By Jim Walsh, GSN Staff Writer
A simple chain link fence inside a vintage 1940s aircraft hangar in east Mesa marks a new boundary – and a vast opportunity – in trade and international relations.
To get an idea of how significant it is, a new stationary exercise bicycle recently on one side of the fence was considered inside the United States. Had it been on the other side, it might as well have been in Hermosillo, Mexico, its actual destination, even though the hangar has been at Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport since World War II.
The difference is that the bicycle had been “pre-cleared’’ by U.S and Mexican customs officers working together at the first and only federal Uniform Cargo Processing Center in the interior U.S.
The center marks a unique partnership that opens up a burgeoning e-commerce market for both countries.
“It’s one click to go anywhere in Mexico,’’ said Glenn Hamer, president/CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “For Mesa to become the epicenter of e-commerce shipping with Mexico is a huge deal. Mexico is at the point the U.S was at in 1999 when it comes to e-commerce.’’
Mexico has all the pieces to build a booming e-commerce market: a growing middle class, disposable income to match, ready access to the internet and thousands of cell phones.
“We think e-commerce in Mexico is about to take off like a rocket ship, ’’ Hamer said.
Gilbert, Mesa, the state of Arizona and Mexico all want this new arrangement to pay off handsomely – so much so that Mexico last month sent its new customs commissioner, Ricardo Peralta Saucedo, to tour the facility.
Peralta was accompanied by Ariel Picker, president of Skybridge Arizona, which is developing the nation’s first international air cargo hub to house both Mexican and United States customs at Gateway Airport, and Marco Lopez, founder and president of Intermestic Partners.
The two companies are working on opposite sides of the border to maintain the unique Mesa trade arrangement – which allows cargo shipments into any Mexican airport rather than only the few with customs inspectors.
The arrangement eliminates weeks of delays – boosting efficiency by getting goods to the places where they are needed most and eliminating the possibility of corruption.
“I think it will be the jewel of Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport,’’ Lopez said. “It’s the only one inland. This is it. There’s no other game in town. …That’s the economic part of it that makes us so excited.’’
While there have been operations previously as part of a pilot program, the recent shipment marked the beginning of regular operations.
“Now, we are open for business,’’ Lopez said.
Lopez, former chief of staff at U.S Customs and Border Protection during the Obama Administration, said there are two parts of SkyBridge that eventually will dovetail – a real estate component and the cargo component.
He said SkyBridge is still working on submitting its master development plan to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The plan’s approval will allow for the construction of buildings close proximity to runways that will form a 360-acre logistics hub. The buildings would include warehouses and other facilities required for shipping cargo.
“I think it’s going to be very smooth,’’ Lopez said. “Everybody understands the importance of that 360-acre project.’’
Although the government shutdown delayed the project’s review, “we are hoping to get it back on track. We haven’t had any problems with the FAA,’’ Lopez said.
He said SkyBridge and Intermestic are negotiating with a developer to build 70,000 square feet of space near the airport, but not adjacent to the runway, that would not be subject to the FAA approval.
Picker, who also heads a Mexican security firm, demonstrated how the customs process works to Peralta and his delegation, which included Felipe Munroy and Natalia Briseno Campillo.
The Peloton exercise bikes were the first cargo cleared by customs agents from both countries and loaded onto an awaiting Lear jet, along with some computer equipment.
Mesa Mayor John Giles, Vice Mayor Mark Freeman and Councilman David Luna, who has been a key contact with SkyBridge, all welcomed the Mexican delegation to the airport.
Officials from both sides of the border formed a semi-circle while addressing each other in English and Spanish, the flags of both countries standing nearby.
Peralta, who represents the Morena party, which took over Mexico’s government in December, is a big supporter of SkyBridge. Such reassurance is especially welcome because the Morena party’s electoral victory marked the first major shift in political power in Mexico in years.
“For the first time we are working together, doing trade to the benefit of both countries,’’ Peralta said, with Jose Pablo Martinez Buentello of SkyBridge serving as an interpreter.
“It’s very important to build bridges between both of our countries. It’s very important and that’s what we will continue to do,’’ Peralta said.
Giles told the delegation how he had mentioned SkyBridge and its massive economic potential during his recent State of the City address.
“For those who are visiting from Mexico, I want you to know how important this is to our city,’’ Giles said. “Instead of getting distracted, we want good things to happen for both of our countries.’’
Giles said the project has made steady progress, meeting all deadlines and lining up all the regulatory approvals required to make it a reality.
The concept dates back to when Mesa became a major player in the government partnership that took over the closed Williams Air Force Base from the federal government and started turning it into a satellite airport and an economic hub.
“It’s not just a concept,’’ Giles said, noting the assignment of the Mesa customs officer. “Everyone remains optimistic that this will be a real game-changer.’’
He noted that another major improvement at the airport is about to move forward, saying during this state of the city address that the FAA had approved funding for a new $20 million control tower.
The antiquated, 1970s U.S. Air Force tower, where controllers had to walk up a ladder to get to the top, was an obstacle to the airport’s realization of its full potential, he said.
Giles also noted that the airport authority’s role is providing the air transport facilities for SkyBridge and nothing more.
“We are not putting money at risk,’’ he said. “We are giving them the development rights. We are not their financial partners.’’
The Mesa City Council recently approved a foreign trade zone at the airport that offers tax advantages as an incentive to stimulate business.
Bill Jabiniak, the city’s economic development director, said the city has always viewed the airport as an “economic engine.’’ He said the airport generated 1.5 million passengers last year and the facility is maturing. He said SkyBridge could eventually account for 17,000 jobs, whether directly or indirectly.
“I think you will continue to say it grow. This is just the tip of the iceberg,’’ Jabiniak said. “Today, you have to go to Mexico City to clear customs. What we’re trying to do is to streamline it, so you clear customs in a few days and go anywhere in Mexico.’’
Lopez said that the businesses that sign leases first will benefit the most, with only so much space available eventually to rent. While the demonstration of concept was mainly to impress Peralta and his party, it also had sales ramifications.
For example, Jerrod Steinke, of Ceva Logistics, a supply chain and freight management company, said it would appeal to his clients. “This could be a very good thing for our company,’’ Steinke said. “This is kind of the jumping off point. It’s great to see it come to fruition.’’