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In Wake Of NAFTA, States Eye Global Supply Chain With Envy

The port city of Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico is located on the Sea of Cortez.
Peter O'Dowd/KJZZ
The race will begin in San Carlos.

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In Wake Of NAFTA, States Eye Global Supply Chain With Envy

In Wake Of NAFTA, States Eye Global Supply Chain With Envy

Photo by Peter O'Dowd

The port city of Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico is located on the Sea of Cortez.

GUAYMAS, Sonora, Mex. -- Exports from big states like Texas, California and Michigan have soared since the 1990s when the North American Free Trade Agreement opened U.S. markets to Mexico. But not every state has been as savvy promoting cross-border trade.

Despite its proximity to the border, Arizona is one of those states, say economic developers and politicians.

About 250 miles south of Nogales, Ariz., in the Mexican port city of Guaymas, those same people see an opportunity. On a brilliant October afternoon, the Sea of Cortez shimmers in distance while a backhoe dumps powdery black ore onto a conveyor belt. It leads to a humongous cargo freighter.  

"You can see we are loading a ship with copper concentrate that comes from Arizona," said Guaymas port spokesman Guillermo Von Borstel, who added the cargo will take 24 hours to finish loading. "We are shipping to China."

This is how Mexico links Arizona and other Southwestern states to the rest of the world. NAFTA’s presence here has boosted the confidence of American investors, and has been an important factor in the growth of Mexico's infrastructure, according to trade experts.

While still a modest, regional port, Guaymas was Mexico's fastest growing last year, Von Borstel said.

Long term, Guaymas officials are planning for 10 additional docks. Early next year, a new shipping service could distribute 10,000 containers annually to the globe. It's a fraction of what the world's large ports export, but if it goes according to plan, many of the Guaymas containers will be full of goods from Western states.

"It’s a small amount. That’s why we’re at the beginning of this journey," Von Borstel said.

Port Director Jose Luis Castro said the port's growth is incremental. "Step by step," he said, the port sees potential for 2 million containers coming from the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico.

Arizona's Dilemma

Photo by Peter O'Dowd

Transportation of goods in Guaymas relies on freight trains and cargo ships.

Twenty years after NAFTA’s signing, it’s the beginning of a trade journey for U.S. states like Arizona as well.

The Guaymas port is at the southern end of the CANAMEX Corridor, a high-priority transportation route from Canada down to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. The NAFTA creation was intended to "harvest the benefits of increased trade." While Texas and California have seen benefits from similar routes, Arizona has failed to fully capitalize on its position on the border.

"If you look at it as a football analogy, we’re an expansion team," said Darren Henderson, a transportation planner with consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. "We’re just starting to get into the game."

The numbers back him up. Arizona is one of just three states to see foreign exports fall since 2006, according to trade data from the U.S. Commerce Department. In that time, Texas exports are up 66 percent. Even New Mexico, once ranking near the bottom with Arizona, has sprinted forward more recently in the race for cross-border trade.

Referring to Arizona's performance, Henderson said, "We need to move away from being one dimensional, focused on the construction of housing and look at what opportunities present themselves."

A Logistical Future?

Regional developers are betting that opportunity is in Mexico and in freight logistics. Standing below the roar of jetliners at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Suzanne Kinney of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry lays out the the plan for a project called Southwest Direct.

Photo by Peter O'Dowd

Suzanne Kinney of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry

"It is a vision we have for our state to make Phoenix a hub of commercial activity and international trade," Kinney said.

Here on the outskirts of Phoenix, land is plentiful and industrial buildings are still empty after the real estate bust. The chamber's idea is to use that space to build a transportation nexus with services that includes freight forwarders, warehousing, and customs brokers, Kinney said.

States like Texas have already done this. The Alliance Global Logistics Hub outside of Dallas is considered the gold standard for connecting U.S. goods and consumers to the rest of the world. Using planes, trains, and trucks, Southwest Direct works off the premise that Arizona could also intercept, process and quickly redistribute foreign cargo that normally passes right through. Much it would come from -- or be delivered to -- Mexican ports like Guaymas.

"They’ll be able to bring these massive cargo ships in and that’s point one," Kinney explained. "Then it’s a matter of transportation infrastructure, highways and rail to get it in the rest of the way."

Plans like this have been circulating among development groups from Tucson to Phoenix for years, and experts say a port like Guaymas is but one cog in a larger machine. Those who follow the issue have saucer eyes for a much grander -- but still hypothetical port -- off Baja California.

Still, as Arizona's economy slowly recovers, disparate plans from investors and governmental groups have resurfaced. Coalitions of cities are commissioning freight and rail studies. The Arizona Department of Transportation is holding meetings on a proposed Interstate 11 between Phoenix and Las Vegas.

NAFTA Series

A look at the impact of NAFTA after 20 years.

Arizona faces the danger of already coming too late to the game and fragmenting its effort while other states with more business savvy rush ahead with similar plans, said a person who works in cross-border trade, who asked not to be named because of the risk of alienating government officials.

Regardless, Arizona must involve itself more with global connectivity in the future, said Gateway Airport Air Services Manager John Barry.

"It has to be," he said. "If Arizona wants to compete in a global market it has to be."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Arizona isn’t the only one with plans. Just a few miles from the border, Union Pacific has already broken ground in New Mexico on a freight logistics center worth $400 million.

KJZZ News Director Peter O’Dowd finds something alluring about Phoenix and public radio, as if they have always been a part of his destiny.O'Dowd, who oversees all daily editorial direction of the KJZZ newsroom, took on the role of news director in February 2011, after serving as an assignment editor and reporter for the station since 2009.