DONNA, RGV – Donna Mayor Rick Morales says fully-loaded trucks should be crossing the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge both northbound and southbound within the next two years. 

Morales spoke about the development of his city’s bridge at a groundbreaking ceremony for a UETA duty free store that is slated to be built by the end of the year. UETA is the largest duty-free store in the United States.

“This arrival of this UETA duty free store is the start of a lot of people wanting to invest at the Donna-Rio Bravo Bridge,” Morales told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“I am very happy and excited to welcome UETA and I am confident of future development. We have been talking to two or three other developers who want to do some large projects along our bridge. They are waiting for us to get started on our international southbound traffic. That is coming really, really soon.”

Asked how long it would be before his bridge could handle both northbound and southbound fully-loaded trucks, Morales said: “Within the next 18 to 24 months we will have both, north and south. People are going to see a lot of development in and around our bridge. A lot of development.”

Asked what the delay has been, Morales said: “We are waiting for the construction. We have the money. The federal government has to do its part and we have to do our part. We have to put in our money and they have to put in their money.”

Morales said once the infrastructure is in place, Customs and Border Protection will be able to process ten to 15 trucks at a time through a new, state-of-the-art, x-ray machine. 

“That is going to be big for us, a game changer. Not just for Donna but for the Mid Valley. Development at the bridge is going to create a lot of jobs. People from Weslaco, Mercedes, the Delta, Alamo, San Juan will benefit. We are going to be creating a lot of jobs.”

Asked how the customs infrastructure was coming along on the Rio Bravo, Mexico, side of the bridge, Morales said: “They are ready. They are waiting on us.”

Among the speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony were Sergio Contreras, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, Manuel Martinez Cano, secretary of economic development and tourism for Rio Bravo, and Donna City Manager Carlos Yerena.

In his speech at the groundbreaking ceremony, Mayor Morales said UETA’s arrival was a big day for Donna.

“People told us we were crazy we would never get it (the bridge) done. Now you see it. This (a duty-free store) is one of the steps into turning this into a very successful bridge. Next is turning it into commercial traffic. We have our consultants working to get it done. Once that happens, I have always told people, the city of Donna will never be the same again. Once we get this international bridge fully functional and we have commercial traffic, it is going to make Donna explode.”

History of UETA

Simon Falic of Duty Free Americas stands on ground where a new UETA duty free store will be built at the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.

Duty Free Americas is the parent company for UETA. Its president and COO, Simon Falic was present for the groundbreaking ceremony. In his remarks, Falic told how he and his two brothers have a long association with the South Texas border region. He said his company had a storied history.

“The company started in the late 1960s. It was then called IBW. There was also Brady’s. There were duty free stores all along the border. In the 1980s it became UETA. My brothers and I have been coming to South Texas, to Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, for almost 40 years. One of my brothers married a girl from Laredo. We had a strong connection here,” Falic said.

“In 2001, the British Airport Authority owned what is now Duty Free Americas. They were on the Mexican border and the Canadian border and some of the major U.S. airports. They were the largest duty free company in the United States. The prior owners decided they wanted to sell the company. On Sept. 11 we were meeting all the managers. 

“Everybody knows what happened Sept. 11. They were basically going to shut down the entire company. It involved 1,300 jobs. We were able to make a deal, my brothers and I. We were familiar with the southern border, it was the most complicated part of the deal for them. Because we were familiar with the southern border we were able to buy the company a month after Sept. 11, on Oct. 10, 2001. We were not able to save all the jobs but we saved many, 95 percent. 

“Here it was called World Duty Free. We wanted to go back to the original name, UETA. We reopened the major distribution center in Laredo, Texas. We employ in Texas, several hundred people. We are also in Arizona, New Mexico and California. We deal a lot with U.S. Customs, the port directors and assistant port directors. We cannot operate without the approval of U.S. Customs.”

Falic said many people have asked why he is investing in Donna when there is not, currently, that much traffic crossing the bridge.

“For us it is a natural thing. When a major U.S. port is opening up, we want to be there. The company has been at every major U.S. port of entry since the late 1960s. An integral part of a port, just like an integral part of an airport, is a duty free store. We are here for the longterm. It is at the beginning stages of development here but we know that with the growth and the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, trade will continue to grow. For us, this will be a very successful project.”

Falic said he hopes the UETA store will be open at the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge by the end of the year, with the store covering close to 3,000 square feet.

“It will be supported by our central distribution center in Laredo. All our customs work is done in Laredo and our headquarters in Miami. We visit here quite often. We look forward to partnering up and doing business here in Donna.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Falic said Duty Free Americas is a privately owned company, which the Falic brothers purchased in 2001.

“We are the largest duty free company in North America. The company has been around since the late 1960s. We are at every major land port of entry on the US.-Mexico border and the U.S.-Canada border. And, we are at some of the major U.S. airports,” Falic said. Those airports include Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Washington Dulles, JFK, Miami and San Antonio.

Falic said it was important for UETA to have a store at Donna-Rio Bravo before development at the bridge really takes off.

“Every major land port should have a duty free store. If a duty-free store is not planned from the beginning, sometimes it is difficult to find space. Our executives have been working on this for some time with the City of Donna. The city understood it is good to have commercial activity here. We signed a lease with them. Now we have everything to go. This port is ready to go.”