NOGALES, Ariz. (KGUN) — Businesses in the historic heart of Nogales count on the patter of footsteps on the sidewalks to earn their profits.
In the months following the city's border ports opening back up to non-essential travelers from Mexico, downtown has gotten some foot traffic back, but stores on Morley Avenue are also having to make up for prior years of fewer shoppers coming through the street.
In talking to city and county leaders, that resurgence could come in a new chapter of the pandemic through making Morley a place to invest in new business and cultural events that celebrate Nogales' heritage.
"It's like 40 businesses on the street, let alone what's on Grand Avenue," Bruce Bracker shared. "They all depend on pedestrian crossings."
Bracker, a Santa Cruz County supervisor, has gone through the experience of not just closing his family's legacy store on Morley in 2017, but now trying to keep this current clothes shop inside the F.W. Woolworth building open.
Before the pandemic, much of the city's sales tax revenue has come from customers on the other side of the border. Mexican shoppers accounted for 60-70% of sales in Santa Cruz County.
Bracker said the struggle to maintain this client base started even before he and other small business owners had to temporarily close their stores. For Bracker, long lines at the entry ports in the past persuaded many of his customers to shop elsewhere, or keep their purchases in Mexico.
"When you started making them wait, then... the guys who were coming five times came three times, then three became two, and then two became one," he explained.
In the middle of the strictest closures, Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino said the city wanted to support smaller store owners by means of waivers and incentives.
This past November, the Nogales Chamber of Commerce revealed at least 20 downtown stores closed for good. Garino said his sense of the economy is big box businesses, open on main drags like Mariposa Road, have not suffered the same financial hits as mom-and-pop shops.
"They were consistent, they wanted to stay open," Garino said. "The only problem is that they weren't getting people shopping, at least to the point that they could keep all their employees in there."
Because people's shopping habits have changed, Bracker believes reinvesting in attracting their historic client base is key.
"You look for the low hanging fruit. The low hanging fruit is trade with Mexico," he said. "How do we get more Mexican nationals to come over here and do business? Shop and eat in restaurants, stay in hotels?"
What else could kick-start a resurgence? Bracker said a new business could choose to make a significant investment on a Morley Avenue property and stand out with an in-demand product.
He and Garino agree it's also worth considering a reconfiguration of ports of entry for a smoother but still safe process for travelers and customs agents.
Garino pointed out there are discussions happening to start studies on what re-configuring the DeConcini Port of Entry would look like, potentially influencing how people who come from Sonora into Arizona spend their hard-earned cash without compromising safety.
To that end, Garino said a walking street like Morley Avenue could benefit from these changes, and in addition, become the premier center for cultural events.
"Don't ignore downtown just because you don't see the big box stores," Garino said. "We're going to have the Fiestas de las Flores. We're doing a lot to take the citizens of Nogales, AZ, and north of here, Rio Rico, to go downtown and start looking around."
José Zozaya is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. Before arriving in southern Arizona, José worked in Omaha, Nebraska where he covered issues ranging from local, state and federal elections, to toxic chemical spills, and community programs impacting immigrant families. Share your story ideas and important issues with José by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.