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A Border Town's Changing Face

Bracker's department store has sat on Morley Avenue across from the railroad tracks since the early 20th century.
Michel Marizco
Bracker's department store has sat on Morley Avenue across from the railroad tracks since the early 20th century.

Arizona's largest border city, Nogales, is facing a tough holiday season. And it’s more than just a weak Mexican peso causing problems.

Long lines at the border and a lack of traffic in stores are hurting local merchants. Some shops are closing down, leaving an emptying downtown replete in signs offering sale and lease offers that few seem to take.

Christmas season in Nogales, or more correctly, Christmas shopping season, is a time of year that should be sidewalk crushing here. Instead, only a few dozen people wander the storefronts running up to the port of entry.

Maricela Ybañez crossed from Nogales, Mexico recently to shop for a coat for her young son.

"De hecho, hicímos una hora y media para poder cruzar, entonces, no se por qué tanta cola sí aquí, las tiendas se miran vacías," Ybañez said, noting that the line to cross was an hour and a half, which didn't make sense to her because there were such few patrons at the downtown Nogales stores.

On the surrounding streets, there are very few shoppers in these old buildings that have stood for the better part of a century. They’ve played host to the vaunted Mexican consumer for at least 30 years now.

For much of that time, Chris Park has been running a massive store on Morley Avenue, just across the railroad tracks from the port of entry.

Park sells bedding, blankets and children’s wear. After twenty years, he’s calling it quits.

Park said business has been dropping since the Great Recession of 2008. And it keeps dropping.

"2015 going down thirty percent again. And then 2016, another thirty percent, you know, from 2015," Park said. "So that’s why I’m going to close end of this year."

He’s not alone. Take a stroll down Morley Avenue, where the narrow street runs up to the border wall separating the two countries, and it’s clear that the face of downtown Nogales is changing.
"There used to be a buzz about downtown. You could get on the street and sense it. You don’t see that now, it’s Christmas time, it’s Christmas shoppers and you look around and you’re like, 'hey where are the shoppers'?" said Guillermo Valenica, chairman of the local port authority.

Across the railroad tracks, where what was once a national bank is now up for sale.

At Bracker’s Department store, Bruce Bracker sells high end Stetsons, horsehair belts, designer brands, christening dresses and evening gowns.

Bracker put a second store up for sale due to a lack of business.

He is also a county supervisor. Bracker argued vehemently for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to streamline traffic and get people across. He’s been arguing that point for four years now.

"You come up to a port of entry, you don’t know if you’re going to be waiting in line for ten minutes, twenty minutes, two hours, or three hours to cross that border," Bracker said. "And it’s all dependent on the number of lanes that CBP is able to open. There’s a staffing shortage. They can’t open up all the lanes."

But the Mexican consumers shopping habits have changed. Nogales, Sonora, just across the border, boasts an enormous shopping mall. There’s a Wal-mart, even a Sam’s Club. Up north, the seduction of multiple Tucson malls and outlets.

Three blocks from the border wall the traffic peters out.

There are three darkened storefronts. The grit on the windows suggests they’ve stood this way for a while.

Arnold Quijada is chairman of the chamber of commerce. His solution? Nightlife.

"Why not?" he said, sitting at his office on a recent afternoon. "I want to bring retail. I want to bring those places but if you want to take care of these people, you want to attract them and keep them here. Let’s give them some choices. Let’s bring a few bars, some investors. Bring a few bars, bring a few nice restaurants."
Nogales, he said, needs to become more than a quick stop on the way into the rest of Arizona.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.