|HARLINGEN, September 10 - Rio Grande Valley business and economic development leaders want the Legislature to compensate the region for all the negative publicity caused by statewide elected officials.
Specifically, they want millions of dollars from the State of Texas’ marketing budget spent promoting the Valley in a positive way.
“The State of Texas spends millions of dollars promoting the state. One of our legislative pushes is going to be that they allocate a couple of million dollars to promote the region because of the damage they have done in sending the National Guard here,” said Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and immediate past president of the Rio South Texas Economic Council.
Ahlenius recently sent a letter to Gov. Perry protesting the deployment of 1,000 National Guard to the Valley. He said he has yet to hear back from the Governor’s Office.
“You can’t put things into motion and then say, ‘well it is not our problem’,” Ahlenius told the Guardian on Tuesday. “We have statewide elected officials that have said negative things about our region. It doesn’t help us to sell or promote our region and I think it is time that the state steps up and puts some money in. We are a part of the State of Texas, not the back door, the front door. There are a lot of things coming, a lot of opportunities and we need the state’s support in promoting and backing this region.”
Ahlenius made his comments in an exclusive interview with the Guardian at the conclusion of a Rio South Texas Economic Council meeting held at the offices of the Harlingen Economic Development Corporation on Tuesday afternoon. At the meeting, RSTEC board members agreed to hold a series of town hall meetings across the Valley in October to get the public’s input.
Also at the meeting, San Benito Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Salomon Torres brought up a report by famed Texas economist Ray Perryman about the negative impact deployment of the National Guard in the Valley was having on the region’s economy. Torres asked if Perryman’s report could be posted on the RGVNewswire.com website. Click here to go to the RGVNewswire website.
Perryman was in Harlingen last Friday for a conference hosted by the RGV Equal Voice Network. At the conference, Perryman announced details of a study conducted by The Perryman Group. The study focused on the annual economic cost of troop deployments to the Valley. The study found that during periods when troops are deployed, “economic performance is significantly worse.” The Perryman Group found that “total losses in business activity stemming from this weaker performance include more than $541.9 million in gross product in the Lower Rio Grande Valley each year as well as 7,830 jobs.”
It is not just Gov. Perryman’s deployment of the National Guard that upsets Valley business leaders. They were angry when Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples called the border region a “war zone” and when Attorney General Greg Abbott said the Valley resembled a “Third World Country.”
“Hidalgo and Cameron counties combined contribute $62 billion in gross domestic product to the State of Texas. We play a big part of the economy and I think that role is going to grow with all the things happening. And so I think it is important that the state recognize that they need to invest in different ways. That includes education but also in promoting us. That seems to be where we have got the biggest job on our hands,” Ahlenius told the Guardian.
Among the big things happening in region the creation of the new UT-RGV university, the creation of the new UT-RGV Medical School, major expansion of the Port of Brownsville, the SpaceX rocket launching facility near Boca Chica beach, the Mazatlán-Matamoros superhighway, and the expansion of petroleum production in the Burgos Basin.
Ahlenius said he other RSTEC leaders want various entities around the Valley to make the push for additional marketing dollars a top legislative priority for the upcoming session. The 84th Legislature starts in January. RSTEC leaders may get a sympathetic ear from the House committee that handles culture, recreation and tourism because its chairman is state Rep. Ryan Guillen, whose district includes Starr and Willacy counties.
“We would be looking for funding out of the state’s marketing budget; that they would allocate X amount of money to promote the Rio Grande Valley. I think this is a starting place to have some discussion and dialogue (with state leaders),” Ahlenius said.
The McAllen Chamber leader made similar comments when he appeared on News Talk 710 KURV Radio on Tuesday morning. He had been invited to speak about The Perryman Group study on National Guard deployment. Ahlenius said he agreed with the findings of the study.
“When you hear the National Guard being deployed images that come to your mind is Ferguson, Missouri, the image of lawlessness and unrest. From RSTEC’s perspective and from the business community’s perspective we think it sends the wrong message,” Ahlenius told KURV.
Asked what he thought of the National Guard’s deployment in the Valley, Ahlenius told KURV: “I think it is great political theater but in terms of what the impact is, I think it does more harm for our businesses and does not do as much as they hope in terms of stemming the tide of illegal immigrants. Keep in mind ten years ago we had 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley. Last year we had 420,000. So the numbers have dropped dramatically and it has also changed. This year, so far, the Border Patrol is reporting 75 percent of all apprehensions are people coming from Central America. So the game has changed and I think the strategy needs to change.”
Ahlenius did, however, say he thought the decision to send more Department of Public Safety troopers to the Valley was a good one. “The surge has helped local law enforcement,” he told KURV. “I think there are better ways to spend the money (than deploying the National Guard). There are police departments along the border that need new squad cars, equipment, overtime to allow them to staff up, which could have a much greater impact in enforcing the law.”
Ahlenius told KURV that when statewide elected officials speak negatively about the Valley it undermines the efforts of economic development specialists to land major new projects. For example, McAllen Economic Development Corporation is currently working hard to lure major Japanese and South Korea corporations to the Valley.
“We have to do a lot of explaining when new businesses come in and they see these things and they ask questions about it. There is a lot of effort that has to go in to explain why this is happening and what is going on and is it that unsafe. Once we get past that you get into the regular discussions that most businesses want to have about workforce, taxes, infrastructure and those kinds of things,” Ahlenius told KURV.
“What we are going to propose for this upcoming session is the State of Texas spends millions of dollars promoting the state. We are going to ask specifically for them to set aside money to promote the Rio Grande Valley as a place for businesses, for investment and opportunity, in the light of what the state has done in terms of sending the National Guard.
“This two county area contributes $62 billion in gross domestic product. That is a lot of investment. That is a lot of money. That is a lot of production that is being done. We just think that anytime the government does something to hurt that, it is wrong.”