by John S. Marshall, Gao Lu
HOUSTON, March 2 (Xinhua) -- Laredo, a major inland port on the U.S. border with Mexico, continues to be in the spotlight of trading activity between China and the United States as plans move forward to build a multi-million dollar free trade center near the city's downtown.
Local company Laredo Lomas Properties and a Houston-based investor of Chinese origin recently signed a joint development agreement that will convert an abandoned seven-floor hospital building that's fallen into disrepair and been fenced off for nearly 20 years into the World Free Trade Plaza of America Inc.
The deal to convert the old Mercy Hospital Building into a multi-function commercial center of showrooms, office, hotel and warehouse space will cost at least 50 million U.S. dollars and take around a year to finish, according to Gao Long, the Houston investor.
In addition to drawing up plans for the renovations of the building, the team is also in the process of applying for parts of the building to be designated as a Free Trade Zone, allowing companies to bring goods into the zone without duties.
The center, once completed, would provide a venue to showcase products such as food, electronics, clothes from abroad, serving as a platform for sellers and buyers.
Once dismissed by some as nothing more than a small border city in the U.S. state of Texas, Laredo is now a busy international trading center with the world. Tens of thousands of trucks cross the border on a daily basis, carrying billions of dollar worth of goods. Laredo owns the busiest inland port along the U.S. southern border, which is also the second busiest port overall in the country, trailing only the Port of Los Angeles, California.
China is the city's second largest trading partner, with neighboring Mexico the first. China's trade volume with Laredo increased 5.23 percent to 4.02 billion dollars in 2017.
"We believe the market is ready for this kind of infrastructure in Laredo, connecting not only the existing trade between the United States and Latin American countries, but also bringing in wholesale goods from all over the world, including China," said Sunny Zhang, president of Z LAB USA LLC, the Houston-based global marketing firm that conducted a feasibility analysis and investment report for the Laredo free trade plaza project.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, an enthusiastic supporter of expanding trade between the United States and China, said it's an "honor" to have Chinese investors showing so much interest in the border city.
"When people want to invest money and capital, we all realize that there's always a risk in business, and they're still willing to place their dreams in our city. We're so grateful for that," Saenz told Xinhua.
"There's a willingness also to further develop this relationship (between the United States and China) that we're just beginning with," he said of the deal, adding he was hoping to have "more Chinese investment in our city."
"With this plaza and signing with our Chinese friends, this is really going to be a portal for global trade on a whole different level," Olivia Varela, president and CEO of the Laredo Economic Development Cooperation, said of the trade plaza deal.
"China represents our second largest trading partner after Mexico. So this is not only a huge opportunity for trade between our three countries, but for many other countries globally," she said.
Saenz, Laredo's mayor since 2014, has long been enthusiastically pitching his city of 250,000 residents as an international trading center with China.
Both Saenz and Varela expressed optimism of improving trade relations between China and the United States, hoping the two countries will ease their trade tension. They shared the view that local projects, like the free trade center, will help strengthen the trade ties between the world's two economic giants.
"These kinds of partnerships that we're doing here locally have a much bigger impact globally and are very significant," Varela said. "And these kinds of opportunities will resonate not only on our community level, but also abroad...These are the kinds of grassroots events that are going to help continue to solidify our relationship with China."