RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – It’s a sign of just how much the Starr County economy has grown when its economic development leaders can be blasé about an investment of $50 million.

But, to some extent that is happening. Investments of more than $150 million and $250 million, mostly in the energy sector, are becoming the norm.

“The numbers today are a little surreal,” said Rose Benavidez, president of Starr County Industrial Foundation, which is the economic development division for what has historically been of the poorest counties in Texas. 

“We have about $1.5 billion being invested in our community. The tax base in Starr County is seeing an amazing resurgence.”

Rose Benavidez

Benavidez recalled the incident a few weeks back when SCIF leaders were discussing the $50 million project.

“We were talking about a $50 million expansion to one of the energy projects and everyone was saying, ‘Oh, that is a small project.’ How is this even possible? It is because we now have projects that are $250 million. One project, already constructed, was for $750 million Another is for $170 million.”

In fact, it is becoming hard to keep track of just how many projects are coming in.

“We are currently working on about $300 million worth of solar, which will be the first solar project in this whole region, south of San Antonio,” Benavidez said proudly.

Asked what the total investment is, Benavidez said:

“We have $1.5 billion worth of projects that are already completed, including projects in wind and the first international pipeline that is carrying natural gas into Mexico. In addition to that we are currently working on projects close to a billion dollars, in wind, solar, in our community. Of those, one project is under construction, and three will begin construction in the latter part of this year or early 2019.”

The investments have come at just the right time because Starr County’s tax base was slipping. 

“As everyone knows, in the last couple of years we have been losing value on our mineral assessments. As these new energy projects were coming in, the first couple of years, we were making up what we were losing in mineral values. We have already begun to see the situation move into a surplus.”

The immediate beneficiaries of these investments in energy projects are the ranchers who lease their properties. Benavidez said the benefits to the ranchers are long term.

“The wind projects are 30 to 40 year investments. They are not 20 years anymore. There is new technology that is requiring less turbines but they have got a longer shelf life. And so many of the leases for landowners are now ranging between 30 to 40 years. In the case of solar, those are between 40- to 50-year leases for some of these landowners.”

It is a pleasant rebound for landowners, Benavidez acknowledged.

“Drought and other external issues yielded the kind of profits that they had before and so they are finding ways to make some significant dollars and, in the case of wind, keep use of their property. We are finding ways to make use of this valuable asset that Starr County has – an abundance of real estate.”

Benavidez gave the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM an exclusive interview at the conclusion of South Texas College’s 2018 Bi-National Innovation Conference. Benavidez had participated in a panel discussion on economic development.

In her interview, Benavidez said it is gratifying to see the Starr County economy diversifying.

“More importantly, it is an amazing opportunity for us to pursue the support of industry that will ultimately create opportunities for manufacturing, maintenance and technical aspects,” she said.

“We look at the different industries we have and how natural resources have a limited lifetime. With the sun and the wind that does not happen.”

All of this is far cry from the pre-NAFTA days when unemployment in Starr County was chronic.

“In 1990, our unemployment rate was about 48 percent. In August 2018 we were at 9.2 percent. It is baffling to many. We are still not where we want to be but it is worth reminding ourselves where we used to be. Starr County has great success stories to tell. When we look back in history we can see how our community has advanced.”

Asked what impact the new energy projects will have on Starr County’s labor pool, Benavidez said:

“We recognize the fact that they are high employment early on, then it dwindles down significantly. But what we are able to do is provide a lot of economic richness to property owners, with their agreement. We have been very careful to try and strike a balance between using local vendors and local service providers for much of the work, not just at the outset but as we move forward.”

Benavidez said SCIF is also exploring with South Texas College the possibility creating a curriculum focusing on the solar industry “so that highly skilled technical jobs can be provided to local workers, versus having to bring them in from elsewhere.”

Strategic Plan

Recently, Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez announced the Economic Development Administration had awarded $100,000 to South Texas College for workforce and economic development.

Benavidez said part of this EDA investment will support STC and SCIF as they develop the Starr County Strategic Plan. She said the plan will be focused on diversifying and boosting economic development.

“Our partnership with South Texas College has created immeasurable opportunities for meaningful economic development that is based on viable business recruitment and skills training,” said Benavidez, who is also vice chair of STC’s board of trustees. “This EDA grant will ensure that we maximize our joint efforts to strengthen our economic growth and set forth a plan to achieve a sustained level of success in Starr County and the region.”

Congressman Gonzalez said: “There is untapped economic potential in our region. This funding holds the power to allow the incredible minds at South Texas College to break workforce barriers and invigorate our economy.”

Congressman Cuellar, who represents Starr County, said: “Having a highly skilled workforce is one of the key components to growing our economy. This funding will yield lasting economic benefits for businesses and people throughout the Rio Grande Valley by allowing South Texas College to expand upon its Workforce and Economic Development Plan, providing opportunities to educate and train both their students and their workforce. It is one of the best investments we have made for the people of Southern Texas.”

STC President Shirley A. Reed said: “South Texas College thanks the Economic Development Administration, the Starr County Industrial Foundation, and the employers and workforce in Starr County. Together we continue to build the partnerships and train the high-skilled workforce that leads to meaningful employment, regional prosperity, and the sustainable improvement of communities.”

Asked in the interview about the strategic plan, Benavidez said:

“We are always looking to leverage our partnerships and we have partnered with South Texas College to update our strategic plan and create an asset mapping exercise, specifically for Starr County that will then build out as we move forward and explore larger opportunities.

“It is going to provide opportunities for us not just to update our strategic plan but to create a blueprint that allows us to look at industry and look at recruitment opportunities in a way that boosts the creation of jobs for the local economy. It will also provide a pathway for us to provide necessary service advancements for the residents of Starr County.”

Benavidez pointed out that Starr County created its inaugural strategic plan ten years ago.

“This is the first time we have been able to update it. We were careful to create a plan that we knew we could benchmark. I am happy to report that the vast majority of the things we had projected, we have exceeded in the areas of education, transportation, and service providing for the community.”

The goal now is to expand those services, Benavidez said. 

“As we we talked about in today’s conference, the opportunities and the way of doing business can change daily. We are thrilled to say that many of the things in that original plan, we were able to achieve. We monitored them closely and we are now looking forward to seeing how we can expand them and create new opportunities.”

As for the timeline, Benavidez said work on updating the strategic plan will run between October and next Spring, with small focus group meetings being set up throughout the county. 

“It is a one-year grant. Our expectation is that, about the month of April we are going to have an economic conference that will bring everyone together and before the end of our grant year the entire project, which will consist of asset-mapping for Starr County, creating a new website design that integrates and is user-friendly for that, along with updating our strategic plan, will all be complete. We have a year to complete it.”

Benavidez concluded her interview by discussing a visit by state legislators slated for late January 2019. Every other year the Rio Grande Valley Partnership brings legislators to the region. One year the focus is on Cameron and Willacy counties. Two years later it is Hidalgo and Starr counties. Next year, the focus is on the latter two.

“We will play a significant part in that visit,” Benavidez said. “We are excited because we will have a chance to tell our unique story, one which will have a lasting impact in the community forever.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story was taken at South Texas College’s recent 2018 Bi-National Innovation Conference. The panelists shown are Sergio Contreras of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, Joey Treviño of Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, Rose Benavidez of Starr County Industrial Foundation, Victor Perez of Pharr Economic Development Corporation, economic development consultant Ramiro Garza, and Marie McDermott of Weslaco Economic Development Corporation.