|LA FERIA, December 10 - Lately, angst due to uncertainty has been heard from McAllen regarding the future decision by the UT System as to where to place the administration offices of the new UT university.
It is hard to blame McAllen leaders for feeling crossed since their understanding from the Texas legislative session was that the administrative offices would be placed in the City of Palms.
Since this decision remains unsettled, I wish to present a new viewpoint for consideration by the UT System. In 1960, when the UT System had to make a decision on where to locate the future UT medical school in San Antonio (named “South Texas Medical School”), it considered two options: downtown San Antonio and Oak Hills, 11 miles northwest at the site of a former 100-acre dairy farm. San Antonio and UT System leaders opted for the rural and undeveloped area to allow the future medical complex to have room for growth.
The rest is history. Travel today to the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio and it is hard to imagine that the area was ever rural. It is basically a city within a city and a driver of the northwest San Antonio economy and really the entire Alamo City.
This history creates a fascinating situation and opportunity for the UT System in the Rio Grande Valley.
The drafting of state legislation that formed the new university and folded under it the new medical school was basically a political outcome. This should not be a surprise to anyone. The language in the bill tries to impress on us that the effort was a regional one given how much effort was paid to give all areas a piece of the new regional higher education institution. No cities were listed in the legislation – only the counties where university facilities would be located were named by name – Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties. Willacy County, by the way, was not named.
The placement of the administrative offices for the university was left unaddressed in the text of the legislation. (In contrast, the administrative offices of the medical school are supposed to be split between Cameron and Hidalgo Counties.) Perhaps this ambiguity was due to a drafting error or perhaps it was intentional to allow the UT System to decide on a future date depending on how the “regionalization” process proceeded. In any event, that is what we have and it has provided the UT System with a great opportunity.
Just like it did in 1959-1960 in San Antonio, the UT System has the opportunity to develop an area of the Valley that needs further development. McAllen and Brownsville are not good choices given their location on opposite ends of the Valley. Edinburg will get more than their fair share of the new investment, given that UTPA and the RAHC research building are already there and that the UT System just announced that it will receive $124 million of the $196 belated state public oil and gas PUF dollars (incredibly, the first PUF funds ever to be committed in the Valley since the creation of the PUF fund in 1876).
Harlingen is too far to the east and is already the obvious choice for a portion of the Cameron County administrative offices for the medical school, as the legislation mandates.
That leaves us, I believe, with a few interesting alternatives: three communities that each claim to be the geographic center of the Valley. I suppose they are all correct depending on how you measure the mid-point. Regardless, they offer intriguing options.
Weslaco offers no good options on the expressway/interstate. However, the rural areas north of the city offer multiple potential sites that are sprinkled with a multitude of colonias. A university presence in the area would be a tremendous economic driver to warp speed the development of infrastructure and create greater economic opportunity for that economically depressed area, including the Delta Region located further north. In fact, in 2011 the Texas Department of Public Safety set up its $43.8 million regional headquarters in the area (on the corner of FM1015 and Mile 9) due to the Mid-Valley location. In fact, Edinburg and McAllen were both bypassed for that site selection. The new state regional headquarters has brought greater infrastructure improvements to the area.
The area on the expressway between Mercedes and La Feria, though, appears to be the ideal site for the new university headquarters. Some of the tracts are on the Hidalgo County side close to the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets and some are on the Cameron County side closer to La Feria. Some actually straddle the county line. (Friends of mine live on that county line and pay property taxes to both counties!).
Mercedes has a nationally-renowned magnet school through the South Texas Independent School District headquarters and Science Academy and Med-High high school campuses. It should be noted that the state legislation called for the creation of the “Texas Academy for Mathematics and Science” to promote advanced high school instruction in these disciplines. This new academy, though, would be somewhat redundant with what the Science Academy and Med-High do now.
This summer, La Feria leaders welcomed the establishment of the Valley campus of the private San Antonio-based Our Lady of the Lake University. It was a coup for La Feria and a sign that the small but progressive city can host higher education.
Perhaps a multi-city partnership between Mercedes, La Feria, and nearby cities such as Weslaco, Elsa, La Villa, Edcouch, Santa Rosa and Harlingen, would make a proposal to the UT System more formidable. Even though the university headquarters would lie between Mercedes and La Feria, the radius of 10 miles would see direct economic impact. Remember that the UT San Antonio medical school was built in a rural area 11 miles northwest of downtown San Antonio.
In 2009, it was accepted and expected that the RAHC in Harlingen was to be converted into a four-year medical school in the future. The state legislation specifically authorized such conversion when resources were available and identified Cameron County as the location of the future medical school’s “main campus and administrative offices”. The UT System did not keep that commitment. McAllen, now you know how Harlingen felt this year.
Salomon Torres is the owner of Salomon Torres Soluciones, a government and legislative affairs consulting business in Harlingen. Torres was a 2012 congressional candidate for U.S. District 34. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.