There’s a long-running joke about El Paso having plenty of sand for a beach, but never enough water; however, if one El Paso entrepreneur has her way, that joke will soon be swept out by real-life waves.
Monica Riehl, an avid surfer and self-described ‘idea architect’ says she’s traveled across the United States and the world, but something kept calling her back to her home town.
Once back in the Sun City, it boiled down to one question: What do I want to do here – how can I impact my community in a positive way – and in a way that would make it my favorite place of residence?
That question led to a unique answer, and launched her on her quest.
“It was the ocean, and surfing; every time I asked myself the question…that’s the answer I got,” Riehl shares. Now, that answer-turned-business has a name: Southwest Surf Ranch and a growing community of support.
As with most quests, the idea is the easy part, but Riehl says that her experience in other cities and the untapped potential she sees here in El Paso make the path for the surf ranch a bit easier.
When she speaks of her city, the surfer in her comes out and her eyes twinkle; talking about the energy and the vibe that the city exudes.
“There’s an identity here…there’s something here that’s special…I just wouldn’t be arrogant enough to give it a name…it’s elusive, and – to a person – it always brings us back.”
Riehl’s Communications and Strategy Adviser on the project, Donna Clarke, comes to the project after a year and a half stint in El Paso, by way of New York. Clarke’s view of that energy comes down to one thing: people.
“People leave, but they always come back because of family – this whole city is family, a deep sense of community and wanting to do good here, for your family,” Clarke adds.
Riehl’s project is one that is grand, not only in it’s potential to bring something good to the members of the community, but to place El Paso on the world’s map.
There are similar man-made surf facilities, in Austin and in North Wales to name a couple of the more well-known sites, but her vision for her facility begins with two words: world’s largest.
The North Wales location, is a good example of a formerly unknown destination becoming a world-class facility. Jim Jones, Managing Director of North Wales tourism said North Wales has recently been recognized by Lonely Planet as the 4th best region to visit on the globe in 2017.
“It is a special accolade, but something we in North Wales were mindful of. We have our spectacular mountainous landscape, incredible seascape, our land is steeped in heritage and unique culture with our own language. Some of the best food and drink found with ample of places to visit. However the real game changers for our profile has been the development of world first attractions, such as the first commercial wave garden in the world Surf Snowdonia.”
The change from sleepy, small community to a must-see stop on for surfers worldwide is something that inspires Riehl.
“First off, I want to make it clear that this project – our project – won’t just put El Paso on the map,” Riehl emphasizes, “this is for people in Horizon, Sunland Park, the whole area will be elevated by it.”
By marrying ‘world’s largest’ with ‘world class,’ Riehl sees the project as being iconic for the entire area, and once the surfing community sees the project underway, the transformation will be nothing less than magical.
“Surfing has captured the imaginations of people everywhere, if they’re land locked or live on the coast, the ocean and the waves help form a very creative and free culture…to bring that here will change the way people see the desert and the world they live in.”
The commercial park in North Wales has seen a 97% capacity since they opened, Inland Surf in Austin sees similar numbers; but all are limited due to size and space. Riehl says that will not be a problem here.
“First off, we had to look at locations here where the water table is high, and the area large enough to fit our facility…we’re talking 6 million gallons of water and enough space to build the needed infrastructure to generate the waves, have a comfortable beach and its amenities. “
The size of the waves, won’t be your standard wading pool experience. Riehl compares them to the what one would see during surfing competitions on TV, except dependable – many a surfer’s vacation has been nixed due to weather or just bad waves.
While she can’t reveal the final location yet, Riehl says that there are three locations that meet the needs of the surf ranch, and two have the infrastructure ready to go.
She adds, “there’s one location that already has the water in place – so much in fact – that we may have to drain it to suit our needs…if we do go with that location.”
Riehl is admits that the vision for this facility is unlike anything residents have seen, surpassing the construction of the Sun Bowl, or Southwest University Field, and that there will be naysayers along the way. Some pointing out the failures in the past, such as the short-lived Magic Landing or Mountain Shadow Lakes (now known as Shadow Mountain Lake)
“I think that we do have really wonderful things already, they just don’t last…the economic development in this region – for lack of a better word has ADHD – where they come up with these great concepts and we keep tapping into the same economic pool, be it Dave & Busters or Magic Landing, and we only have a certain amount of the population that can afford that ticket, and when a competitor shows, up there’s just no room and the previous business loses it’s luster,” Riehl says.
She adds, “The idea for something of this magnitude is to draw the local population in, have them participate – learn to surf and lay out on the beach – and have 65 to 75% of the people actually surfing coming from regional, national and international locales…that’s where your entertainment venues not only survive, but thrive.”
The vision of I-10 travelers no longer passing through the area, and the notion that locals want to have the oceanside experience without the cost incurred by a trip to the gulf or either coast are key to the surf ranch’s success. The prices, while not set in stone, will be affordable enough for a family to spend an entire day at the beach, without breaking the bank.
When it comes down to what the surf ranch would mean to the everyday border resident, Riehl leans back and takes a deep breath…almost as if waiting to ride a wave herself, and then answers.
“The only term that come to me when I think of the completed project is ‘mind blowing’…I often see this project through the eyes of a 4th grader from Juarez or Segundo Barrio,” she says staring past the office walls, “they’re blindfolded and it’s removed just as they’re standing on the beach of the Surf Ranch…a perfect, curling wave approaches…how did it get here…how is it made…just the sense of awe.”
Clarke chimes in, saying that the ‘awe’ is only the start.
“To me, it’s more about creating these unique experiences, these opportunities and giving them to the people of El Paso…the ability to experience this physical dream,” Clarke shares, “it’s planting this one idea, that spreads throughout the city…you won’t even have to surf, just dipping a toe in the water, it’s an event.”
Aside from the awe, there are concrete and valuable partnerships that will grow from the surf ranch being built. Clarke points to partnerships with local school districts, new and innovative P.E. classes that would incorporate surfing, swimming, and even the nutritional needs of those athletes that could be taught as well.
Riehl has already reached out to local school districts – both public and private – and the response has been positive; as has the response from the business community, something she says is indicative of the direction of the region.
“I think it’s an exciting time for El Paso because most people are pointed in one direction, everybody wants this area to be recognized, to get bigger companies to invest in our city and I know when this project is completed, you’re going to see these national and world-wide companies turning their head and setting up shop here,” Riehl says.
“This is not just about surfing…it’s about it being the ‘head turner’ because where the head turns, the body goes…” she adds.
With partnerships in place with the surf-centric city of Santa Cruz and fabled Venice Beach, where Riehl taught herself to surf and participated in competitions, the groundwork is being laid to bring the surf culture directly to the Borderland.
“I’m not at liberty to name names, but the exciting part is the commitments are in place and that tells me this is going to happen.” Riehl says with a huge smile.
The timeline for the project is a grand as the project itself, with an opening day in 2022. It’s a special date, as the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will feature surfing as an Olympic sport. Riehl hopes that with the surf ranch open, the U.S. Olympic committee could even train at the facility.
Of all the business plans, partnerships, faces reflecting the awe of the man-made waves, Riehl says the true representation of the project’s success for her will be a simple one.
“I’m going to feel successful when I see cars driving around town, with surf racks on their roof, filled with surf boards…surf shops on Mesa or Dyer Street…that’s when I know this whole project is a success.”