|MCALLEN, January 23 - McAllen Chamber of Commerce President Steve Ahlenius believes the UT System is “playing games” with McAllen over where to construct the administration facilities for the new UT-Rio Grande Valley.
Ahlenius said as much during an in-depth discussion on the issue at a McAllen Chamber governmental affairs committee meeting on Wednesday. Special guest at the meeting was state Rep. Sergio Muñoz and he was asked for his opinion on how to ensure McAllen gets the university administration facilities.
“Let me put you on the spot: the UT-RGV headquarters,” Ahlenius said to Muñoz. “There have been promises made that McAllen will get the location. I think the UT System is playing games with us. I would like to hear your thoughts and what you can do to help direct that effort.”
Muñoz responded that he supports McAllen’s push to get the UT-RGV administration building. He said he wants surrounding communities to get behind that effort.
“My understanding is we can put a good package together on behalf of the city, not only with land but with different types of incentives and planning for the future to try to make it happen. At the end of the day it makes a lot more sense than to put it someplace else,” Muñoz said.
“How do you get them (the UT System) to step up to the plate with some of the commitments that were made?” Ahlenius asked Muñoz. The Mission Democrat responded that a “unified front” was needed. Ahlenius responded that the Valley legislative delegation may be split on the issue, with Cameron County lawmakers supporting one location and Hidalgo County lawmakers another. Ahlenius speculated that a split in the delegation might happen sometime soon.
“At the end of the day I think there is going to be a push from both counties, as to whether you want it in Harlingen or Mercedes and La Feria, there will be a push for splitting it between both counties,” Muñoz replied. “It is incumbent upon us to continue to press forward to let them know not only do we want it in a certain area but that we cannot be playing these games back and forth every time we are trying to get something done.”
Luis Cardenas, an attorney from McAllen, asked whether Harlingen’s lobby team in Austin was bigger than that of McAllen. Ahlenius said McAllen’s efforts to land the admin building are being led by Mayor Jim Darling and City Commissioner Scott Crane. “We may be coming to that critical point where the contacts you have… (…may need to be deployed), Ahlenius told Muñoz.
Muñoz was asked if, during discussions on the legislation that set up the Valley’s new university, UT System leaders ever told he or other Valley legislators that the administration facilities would be built in McAllen. “The sense we always got was we would be at the forefront of the decision making process,” Muñoz answered.
Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, said there is no question the UT System made a promise that McAllen would be awarded the new university’s admin facilities.
“Both the Chairman of the Board of Regents, Gene Powell, and the Chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, said as much. It is on tape and in news print. It was unqualified. They said the headquarters will be in McAllen,” Patridge said.
Patridge then went on to list two concerns that he has. “With them (the UT System) coming out without a qualified maybe, it will be in McAllen, what else are they going to back up on?” he asked.
Patridge’s other concern centered on the perception that the Weslaco-Mercedes-La Feria area might be considered the best location for the UT-RGV admin building because it is in the middle of the Valley. “The UT System has a campus in Rio Grande City. It is not just the area between Brownsville and McAllen. Starr County is a rapidly growing area. Starr County is as big as the city of Harlingen. They have a formal UT campus. We cannot forget about Starr County,” Patridge said, alluding to the fact that McAllen could be considered a central location, if the two ends of the Valley were established as Brownsville and Rio Grande City.
Interviewed after the meeting, Muñoz said he did not consider it “pressure” to be asked by McAllen leaders to push for the UT-RGV building to be built in McAllen.
“The System has to be true to their commitment. All the indications they gave us were that the university headquarters were going to be here in McAllen. We, the local delegation, have to work with surrounding communities to make sure they (the UT System) stay true to their commitment. We have to do all we can to make it a reality.”
In his interview after the meeting, Muñoz also questioned if communities in other parts of Texas were required to offer financial incentives in order for the UT System to build a facility. “I don't think they (the UT System) have asked for incentives anywhere else they have constructed buildings so why are they doing that here?” he said.
Asked if legislation would have to be passed to force the UT System to build the UT-RGV headquarters in McAllen, Muñoz said: “That is not the route we want to go in. We want to continue to have a good working relationship with everyone involved. However, worst case scenario, if it cannot be done through persuasion then obviously our only avenue is through legislation to make sure it happens.”
Interviewed after the meeting, MEDC’s Patridge there was no question that McAllen was promised the new university’s headquarters. “All I know is what I heard on the radio; saw on the television and read online and in the printed media. And in all cases, both from the Chancellor and the chairman of the board of regents, both said, without qualification, the headquarters for the new university will be in McAllen.”
Patridge continued: “We were not asking Rep. Muñoz to do anything right now. We were expressing our concern to him. Our concern is if the UT System is going to back up on this, what else are they going to back up on with the UT-RGV program?”
Patridge said he agreed with Muñoz on the issue of Valley communities feeling pressured to give incentives to the UT System in order to land the UT-RGV headquarters. “UT has just completed a children's hospital in San Antonio. Did they ask the surrounding communities how much they would provide if they put the facility in their community? I do not believe they did. When they do new buildings in Austin, did they put the Pickles building out to Round Rock because they got an incentive? Did they do it in Tyler or Dallas, in the surrounding cities, or is it just the Valley?”
Asked if McAllen is offering incentives to land the UT-RGV headquarters, Patridge said: “You will have to ask the city commission.”