SANTA TERESA, New Mexico — Trucks race along a winding road in the arid New Mexico desert. As they travel through Santa Teresa, a border-crossing port of entry and unincorporated town, they pass millions of square feet of warehouses that store steel coil, wind turbine blades and specialty glass.
It’s a town that state officials say has pumped millions into New Mexico’s economy.
But missing in this industrial enclave are shops, cafes, gas stations and residents. No one lives here.
Now the nonprofit group that operates Santa Teresa is working to transform the area from a place where people work into one where they might put down roots.
Officials are drafting plans that call for the building of a plaza on an upslope, surrounded by Mediterranean-style housing and international restaurants. Such developments also could include hotels, retail stores and entertainment attractions that would turn this industrial park into a new hot spot just a stone’s throw away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We are still in the planning stages, but it’s going to happen,” Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Border Industrial Association, the nonprofit group that functions as a governing body for Santa Teresa.
Christopher O. Lyons, who owns the Santa Teresa industrial area, said the idea for the plaza and housing has been floating around for years. But with warehouse space expanding and businesses flocking to the town, it’s time for the next steps, Lyons said.
“We’d like to become a destination and place for people to come and relax,” Lyons said. “There is so much potential here.”
Recently, for example, Texas oil billionaire Paul Foster, chairman of Western Refining Inc., bought more than 38 acres in an industrial zone of Santa Teresa for an undisclosed sum. His company owns refineries in Gallup and El Paso.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based Union Pacific also opened a $400 million, 2,200-acre facility for refueling locomotives and shifting goods from truck to rail. The hub, which opened in 2014, is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. and is expected to spur development on both sides of the border with Mexico.
And two years ago, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez announced the creation of a 70,000-acre, master-planned community around the Santa Teresa-San Jeronimo border crossing in an effort to expand the fast-growing border region. The project aims to create new trade zones, joint health care programs and residential living while avoiding the sprawl seen at other border towns.
The Santa Teresa Port of Entry also recently was able to extend its southbound traffic by four hours, from 8 p.m. to midnight, thanks to funding from Dell. The port opens at 8 a.m.
But as the town plays host to international businessmen and businesswomen from Turkey, Japan and Canada who take advantage of the inexpensive warehouse space, it’s losing out as a potential hub for an entertainment center with diverse restaurants and recreation options, Lyons said.
“We need to get a coffee shop first,” he said.
The Santa Teresa Port of Entry opened in 1998 and was predicted to compete with one in eastern El Paso. After years of stops and starts and an economic downturn, warehouse space recently has filled up as more businesses have relocated from Texas and California because of cheaper square footage.
Across the border, Foxconn has erected a massive factory that builds Dell computers for the U.S. market. The company also has helped pay for road construction in San Jeronimo, Pacheco said.
The industrial park brings in an estimated 4,000 employees daily. Some travel 30 to 40 minutes to homes in El Paso or 50 minutes to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Wendy Zuniga, sales manager of Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces, said she hopes to capitalize on the booming town by offering room for visiting workers. “We’re not too far so we’d love for them to stay with us,” she said during a tour of Santa Teresa.
However, not everyone is happy Santa Teresa is getting all the attention.
Javier Perea, mayor of nearby Sunland Park, said his poor city often gets overlooked and also needs investment. A number of scandals plagued his border town in recent years, including an extortion case that made national news. But Sunland Park has since cleaned its finances and elected new leaders.
“We want to build our own port of entry,” Perea said. “I think that could change (our) city.”
But Pacheco said when Santa Teresa does well, the whole region and state prosper.
“This isn’t just about Santa Teresa,” Pacheco said. “This is about all of us.”