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City seeks to lure back tourists

Nogales, Sonora, gets big redo
NOGALES, Sonora - The live music from the clubs in downtown Nogales, Sonora, is picking up tempo as more tourists cross the border to shop, seek medical attention or just hang out with friends.
While business is still sparse, store owners said business is improving, and tourists seem to be overcoming their fears over drug-related violence that, along with the recession and H1N1 flu worries, hit the border town with a drop in tourism in the past year.
"I feel fine; everyone is happy," Maggie Secker, who is from London and lives during the winter in Tucson, said as she walked by Pasaje Morelos, a pedestrian area filled with curio stores.
David Carter, a Green Valley resident, said he feels safe in the city.
"I started going to Nogales about nine years ago. Often for lunch or dinner ... then I discovered a wonderful dentist and then just for fun shopping," said Carter, who never stopped crossing the border, although some of his friends did because of fears over violence.
Business is picking up, said store owners, mostly because of the arrival of winter visitors in Green Valley.
But the $15.4 million makeover the city's been working on - and which includes construction of a museum - seems also to be attracting more visitors.
Gerardo Sánchez, a curio store owner on Pasaje Morelos, said his sales have increased by about 30 percent during October.
"It seems people are not afraid (to come) anymore; they know it is safer," said Sánchez.
Mario Gutiérrez, owner of two curio stores, said he saw business drop by about about 75 percent, from a high of about $500 a day. He also said he thinks things are improving.
"Now I'm selling between 200 and 300," said Gutiérrez, whose business has survived thanks to his Tubac customers.
"What has been helping me is the wholesalers," he said. "Things are better now. . . . We have more police in downtown."
José Luis Herrera of Farmacia San Jorge said in the past two weeks he's seen an increase of 30 percent in sales.
But, while acknowledging things have improved, Manuel Díaz, owner of Bar & Grill on Pasaje Morelos, said business is still sluggish - something he attributes to continuing concerns over security.
"Sometimes we have more people during the weekend," he said."Violence is not in the downtown; it hasn't happened that much here; it's the publicity."
Business owners estimated their sales dropped by about 75 percent since fall 2008 when the drug-related violence hit the border town.
"We're seeing more activity"
Improvements include the reopening of longtime tourist dining destinations.
La Kookaracha Discoteque, on Avenida Obregón, will reopen next week, said Rubén Monroy Jr., owner of the place.
"We are seeing more activity," said Monroy, who is also the owner of Elvira's Restaurant, which last August moved north of the border to Tubac.
"The place is almost ready; it just needs minimum repairs. They want to open it for Halloween."
La Kookaracha will be reopened as a restaurant bar by a group of businessman from Hermosillo, Monroy said.
The Nogales, Sonora, Chamber of Commerce is also organizing its first guided tour of the border town for Nov. 1.
Jesús Antonio Pujol Irastorza, director of the Hotel Fray Marcos de Niza and member of the chamber, said the idea is to attract Green Valley residents with a guided visit around downtown that includes transportation, a meal and drinks.
Pujol Irastorza said the chamber is also working on tourist packages that focus on the medical and dental services available.
Tucsonan Bob Feinman, also a member of the Nogales, Sonora, Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is planning a festival during winter. "It will be like a Mexican festival" and likely will be Dec. 5, he said.
City improvements
The government of Nogales, Sonora, also has been working on a city makeover during the past two years with an investment of $15.4 million. It's focused on 25 blocks considered the historic downtown.
So far. Plaza de las Palomas and Plaza de las Banderas, two gathering points for migrants and smugglers just inside Mexico at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, have been cleared out. The taxis that used to park in the zone have been moved to other streets. Plaza Miguel Hidalgo, farther south of the border, is also being repaired.
"The idea is to keep moving (migrants and smugglers) from the zone; 'pollerismo' (those who smuggle people) causes violence," said Alejandro Palacios, city spokesmen. "They don't assault people, but they scare away tourism."
A pedestrian bridge was built over Plaza de las Palomas. The new bridge is one of six being built to ease traffic flow.
The city also turned two main downtown streets into pedestrian areas: Calle Pesqueira, where most drugstores are located, and Calle Ochoa.
The city is also working to convert an old salon two blocks from the border for use as a museum for the city, said Palacios.
"It will be ready in about six or seven months," he said.
Some tourists have noticed the city improvements.
Robert Sullivan, who's been visiting Nogales every Wednesday during the past three months to see the dentist, said the area looks nicer. "(The improvements) make a big difference," he said.
The city has also been working to improve the view by moving electrical lines underground and repairing the aging storm-drainage system.
Delia Lomas of Leo's Cafe said she hopes that when the city makeover is done, sales at her restaurant will pick up. The restaurant on Avenida Obregón and Calle Campillo opened 35 years ago and has seen a 60 percent drop in sales in the past year.
"In downtown, what scares tourism is the smugglers," said Lomas.
For tourists like Pam Garwood, a Tucson resident who was in Nogales with a friend visiting a dentist, the drop in tourism is more because of the new passport requirements, and not because of the violence.
"I've come here by myself," said Garwood. "I think it is safe."
The city of Nogales, Sonora, is working to make over its downtown to attract more tourism:
* Total investment: $15.4 million
* Invested so far: $3.6 million
Improvements to downtown:
* Plaza de las Palomas, includes a new pedestrian bridge
* Plaza de las Banderas
* Plaza Miguel Hidalgo, includes a new pedestrian bridge
* Plaza Pestalozzi
New pedestrian walkways:
* Calle Pesqueira, next to the port of entry
* Calle Ochoa, next to la Purísima Concepción church
New public services:
* A new museum for the city
* New underground electricity system
* New water and drainage system
* 550 new parking meters
* New street pavement
Source: city of Nogales, Sonora.