A Grand Slam for the Border

SOURCE: Huffington Post

When the El Paso Chihuahuas took the field against the San Diego Padres last week, it was a significant event on many levels — only some of which will be on display on the field.

For El Pasoans, it was a chance to get a sneak peek at their hometown Triple-A club and last season’s Pacific Coast League (PCL) Pacific Southern Division champions before the start of the regular season. For Chihuahuas players, it was a chance to test their mettle —and show off their skills — against the parent team that may call them up to “The Show,” as it has some of their teammates, like Padres pitcher Colin Rea, since the Chihuahuas first took the field in El Paso in 2014.

As for the visiting team, the game was the first matchup the Padres have had against any of their minor league affiliates in more than five years. A lot has happened in that time, including the campaign to bring the Chihuahuas to El Paso and the construction of Southwest University Park. Since the opening of the downtown stadium, game attendance in El Paso has been among the highest in the PCL, which in turn has been a boon for local businesses.

That turnaround — the game outside the stadium, if you will — is a big part of the story here. The new team and new park have helped drive the economic revitalization of El Paso in recent years, as have strategic alliances with regional partners. The Borderplex Alliance, the area’s regional economic development initiative, includes not just El Paso and its surrounding towns, but also Las Cruces, southern New Mexico and the city of Ciudad Juarez — in the Mexican state of, yes, Chihuahua — to its south.

A similar cross-border alliance exists between the cities of San Diego and Tijuana, the only crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border that sees more traffic than the El Paso-Juarez gateway. Together, the Borderplex region and the “SDTJ” region are uniquely situated to play a critical role in areas of both national and international import. U.S.-Mexico trade topped $530 billion in 2015, more than 14 percent of the total global U.S. trade last year. In 2013, 80 percent of all Mexico exports came to the U.S.

Now these regional partnerships are looking up and down the Rio Grande to find each other, coming together to open up a larger dialogue about economic development on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Chihuahuas-Padres game capped off a day-long economic summit in which representatives from San Diego, Tijuana, El Paso and Juarez discussed issues of mutual concern and common interest.

This initiative is the first time that stakeholders from the two largest communities on the U.S.-Mexico border have worked together to promote investment in the larger border region, and it is worth taking notice. As with the baseball game that followed the summit, an observer of the Borderplex and SDTJ regions may at first see only the potential rivalry between these two metropolitan areas. But as with the Chihuahuas and the Padres, you don’t have to look hard to realize that these regions are actually on the same team.

At the summit, international elected officials, economic development organizations, and business representatives discussed challenges and opportunities facing the larger border region. Challenges include the logistics of border crossings, trade and travel policies, natural resource management, and border infrastructure. These are all areas in which speaking with a unified voice will make it more likely that effective solutions can be found.

As for opportunities, these abound in the border regions, starting with the bi-lingual, bi-cultural workforce that can navigate the norms and idiosyncrasies of two countries. The enhanced cooperation coming from the current talks promises to promote not just cross-border relations, but also investment in the region.

Industries that have already gained traction along the border include aerospace, tourism, manufacturing, education, telecom, automotive, electronics, and healthcare and biotech. With the new focus on stronger ties across and along the border — the El Paso summit will be followed in a few months with another set of meetings in San Diego — there will be opportunities for greater regional collaboration and the establishment of best practices for community and workforce development.

Which brings us back to baseball. There are few things nicer on a fine summer evening than heading out of the office and down the road to your local ballpark to cheer the hometown team, and companies relocating offices to El Paso know that. As they say in the movie, when we built the ballpark, the people came. Just imagine what that kind of planning and collaboration could mean for an entire region.

Follow Josh Hunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/EPChihuahuas