day. Within five years, he said, that figure could easily double.
As jobs continue to be created in the area, Lautman said the skills most in demand by the new employers will be vocational in nature – light-equipment operation, welding, etc. – but he said that low- and middle-management positions also are being created to oversee the vocational operations, along with clerical and office support.
Fueling the economic explosion is a combination of factors, the major one being increased trade between Mexico and the United States as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the resulting proliferation of maquiladoras, particularly in southern Juarez.
With trade comes challenges related to the logistics of moving materials across borders. And that’s where Santa Teresa’s Port of Entry enjoys a unique advantage. A loaded truck headed into or out of the United States can usually make a free crossing at Santa Teresa in about 10 minutes, Lautman said, as opposed to four hours and significant fees at the Bridge of the Americas in nearby El Paso.
“Not only that,” he said, “but UPS cargo flights depart daily from the Doña Ana County Airport next door, and Union Pacific Railways’ main line runs through the industrial park, providing direct rail service to park tenants. On top of that, Doña Ana County is forging ahead with an ambitious project that will supply water and wastewater services, for competitive rates, to commercial, residential and industrial customers. Put it all together and you have a recipe for job creation, managed growth and tremendous economic opportunities for everyone.”
Already, Lautman said, more than 2,600 acres have been zoned for industrial development, and several hundred acres are either in production or under construction. The entire Santa Teresa area, he said, is already zoned for careful, but reasonably rapid, commercial and residential growth to support the burgeoning industrial presence. Of the 28 new firms in the industrial park, he said, about 50 percent are dedicated to manufacturing, with the rest using space to warehouse goods.
Because of congestion at the other area border crossings, Lautman said, Mexican manufacturers in Juarez are increasingly moving to the south end of the city, where access to Santa Teresa is easiest. And because Mexican manufacturing is becoming increasingly sophisticated, he said the twin-plant philosophy is “herding” American building trends toward Santa Teresa’s industrial parks.
Lautman said research shows that the Santa Teresa Port of Entry is among the most economical ports of entry in the region. That fact will be used in the coming months to lure even more manufacturers, storage facilities and transportation opportunities.
“Just look around,” he said. “All the cars in these parking lots represent jobs that have been created here already. The license plates tell us that lots of El Pasoans are coming to work here, along with a fair number of New Mexico residents. The Texas workers really come with no strings. They contribute to the tax base, but they take advantage of no services, like schools. The children who benefit from this tax base are New Mexico children.”
Across the border from Santa Teresa is the proposed master-planned Mexican community of San Jeronimo. Lautman predicts that San Jeronimo is quickly getting ready to jump off the drawing boards and into three-dimensional reality.
“When that happens,” he said, “you’ll see this port of entry get even busier and more prosperous. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that we will see the San Jeronimo/Santa Teresa area become one of, if not the, fastest growing areas of commerce in the State of New Mexico.”
Lautman praised the Doña Ana County Commission and County Manager Fernando R. Macias for recognizing the economic development potential of Santa Teresa and marshaling resources to build infrastructure projects needed to get things moving.
According to Macias, Doña Ana County has already committed more than $6 million to building infrastructure, a figure that is more than matched in grants from the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I’d put Doña Ana County up against any place in the country in terms of its economic development prowess,” Lautman said. “In New Mexico, Doña Ana County is without peer among local governing bodies when it comes to economic development. The political leadership and staff in county government are exceptional.”
Macias lobbed the praise right back at Lautman and the community of developers who have blazed the trail in Santa Teresa, including STRED, Doña Ana Construction, Fairfax Properties, Suncorp, Catalina Development Company, Ed Garland, John O’Donnell and Marshall Bennett.
“Obviously, Charlie Crowder deserves a lot of the credit,” Macias said. “He saw this and believed in it. Now, these other developers have come in and are working with local contractors to build the reality that Charlie envisioned. The county is pleased to be a part of the process by providing infrastructure that will fuel this growth and bring new, good-paying jobs to one of the historically poorer areas of Doña Ana County.”
“We can reasonably expect household incomes in this area to double in the next five to 10 years,” Lautman said. “Rio Rancho’s economic development job surge between 1986 and 1996 resulted in household incomes increasing from an average of $19,000 to $44,000.”
Soon, the Pete V. Domenici Highway will provide non-stop access from the border to Interstate 10, one of the country’s premier trucking routes. Soon after, the Santa Teresa Port of Entry will upgrade from 25 truck docks to 50. Soon after that, the Doña Ana County Airport will receive $7 million in federal funding for upgrades to its runways, taxiways and aprons.
After that, most everyone agrees that the gates will be wide open for a new future for the area.
“What we’ve seen is just the beginning,” Macias said. “It’s clear that within a few years, Santa Teresa will rival Las Cruces as providing the most significant concentration of economic development opportunities south of Albuquerque. By forging public and private partnerships to support that growth and manage it in ways that are both realistic and forward-looking, the Board of County Commissioners has played a vital role in contributing to the overall health and welfare of every resident in every district.”