Special to The Town Crier

Earlier this month, the McAllen City Commission took the latest in a series of steps by local government and non-profits to help make the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo a destination for recreation-based business development.

The resolution, and investment from the Chamber of Commerce for a promotional video to be distributed on the internet, invites our nation’s 20,000,000 paddlers to make McAllen their rallying point for a caravan to participate in the Mexican State of Durango’s upcoming “Gran Regata del Rio Nazas,” a 148-km, three-day canoe race that occurs in July.

In a related development, Arturo Ramirez, outgoing President of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, composed of elected and appointed officials from throughout Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy Counties, called for formation of “a binational committee to study plan and implement water-related sports events in the border region, not just on the river, but in lakes managed by local Irrigation Districts.”

Sales from fishing tackle, bait and boat rentals are just part of the income stream that Ramirez envisions as a result. South Texas College professors and students are already making that vision real.

Over the past year, STC professors Ludivina Avila, Debbie Villalon and their students have performed water quality tests to demonstrate that long under-utilized water bodies like the Rio Grande and Delta Lake are indeed safe for swimming. STC Business professor Brad Altmeyer’s students are now following up with studies of the economic potential that recreational sports could bring.

“These people are the real catalysts,” said Eric Ellman, executive director of Los Caminos del Rio, the McAllen-based non-profit that provided the kayaks that the students used for their water samples, and which first invited the Texas Canoe Racing Association and Mexican Canoe Federation to work together to “take back” the Rio Grande.

Diego Garcia, representing the Nuevo Leon component of the Mexican Canoe Federation — and who together with Ken Kieffer of the Texas Canoe Racing Association presided over the first ever Big River Festival at Anzalduas Park last November 1 — spoke about less tangible but equally important benefits of the sport.

“In Monterrey I can show you kids from the street that learned to paddle, qualified for ‘La Seleccion Mexicana’ and have seen the world,” Garcia told newly sworn in LRGVDC members at their most recent May 28 meeting.

But its regional travel that is foremost on people’s minds as planning begins for canoe and kayak races throughout Mexico and Texas this summer and fall.

Bob Zachariah is president of the Laredo Hotel and Lodging Association and mastermind of the “Laredos Rio Fest,” which offers $28,000 in cash prizes for top finishers in a 33-mile downriver race planned for October 17.

“There are 20,000,000 paddlers in the U.S., as many as 1,000,000 in Texas, and until recently they didn’t have a place to go in winter,” says Zachariah.

Showing a balanced picture of life along the Rio Grande and in Mexico is critical for all who live there, he adds. Whether it’s Laredo, McAllen or the interior of Mexico, you can’t get people to visit if they think it’s dirty or dangerous.

“Imagine the effect of images of hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators cheering on world-class athletes on a river that previously no one considered fit for the purpose.”

Felipe de Jesus Silmares Mares and Arturo Martin Burricaga, colleagues of Garcia and organizers of the “Gran Regata del Rio Nazas,” ended the LRGVDC by showing archival footage of their 46-year old, 148-kilometer long race, the longest in Mexico.

They extended an invitation and a challenge:

“If you want to see what organized paddle sports can do for your community, come to Durango” they said.

McAllen’s resolution will encourage the nation to do just that.

The three-day Rio Nazas event, which begins July 10, costs just 200 pesos and includes meals with fellow racers and a chance to win a gold “Centenario,” 100 grams of gold, worth nearly $2,000 at today’s price.

“Come for the race, and to invite the Mexican racers to participate in your Rio Grande races,” they suggested.

For all those who want to consider participating in the Gran Regata del Rio Nazas, Los Caminos del Rio offers a guided 10-mile training outing every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., from Anzalduas Park to the Hidalgo Pump House Museum. Introductory training outings are free to the public with a suggested donation of $20. Call their office at 956.776.0100 x 311 to reserve your space.