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SAN BENITO, RGV – San Benito Chamber of Commerce has asked the UT-Rio Grande Valley Entrepreneurship & Commercialization Center for help following a report that said the city was one of the worst places for Texas families.

There was an absorbing debate both about the quality of San Benito’s downtown area and an above-the-fold Valley Morning Star story on the Wallet Hub report at a coffee morning hosted by the Chamber on Wednesday.

Linda Ufland, manager of UTRGV’s Entrepreneurship & Commercialization Center, was guest speaker. She said San Benito has great potential and offered to help the Chamber develop that potential. Valley Morning Star reporter Kayleigh Sommer defended her story about the Wallet Hub report while RGV Public Radio 88 FM reporter Mario Muñoz said he was troubled by it.

“We already knew we had work to do. We already knew there were issues in the community that needed overcoming. We also know the obstacles to doing that are about as great as you can get,” said San Benito Chamber of Commerce President Lionel Betancourt, in reference to the Wallet Hub report.

As to be expected, Valley cities fared worst in socioeconomic and income levels in the Wallet Hub report. However, they ranked well in family life and fun, a ranking that included the number of attractions, playgrounds, commute time and weather. Brownsville ranked No. 1, Edinburg sixth, and Mission eighth. San Juan was ranked 17th, Pharr 18th, San Benito 55th, McAllen 56th, Harlingen 66th, and Weslaco 74th.

When it came to education, health and safety, which included quality of schools, air quality, number of pediatricians, violent and property crime rates, the Wallet Hub rankings were: Harlingen 56th, Mission 60th, San Benito 63rd, McAllen 64th, Pharr 73rd, Brownsville 75th, San Juan 80th, Edinburg 87th, and Weslaco 112th.

Some San Benito leaders could not understand why their city was singled out for coverage when they were not the worst ranked Valley city.

After Betancourt spoke about the Wallet Hub rankings, Ufland gave her presentation, pointing out that the Department of Economic Development at UTRGV has a new team in place. She said she runs an incubator for startup companies at the university’s Brownsville campus. A flier handed out to Chamber members said the Entrepreneurship & Commercialization Center has successfully launched more than 80 companies with a success rate of 78 percent. “We allow startups to come in. Our selling point is the program,” Ufland said, pointing out that the ECC Center can help small businesses with market research, network building, and developing a business plan.

Ufland spoke about the ECC Center’s use of the ten-week KauffMan FastTrac program. She said KauffMan FastTrac New Venture helps aspiring entrepreneurs get started, KauffMan Growth Venture helps companies experiencing escalated growth, and KauffMan FastTrac Tech Venture helps early stage companies with technology and intellectual property protection.

“We would like to have your services, for you to come in and work with our community. What does it take to do that?” Betancourt asked. Ufland replied: “We can come in and develop programs.” She pointed out, however, that KauffMan “has a value associated with it.”

Sommers, of the Valley Morning Star, then asked Ufland if the ECC Center has assessed the business climate in San Benito.

“We have looked at it to a certain extent. We see the potential,” Ufland replied. She said she previously worked in the economic development arena in San Antonio and had witnessed the revitalization of Fredericksburg, in the Hill Country, just north of San Antonio.

“When I was there, Fredericksburg was nothing like it is now. It was basically a small town, very pretty, with a main street. They turned it around. A lot of new development, different stores, all built on small businesses. I think it (San Benito) can grow to something similar or something better. I know you are between two cities (Brownsville and Harlingen) that are sandwiching you in but we believe there is a lot of potential. We want to reach out to the small business community here. Why couldn’t the university assist? We are here to assist,” Ufland said.

Betancourt asked Ufland if she and her team had driven through San Benito’s main street. Ufland answered affirmatively. “What do you see?” Betancourt asked. “There is a need for growth, definitely,” Ufland replied. “When you start pretty much at zero there is a lot of room for growth,” Betancourt said. “You are definitely not zero. We work with the little towns. I understand the need for assistance and growth. There is always the potential, no matter how small a city you are,” Ufland replied.

Shon Gonzalez, sales director for the Rio Grande Guardian, said he was sad to see so many loan companies dominating San Benito’s main street. “They are sucking the money out of the community,” Gonzalez said. Ufland replied that it only takes one bold entrepreneur to turn a retail street’s fortunes around. She gave an example of an entrepreneur catering for Mexican visitors who provided Internet access and opened a working space in downtown Brownsville. She said before he arrived the street looked lonely. With the success of the working space the entrepreneur then opened a trendy café. “You have to find that entrepreneur that wants to take the risk of being downtown. It just takes one person who is willing to change the store front,” Ufland said.

Betancourt then repeated his request for UTRGV to help San Benito. “We need you. I hope you are free,” he said. Ufland replied: “I know KauffMan has a value associated with it but I would really like for you to explore this program. I think it would be very beneficial.” Jokingly, Betancourt responded: “You fill this main street with businesses and we will pay you whatever you ask. We will pay you after you fill it.”

RGV Public Radio 88FM’s Muñoz then brought the discussion back to the Wallet Hub report and the Valley Morning Star’s coverage of it. “I read it and I got a little bit annoyed,” Muñoz said. “I live in Harlingen but I like San Benito. I read it and I thought, what is this? San Benito is the worst place?”

Sommers responded: “I don’t think I specifically said that San Benito was the worst place.” Muñoz replied: “You did not say that but the article gave me that impression. It was my emotional reaction. I do top of the fold every morning (on the radio) and I said, whoa, San Benito leaders dismissing a bad rap. Wallet Hub gave them a bad rating? I thought, what are they talking about.”

“I was just giving the facts, that is all. I personally do not agree with their survey. It is very general,” Sommers responded.

Betancourt said he did not want to challenge the Wallet Hub report. He said they probably used the same criteria in judging all of Texas’ large cities. If, as the report suggested, San Benito has a high divorce rate, it would be good if its residents went to Brownsville to get a divorce, Betancourt suggested. That way, San Benito’s numbers would go down. He said San Benito does have a high crime rate.

“We have things we would like to change. We have a past business community that does not seem to really care what happens in San Benito. Maybe they have gone elsewhere,” Betancourt said. “We have one entire city block that used to have profitable businesses but now has empty stores. The past mayor, one of the buildings belongs now to one of his offspring. It is vacant. They have no desire to do anything with it. Their concept is, if the EDC (economic development corporation) would like to allow them and support them, they would put in an indoor flea market. That does not help the visual or the mental profile of the community. That is somewhat of a negative.”

Betancourt wondered if San Benito could host a meat market. He also pointed out that it took many years for Harlingen to resurrect its downtown. “Nothing was built in a day. What can we do, a little something, to make San Benito different and interesting enough to the outside world, that would entice a person to come and invest a few dollars and open a storefront. We need a nice restaurant.”

Asked by a reporter about the fact that San Benito was just about the only Valley city that did not grow during the last census cycle, Betancourt said the city was also seeing a negative growth for sales tax receipts while other Valley cities were experiencing double digit growth. He said one enterprising employer had quit his paying job to open a very nice store in downtown San Benito called New 2 U. Betancourt said the entrepreneur had been told Harlingen might be a better bet but that he was determined to make it San Benito. “The only thing they did not have was customers. He belonged in Harlingen,” Betancourt said.

Betancourt added: “There is potential, you can see it. But we are sandwiched between two very aggressive communities (Brownsville and Harlingen) that do have the infrastructure, the resources to do a little bit of what we would like to do. We are kind of in the left behind group. If we could figure out that one thing…”

Betancourt also made some news at the coffee morning: “We have a river flowing through this town that we cannot touch. We have actually got permission to have kayak races so that will be beginning, probably at the beginning of next year, run by the Rotary Club,” he said.

Editor’s Note: One of the two images accompanying this story shows Linda Ufland, manager of UTRGV’s Entrepreneurship & Commercialization Center, making a presentation to San Benito Chamber of Commerce. The other image shows Ufland with Lionel Betancourt, president of the Chamber.