$18 billion in trade, but most just passes through


Worn wood floors groan under the weight of customers as Milo Rendon serves up another frozen treat.

A steady stream of Nogalians seeking refuge from the scorching Sonoran desert sun duck into the old, dusty building that houses Finitos, the Rendon family business.

As Rendon prepares a lemon-flavored shaved ice, he asks, “Do you want a saladito?”

A customer accepts the offer and a dried, salted plum is tucked into her snack and topped with another scoop.

Finitos served as a house before it was converted into a business, and a faint air of neglect mixes with a whiff of success at the 21-year-old bustling hole in the wall less than two miles from the Mexican border.

The same can be said for most of the city of about 25,000.

More than $18 billion worth of trade with Mexico passes through Nogales’ two ports of entry each year, and the city exhibits the mixed bag of its benefits.

Large, new produce distributing warehouses have sprouted up between mesquite trees, a contrast to strip malls with boarded-up store fronts. The Palo Duro Creek Golf Course, once the anchor for an upper-middle-class neighborhood, has dried up and left a sea of yellow between foreclosed homes.

Nogales used to be a draw for northern Mexican shoppers. Before the North American Free Trade Agreement, they sought clothes and appliances at the stores on Morley Avenue.

But years after NAFTA made goods readily available south of the border and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks led to higher border security, the department stores are no longer the main draw, and warehouses — though breadwinners for the city — are not exactly tourist attractions. Buildings still display signs for major retailers — Woolworth, Penneys and Kress — but the stores have shut down, replaced by small shops catering to locals.

Visitors from northern cities like Tucson and Phoenix who would stop to peruse downtown stores before driving farther south now head straight through Nogales to their dentist appointments and pharmacies in Mexico.

“Our whole economy changed. Now our challenge is how to take advantage of our location and find a new purpose,” says Nils Urman, a founding member of the Nogales Economic Development initiative.

Getting business and city leaders to agree and act on that purpose, however, poses a challenge.

“That’s a big nut to crack,” Urman says. “We need to create an environment of activity and creativity, and to do that, we need dollars.”

Reports of illegal border crossings and lawlessness related to drug-smuggling make Nogales a hard sell for development. Politicians warning of dangers along the border sometimes swing into town, but just long enough for a photo-op. Locals say the reports are often exaggerated and misleading.

“We’re going through a perception problem,” Mayor Arturo Garino says. “We need to make sure that this dark cloud over the city is gone before we can move forward.”

Garino’s predecessor, Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel, was convicted of accepting bribes in 2010, and earlier this year, a state representative proposed a bill that would have had the state’s Department of Homeland Security issue travel alert warnings about dangers along the border. The bill was pulled soon after residents from Nogales and other border communities protested.

“We’re responsible for more trade with Mexico than any other city along Arizona’s southern corridor,” says Jaime Chamberlain, former chairman of Nogales’ Fresh Produce Assn. “We need to focus and look at our ports and border cities as assets, not black eyes.”

Slowly, signs of renewal are appearing. The newest feature comes in the form of the $184-million federally funded modernization of the Mariposa port of entry on the western fringes of town.

The remodel has most of the produce industry excited, with the number of entry lanes jumping from four to 14. Other businesses see opportunity as well.

“If we have all the [produce] trucks heading up through Mariposa, it can alleviate some of the traffic for regular people coming through here,” Urman says, pointing from where he stood on Morely Avenue toward the DeConcini port of entry near downtown.

He walks past buildings occupied by families that have run the same businesses for generations and more recent arrivals selling dresses, tools and toys at discounted prices. The looming border wall and Border Patrol bike officers imply that Arizona needs the extra security, but mere steps north of Mexico, the only worry lies in getting the best deal.

Urman pauses at a concrete plaza under much-needed shade and looks at a lone vendor advertising Mexican aguas frescas, or fruit drinks. He sighs and expresses hope that Nogales will become a place where small local businesses thrive and not just get by.

Finitos, the snack shop, is a case in point. It makes money and locals love it, but the business could make changes and expand if it had some outside investors, Rendon says.

“We want our community to grow and become something great. I’d love better schools for my son,” Chamberlain says. “I don’t think any parent wants to raise their family in a city that doesn’t progress.”

Still, he enjoys the perks a small town has to offer. The crime rate is relatively low despite the 22 tunnels found crossing the border between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz., last year. According to the Nogales Police Department, 2012 has seen one homicide and two armed robberies; five armed robberies were reported in 2011.

“I love walking in to Zula’s and knowing everyone there,” Chamberlain says of one of Nogales’ classic restaurants. “I love running in to people on the street and asking about their families.”