Nogales is suffering from one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory and what do Mayor Arturo Garino and the Nogales City Council do? Chop funding for the port authority and chamber of commerce.

Who does that?

These cuts would be semi-palatable if the council had an alternative plan. But they don’t. “The best people for economic development are the seven of us” on the city council, Garino told NI reporter Nick Phillips. Really? Economic development is not something you dabble in.

Why inflict harm on the only two organizations that have successfully improved cross-border trade, tourism promotion, business attraction and retention?

Yes, this administration is in budgetary dire straits thanks in part to higher insurance costs and lower sales-tax revenues. Hard decisions had to be made. But these cuts throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Port authority

The Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority was the brainchild of the late Harlan Capin more than 14 years ago. Less than 18 months later, under the leadership of customs broker Terry Shannon, Jr., the PA received the highest award bestowed by the Arizona-Mexico Commission. By then the group had coordinated advocacy efforts that ultimately netted the approval of FAST and SENTRI lanes at the ports of entry for commercial and non-commercial traffic.

The PA has the right players at the table, including the city, county, the Nogales U.S. Customs House Brokers Association, Nogales Community Development, the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, with regular participation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, General Services Administration and Arizona Department of Transportation.

Traveling at their own expense, and with the able help of Luis Ramirez Thomas, their hired consultant, port authority members and others advocated and pressured key lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Ultimately this led to securing $9.8 million in President Bush’s FY 2006-07 budget for the design of the expansion of the Mariposa Port of Entry.

This and several more trips to Washington to meet with lawmakers subsequently resulted in the project being “shovel-ready” in 2009 when funding was awarded from the stimulus package. Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was secretary of Homeland Security at the time, is credited for locking in the funds. The cost of the work exceeded $200 million and there has never been a project, either private or public, of that magnitude in Nogales.

Unfortunately, city government for various reasons, including petty infighting, had developed a poor reputation among leaders in D.C. and at the state level. So lawmakers, their staffers and others turned to the PA, whose success hinges on a simple desire to make a positive difference in a community that relies heavily on trade with Mexico.

The PA has had its hand in hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure funding for Nogales and Santa Cruz County, which makes the $50,000 in annual city funding seem like chump change. This won’t stop the organization; it just makes city leaders look clueless.

Chamber of commerce

In the wake of waning support due to a sordid history of misspending, embezzlement and operational failures, Marcelino Varona, Jr., volunteered as executive director of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce in 2006 and recruited Liz Collier and Olivia Ainza-Kramer, who is now president and CEO, to straighten out the bookkeeping.

Under Ainza-Kramer’s leadership, the chamber folks soon worked to revive the long-neglected chamber headquarters, which doubles as the city’s only visitor center. The building was painted in bright colors inside and out, a refrigeration system was installed, as were windows and a new sign.

It was also decorated with a large mural by local artist Lupita De La Torre. Former NI managing editor Kathleen Vandervoet wrote at the time: “The mural artistically pinpoints areas of interest in Santa Cruz County. It is prominently displayed at the building entrance for all visitors to see and enjoy.”

The organization’s luster was restored and membership grew through efforts such as organizing a golf tournament; events featuring state tourism officials; annual luncheons to honor local business owners; several mixers throughout the year; and seminars and training in such areas as credit counseling, customer service and computer courses. The monthly government relations committee meeting is usually standing-room only, featuring topics ranging from national policy to local infrastructure projects. It’s open to the public.

Ainza-Kramer also took on a map project at the request of community businesses as well as visiting tourists, which last year numbered 7,251.

Anyone who believes that the city council is ready to greet that many tourists or somehow solely have the clout to advocate effectively at the national and state level for Nogales, they have another thing coming.

Case in point: How’s that razor wire on the border fence hanging?

(Coppola is publisher of the Nogales International and legislative director for Wick Communications, the NI’s parent company. Full disclosure: Ainza-Kramer is his former sister-in-law.)


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