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Port of Call: Tucson 

A project to make the Old Pueblo an international shipping hub is up and running.

The most ambitious idea to date to come out of the city's Tucson-Mexico Trade Office is the establishment of the Puerto Nuevo project on Tucson's southeast side.

"It's going to help position Tucson as a place where airplane, trains and trucks are moving products from Tucson to the western U.S. and into Mexico," says Felite Garcia, Economic Development Specialist at the Tucson-Mexico Trade Office. "And that, in turn, is going to result in manufacturing companies looking at Tucson to establish operations to service these markets."

Garcia has been working for three years to establish this cross-border commercial "zone," and that goal has just moved closer to reality with the opening of the Port of Tucson.

"It's up and running and they are receiving some products from California ports," says Garcia.

The Port of Tucson, located on Century Park Drive (near Valencia and Kolb roads), is a distribution and loading facility where, for the first time in six years, Tucson businesses have the ability to load and unload cargo from rail cars.

"Union Pacific basically delivers the rail cars here to be handled," says Alan Levin, the owner and developer of the Port of Tucson. "The facility and all the equipment is private, and I work with Union Pacific to deliver product. I'm actually providing the service for them."

Omaha-based Union Pacific considers the rail line through Tucson to be one of the heaviest-traveled lines in the country, primarily by trains transporting containers to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Yet Union Pacific closed its Tucson rail-cargo facility in 1998. But now, as some 60 cargo trains pass through Tucson each day, the Port of Tucson will make the Old Pueblo the only stop between Los Angeles and Houston with a storage and distribution yard for container cars.

"We're at the crossroads between Mexico, rail and the interstate, so we have location going for us," notes Levin. "And we're on the main line of Union Pacific; Phoenix is not."

Still, this rail "port" is only part of the larger, three-pronged approach of Puerto Nuevo.

In addition to more train traffic through Tucson, Puerto Nuevo is geared to provide greater access to the fast-growing global marketplace by partnering with air freight at Tucson International Airport and the latest inspection and detection technologies through the University of Arizona's Science and Technology Park.

A 20-year air cargo expansion plan is currently in the works at Tucson International Airport, where total airfreight has been on the rise.

"Even though air is used to move high-priced, low-volume kinds of products, we're starting to see some movement of produce that is in demand by consumers," says Garcia.

But Puerto Nuevo's vision relies the heaviest on the already-functioning Port of Tucson.

Located near the Century Park Research Center, the 264-acre facility is within a designated Foreign Trade Zone and provides 1 million square feet of warehousing for dry, refrigerated and frozen products. The entire site--Port of Tucson, Century Park Research Center and Tucson Frozen Storage--are entirely owned by Levin, who used his own money to buy and develop the property in 1996.

"We own the facilities, the grounds and the tracks," says Levin of his multi-million dollar project.

The Arizona-Sonora region's share of cross-border trade has generally declined since 1994--the year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, according to the UA's Office of Economic Development's report: Regional Economic Indicators: Arizona-Sonora 2003.

The entire Puerto Nuevo concept is ultimately banking on more jobs in Tucson by freeing-up the competitive flow of regional and international trade, including greater access to more than 2,000 maquiladoras in Mexico.


"We're seeing that right now," says Garcia, citing Tucson-based Offshore Group as an example. "They have manufacturing facilities in Mexico, and a lot of their products come to Tucson, because this is where their distribution center is."

Also important for Puerto Nuevo is Sonora's Port of Guaymas. Arizona has always promoted Guaymas as "Arizona's seaport," but the port's usage has declined over 4 percent since 1996. But Union Pacific is a minority owner of Mexican railroad Ferromex, which operates the Guaymas rail route, and hopes are that access to the seaport from the Port of Tucson will be expedited.

The Puerto Nuevo project just received a $200,000 grant from the Pima Association of Governments to form a structured organization, with an executive director expected to be in place "in the next few months." With that, Puerto Nuevo is expected to really start impacting the businesses in the area.

Levin thinks Tucson, as a major distribution hub, is closer than most think.

"I think it already is to a certain extent," says Levin. "There are companies located here at Century Park that do warehousing and distribution and already deal with Mexico."

In the meantime, Levin is continuing to expand and build more warehouses at his private site.

"Unfortunately, there's no assistance from any governmental agencies," says Levin. "But we keep plugging along."

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