HIDALGO, March 1 - The new Border Texan of the Year says the real battle in Austin is not between the two major political parties but between different geographical regions in Texas.
“The real battles ahead in Austin are not Democrats versus Republicans,” said businessman Sam L. Susser.
“The real battles that are going to be impacting our lives will be about the allocation of resources between the three major metropolitan areas and everybody else. I believe that if all of us in South Texas, including Corpus Christi, the Valley, and Laredo and all points in between work together to meet the challenges of exploding demographics we can influence our destiny.”
Susser, whose company owns the chain of Stripes convenience stores, made his remarks in a speech at a dinner at BorderFest at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo. He spoke about destiny because he recently asked former Texas Demographer Steve Murdock to speak to his company’s top executives and Murdock had said demographics is destiny.
Susser said the demographer’s presentation was “profound.” He said his takeaway is that Texas may not be able to alter demographic trends, but it can respond to change. He said community leaders have a responsibility to do that, especially when it comes to infrastructure, health care and, most important of all, education. “If we turn a blind eye to any of those three elements we will pay a big price,” Susser said.
Susser is a fifth generation South Texan. He is president and CEO of Susser Holdings Corp. and chairman and CEO of Susser Petroleum Partners LP. He received his BBA in finance from the University of Texas at Austin. He currently operates over 550 retail convenience stores. His companies have approximately 8,400 employees and $5.7 billion in revenue.
In his BorderFest speech, Susser said Texas has done better than most states during great recession. He said people are attracted to the state’s wide open spaces, diversity and culture. He pointed out that Texas has growth 25 percent over the last ten years, or by 4.3 million people. He said this is more people than that of 24 states in the union. The projection, Susser said, is for Texas double in population over the next 40 years. “We are blessed,” Susser said, but warned that a burgeoning population and sweeping demographic changes could become “overwhelming.”
Susser then discussed infrastructure, healthcare and education. He said that historically, Texas has done a “pretty good job” when it comes to investing in infrastructure. However, he said, the state is now under “extreme pressure,” pointing out that the future will bring twice as many vehicles on Texas’ roads. He pointed out that from 2000 to 2010 the Rio Grande Valley population grew 36 percent, which was 50 percent faster than the overall growth of state. When it comes to healthcare and education, Susser said, Texas has fallen “woefully behind” where it needs to be.
“The percentage of Hispanic children, minority children with college degrees is considerably lower than the Anglo population. We have not invested the funds we need to support, to care for our kids. Even the funding for the South Texas Higher Education Initiative forces us to go back to the legislature to get the funds for South Texas every session. We in South Texas can’t afford to continue to go down that path,” Susser said.
Susser praised the plan to create a new UT university with medical school in South Texas. He said that allowing the new university to tap into the Permanent University Fund is “huge.” However, he said South Texas must develop a permanent funding mechanism for medical school operations. He referenced recent remarks by UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen that every two months the Valley needs to build two new elementary schools and one new middle school. Nelsen, he said, had mentioned that the new university and medical school are being built to educate those in the elementary and middle schools. He said Nelsen was “absolutely correct” when he said, Texas has to do this for the children.
Susser also referenced remarks by UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia, that while money is not everything when it comes to influencing the outcome of a child’s education, it sure does help.
“We need the tools to be successful. Our students need modern schools and great teachers,” Susser said, pointing out that Texas has the second highest birth rate in the nation. He said that while educating its children provides Texas with a great opportunity, it also provides “the biggest threat if we fail to deliver.”
Susser said his participation on the Driscoll Foundation board has “brought me closer not only to the priorities for the children of South Texas but towards a greater appreciation of the enormity of challenges we have as a state to provide for the healthcare needs of our senior citizens everywhere.”
Susser also spoke about the state’s tax policies.
“We have done a superb job of minimizing the tax burden and keeping Texas business friendly. As Lee Raymond, retired CEO of Exxon put it, every statewide elected official knows, once the election is over, that his or her primary job is to make sure government gets out of the way of business,” Susser said.
“As a business leader I am grateful for that can-do attitude in Austin. But, I recognize that our company will only be successful in the long term as the success of our communities and our children. We must be willing to be creative to make hard decisions today to meet the needs for tomorrow.”
Susser added that as a major shareholder and more importantly a father of three young children, he wants Texas to continue to succeed. “I want this state to be a place where my children want to establish their life and raise their families,” he said.
Susser concluded his remarks by saying that for 150 years no one has made money betting against Texas. “Thank you for placing the smart bet and being with us here tonight for BorderFest,” he said, to great applause.
Immediately afterwards, Susser gave his first interview as Border Texan of the Year. He was asked by the Guardian about his remarks on geographical alliances at the state Capitol.
“The major metropolitan areas have very large numbers and a lot of political influence in Austin. If we (South Texas) do not work together as a team we will not be able to gather the funds and get our fair share back of the taxes we send to Austin,” Susser said.
“They (the taxes) will not come back to create the colleges and pay for the teachers and the professors and the health care needs we have in our rapidly growing communities because we do not have the critical mass of the big cities.”
So, Susser said, South Texas communities must work together to be effective. “It is a big concern if the rural areas and the mid-sized cities do not work together. If we do not coalesce we will be left behind. That has been the state of the state for many years.”
Susser told the Guardian that the creation of the new UT University for South Texas is “a big step in the right direction.” However, he said even with the passing of legislation to set up the university, “we still have a lot of work left to secure funding and make it a long term success.”
Asked if he saw signs of regional cooperation, Susser said, yes, when it comes to highway infrastructure, and I-69 initiatives. “There has been good cooperation, good communication but I think we can do more. We need to do more in terms of the delivery of healthcare. It is getting increasingly specialized every year and we need large population centers to efficiently deliver the best quality medical care.”
Susser said there is “no reason for our kids and our seniors to fly over South Texas and go to Houston or Dallas or San Antonio for health care.” By working together, South Texas can “establish centers of excellence in the Valley, Corpus Christi and Laredo to take care of patients close to home.”
The Guardian also asked Susser about Murdock’s visit. He said the renowned demographer spent several hours with 30 of Stripes’ senior leaders “to help us think about how we should be positing our company for the long term trends.” He said the meeting occurred about six weeks ago in Corpus Christi.
“Dr. Murdock is a terrific, brilliant man,” Susser said. Asked what he and his executives learned from Murdock’s presentation, Susser said: “We learned that there is tremendous growth, especially in the minority population. That the Anglo population is shrinking in size and the critical challenge to our state is educating our minority students and providing them with an equal opportunity to obtain college degrees. If we can do that then quality of life and income levels… the money people have to spend in Stripes… will grow. We must educate our students.”