RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – Starr County recorded $1 billion in inward investment in 2014, a record for the county, reports Rose Benavidez, president of the county’s industrial foundation.
In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Benavidez said much of the investment centered on a new natural gas pipeline that links Eagle Ford Shale to the Mexican national electricity grid and a wind turbine project that could turn into one of the biggest in the nation.
In addition, Benavidez said, the Starr County Industrial Foundation should soon be announcing a huge retail development project in Rio Grande City.
“For the first time ever we are able to say we had over $1 billion in investment in Starr County. For us, 2014 has been a year where, finally, a lot of hard work paid off,” Benavidez said.
“We have been able to finalize a lot of projects that were long term in nature and some that were actually developed rather quickly. But they brought an opportunity for Starr County to grow and diversify its economy. It has been especially pleasing for the ranchlands that have been suffering because of drought and other reasons.”
Economic development is “a real strange animal,” the economic development leader explained.
“We work for many years behind the scenes and people do not see that. And when they start seeing ground break it makes them real happy and more important they start to get some pride in their own community. We are definitely sensing that from the residents throughout the county,” Benavidez said.
The natural gas pipeline project has been developed by Houston-based NET Mexico Pipeline Partners, LLC. The company plans to transport 2.1 billion cubic feet of gas per day from the Eagle Ford Shale play via the Agua Dulce hub in Nueces County to MGI Supply, Ltd., a subsidiary of Mexico’s state-owned gas company, Pemex Gas y Petroquimica Basica. The gas will be transported via a pipeline under the Rio Grande River just east of Rio Grande City.
“The Net Mexico natural gas pipeline investment is about $650 million, of which $275-$300 million is in Starr County. It is the first natural gas pipeline exporting gas to Mexico. It is not online yet but they anticipate it will happen in the next couple of weeks and that it will be transporting about $7.5 million of product every day,” Benavidez said.
“It is coming from Eagle Ford Shale and it will tie in to the Mexican grid pipeline system. Ultimately it will be routed to fuel a lot of the development in the Bajio area where their new auto assembly plants are. Actually, our auto assembly plants because many are U.S. companies.”
The wind turbine project is being development by Duke Energy, Benavidez said.
“Duke is doing a little over $500 million of investment in what is ultimately going to be the largest wind turbine in the nation. Just a couple of days ago we got some calls from some people saying they are starting to see a lot of towers being built here on the north side of the county. There is a lot of excitement in the area simply because it has been a long time coming,” Benavidez said.
Benavidez also told the Rio Grande Guardian about her group’s work in the commercial and retail development arena.
“We are currently working on the largest retail development in the area. In about 60 to 90 days we will be announcing the largest retail development in Starr County ever. It will be in Rio Grande City. We are real excited about this because it has taken a lot of work and a lot of partners. Real soon we will have a news conference to announce we are keeping a lot of the services, a lot of retail in the Starr County area. We will avoid a lot of the tax bleeding that we have now (with Starr County residents visiting Hidalgo County to shop),” Benavidez said.
In addition to being president of Starr County’s economic development corporation, Benavidez is also a trustee for South Texas College. Like many Starr County leaders, Benavidez is quick to pay tribute to the role STC has played in growing the Starr County economy.
“From my resume I take full credit for the development,” Benavidez joked, “but the honest truth is everyone understands the importance of higher education and I think the last three (STC) bond issues show how important education is to the people of Starr County. South Texas College holds a place in the heart of our people.”
Historically, when STC goes to the voters of the district for support in a bond issue for capital projects, it is Starr County voters that ensure victory for the projects.
“When STC first started it was our unemployment rate was 40 to 50 percent. Fast forward 20 years and we are between nine to 12 percent. People understand that education plays a large role and so they are willing to sacrifice and make those extra investments from their pockets to ensure the community continues to prosper,” Benavidez said.
The U.S. Census Bureau says that Starr County’s population in 2013 was a little less than 62,000. Like many leaders in the county, Benavidez disputes this figure. She believes there was a large undercount in the 2010 Census. “We have done a lot of back up work with school enrollment and we are probably at a little over 90,000. There was a significant undercount. We have tried real hard to get people to participate actively (in the census count) because it obviously hurts us when these numbers come out. We do a lot of back up work to show people that are looking to invest in the area that we are a lot more dynamic an area than those numbers show.”
The 84th Legislature is now underway. Starr County is represented at the state Capitol by Sen. Judith Zaffirini and state Rep. Ryan Guillen. Asked what Starr County’s legislative agenda is for the new session, Benavidez said: “No more cuts to education and a restoration of the funding that was cut (in the 2011 legislative session. Our school districts are asking for our help on this. We also want to set up an energy tax district so we can find ways of using the additional revenues that are expected to come in for the energy industry and reinvest the revenues in infrastructure and development in the entire county.”
Benavidez concluded the interview by thanking the local media for their coverage of positive developments in Starr County.
“A lot of time we get neglected a little by the media but we continue to work hard and we continue to try to make positive changes for the community. We have seen the Rio Grande City budget grow, the hotel tax go up 18 percent, and our sales tax rise seven to nine percentage points a year. The numbers do not lie and we are definitely enjoying the fruits of our hard work.”