McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A bank executive who went with South Texas and Mexican border leaders to Washington, D.C., last week to promote a binational river park on both sides of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, told Border Report it would not only boost the local economy, but it would preserve an important natural resource for both countries.

The total cost for the 6.3-mile Binational River Park project is estimated at $500 million, said Gerald “Gerry” Schwebel, executive vice president of International Bank of Commerce, or IBC Bank in Laredo.

As part of a binational working group that is studying the project, Schwebel told Border Report on Thursday that “the return on the investment could be 20 times greater than that” once the project is built.

Gerald Schwebel is executive vice president of IBC Bank in Laredo, Texas. (Courtesy Photo)

He envisions it could be like San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which he said could draw tourists to South Texas from throughout the world.

Schwebel said such an ecological restoration zone would showcase to the world how beautiful the Rio Grande border region is. And it’s a concept that could be replicated in other border areas.

“This is a transformative vision that will change what Laredo and Nuevo Laredo will look like and it cannot just be limited to us but to other parts of the border, as well,” Schwebel said via phone. “Other border communities could take what we see and do together and show the world that we share a common river.”

“This river has united us for generations. It doesn’t divide us. It unites us and it is our most important asset. We should protect it. We should give back what it has given back to us for so many years,” he said.

Schwebel on Thursday wrote an editorial in the Laredo Morning Times promoting the Binational River Park concept and denouncing border wall construction on the riverbanks.

“This 6.3-mile park straddling both sides of the Rio Grande would transform the urban heart of our two cities and create a unique regional landmark to be celebrated by residents on both sides and visitors alike. It would serve as a demonstration of what the river could and should be – alive and thriving instead of being fenced off by an ugly wall that would essentially destroy it as an ecological asset for future generations,” Schwebel wrote.

Several buildings can be seen in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, from the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, from the city’s San Augustin Historic District. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photos)

“While the return on an investment in the proposed Binational River Park is clear, public spending on other border projects aimed at increasing security is of much more dubious value. The average cost to build a single mile of border wall exceeds $25 million that would do little to curb or address migration. A small fraction of the enormous sums that the federal and state governments have spent on border security could be diverted to this effort with much greater effect. The proposed park will do far more to deter criminal activity and border crossings while creating a community asset on both sides of the border at a lower cost to taxpayers, sending the message that this “grand” river unites us more than it divides us,” he wrote.

A small fraction of the enormous sums that the federal and state governments have spent on border security could be diverted to his effort with much greater effect. The proposed park will do far more to deter criminal activity and border crossings while creatting a community asset on both sides of the border.”

Gerald ‘Gerry’ Schwebel, IBC Bank

U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently is accepting public input on what to do with 69 miles of proposed border wall in Webb and Zapata counties, including Laredo. Funds were appropriated by Congress and cannot be clawed back by the Biden administration without Congress’ approval, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, has told Border Report

Schwebel told Border Report they hope that by increasing tourism and traffic on the riverbanks with trails, exhibits and cultural activities, they will deter drug cartels from trying to traffic drugs and migrants across the Rio Grande.

“The concept is this: If you create activity, life along the river and people are engaged and people want to go and enjoy the river then hopefully the criminal elements will not go there,” Schwebel said.

Sidewalks, roads, and lights are to be part of the plan to attract tourism. Amphitheaters also could be built on both sides of the river so concerts held in one country could be heard in the other.

A building in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, seems as if it is just across a creek bed at this narrow point in the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas. Preliminary plans for a Binational River Park include building amphitheaters on both sides of the river so concerts can be heard in both countries. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Exact project specifics have not been released as it is still in the conceptual stage. But Overland Partners Architects, a San Antonio firm that in February was selected by the Laredo City Council and the Binational River Park Working Group to design the project, does have on its website an illustration of what the river park might look like.

“We envision a Riverwalk with economic vitality that transforms our two communities and provides all the elements: ecological restoration; security elements, the vitality of people wanting to enjoy our most important asset our river and clean up the Rio Grande, and make sure the citizens on both sides of the world are so integrated and that we’re one community and two countries,” Schwebel said.

He credits U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar with helping to jumpstart this project, which has gained significant momentum and buy-in from both sides of the border this past year.

Salazar, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior during the Obama administration, was integral to the talks in Washington, D.C., and has visited Laredo, several people said.

Cuellar on Friday morning is scheduled to hold a news conference in Laredo on the Binational River Park project.