BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The director of small business development for Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation says the eagerly-anticipated eBridge Center will help reduce the Rio Grande Valley’s brain drain.
“The eBridge Center is really all about keeping our best and brightest in the Valley. Guy Bailey says it best. Our No. 1 export is not citrus or cotton, it is our best and brightest, its our people. Containing that top talent is exactly what we want to do,” said Nathan Burkhart.
Guy Bailey is president of UT-Rio Grande Valley. His university is a partner of BCIC in developing the eBridge Center for Business and Commercialization in downtown Brownsville. The center is slated to have a soft launch this Fall.
“We have been able to assist graduate students straight out of UTRGV with seed funding to keep that business here and not leave for Houston or Austin or another affluent community,” Burkhart said.
“The eBridge Center will help open up the Rio Grande Valley to foreign direct investment and allow start ups to be incubated here in Brownsville. We want budding entrepreneurs to partake in this entrepreneurial ecosystem we have been developing.”
Key to reversing the brain drain is building a bigger middle class, Burkhart acknowledged.
“UTRGV has been able to produce more graduates and there are companies like SpaceX, like Zoho in McAllen and others that are stationed here in the Valley. They now have opportunities to utilize those students that have earned degrees so they do not leave for elsewhere. We are trying to build upon that with eBridge.”
Burkhart gave an in-depth interview to the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service during a recent investment tour hosted jointly by the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation and the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. It was held at Main Event in Brownsville.
Among other attractions at the event, potential investors watched a video of BCIC’s work. Asked what message BCIC wanted to get across with the video, Burkhart said:
“That the eBridge Center is a true regional approach to economic development here in the Rio Grande Valley. Regionalism runs strong in the RGV, whether it be through education with UTRGV or transportation with the RGVMPO. With the eBridge Center we will offer a true regional approach to economic development.”
Burkhart pointed out that BCIC has collaborated with UTRGV’s Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Center for years. He said that by developing the eBridge Center the two entities can be housed under the same roof.
“This incubator and resource center will be the largest of its kind south of San Antonio, with everything from a patent trade office to assistance with capital and financing. It will be a one-stop shop,” Burkhart said.
“But, it is not just Brownsville and the RGV that will benefit. Our No. 1 trading partner, Mexico will be able to also utilize this center. Specifically, Monterrey, Matamoros, Reynosa, pretty much all of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León.”
Asked when the eBridge Center might open, Burkhart responded: “We are getting extremely close. We are still looking at that target date of late September, early October. We wanted to have a grand opening in the Fall but I think given the current trajectory of things I think we might just schedule the grand opening for the New Year, possibly January.”
Asked how much attention the eBridge Center has been receiving, Burkhart said:
“A lot. The cohort that makes up eBridge has been in existence already for six years. It is just that now we are all going to be under one roof. So, the excitement now is not only that are we going to be working more collaboratively together but that we can bring in other partners and have them all housed in one center and also remotely when needed.”
South Texas Triangle
Burkhart coined the phrase “South Texas Triangle” in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service earlier this year. The triangle, in Burkhart’s mind, consists of drawing a line drawn from Monterrey to San Antonio, from San Antonio to the Valley, and from the Valley to Monterrey.
Asked if the moniker is catching on, Burkhart answered affirmatively.
“We will have some exciting announcements next month. Not only with Monterrey but a few other cities in Nuevo León that want to be a part of this South Texas Triangle concept. We have already secured MOUs with our partners, Geekdom and VelocityTX in San Antonio. We have already got great relationships here in the Valley with everyone already being a part of the RGV Partnership in this ecosystem. I see Corpus and Laredo coming into the fold as well. They might not make the exact triangle shape but they are still part of this ecosystem, this South Texas Triangle economic development area that we are developing.”
It was put to Burkhart that the population within the South Texas Triangle would rival other major regional powerhouses across the United States. He replied:
“If the Rio Grande Valley were a state we would be bigger than 13 other states in the United States. We are really one monolith. It is due time we get that respect and attention that we have been receiving these past three to five years and just start capitalizing on it. To give you an example, the population of North Dakota is probably 900,000. Hidalgo County is already over that. And that is not including Cameron, Willacy, Starr. If you really want to make that number big you include our sister cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. You are looking at an enormous amount of people that are under-represented and under-valued. It is due time for us to receive that attention.”
Diamond in the rough
Another key role for BCIC is helping revitalize the historic downtown of Brownsville. Burkhart noted that some residents have criticized the amount of time and money the City of Brownsville and its economic development corporations are putting into the project. He insisted the money and time is well spent.
“Downtown Brownsville is a diamond in the rough. There is a need for new piping as we still have clay pipes from the 1800s. They are literally frozen in time, some of these buildings. But, that is to our benefit. Brownsville has one of the largest historical districts in the United States. We are the second most historic city in Texas after San Antonio,” Burkhart said.
“There is a lot of attention now on revitalizing that and we are happy to see that. Our Big Grant program has been going since 2018 and has played an enormous role in that. That was actually overseen by our former director of community development, Ms. Cori Peña, who is now our CEO and president. She is going to continue to lead in that regard.”
Asked if revitalizing downtown Brownsville is a quality of life feature, Burkhart said:
“A lot of people want to right off downtown or complain there is too much investment in our downtown. But if you look at the larger scope of things the investment in downtown is subliminally minimal compared to everything else that is going on in the city. And that is just because the city has to operate on time, it needs to operate correctly. So, while there is a lot of attention on downtown, it is the thing that needs the most attention right now in terms of its infrastructure. That is not to say there are not a lot of other projects that are absolutely necessary. The East Loop is the first thing that pops into my mind as well but with the unique diamond in the rough that we have in downtown Brownsville it is important that we develop that correctly and efficiently.”
Burkhart said city leaders want to ensure that as the downtown is revitalized, less affluent residents are not priced out.
“Come Dream Come Build is creating the only transient houseless development in South Texas. Our housing authority is revitalizing El Jardin Hotel for affordable housing. We are already baking in these components to prevent that justified fear of gentrification of downtown. We are already looking ahead to ensure that there is some form of equitability and inclusiveness in this revitalization of downtown.”
Asked if downtown Brownsville is ready for bus tours for tourists interested in learning more about the historic city, Burkhart said: “I have heard the idea of bus trolleys. We already have bike tours. If there are any entrepreneurs that want to start bus tours around downtown, come and see us.”
Asked for a wrap up comment, Burkhart said: “This is our time and it is time to capitalize on it.”
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