MCALLEN, RGV – Saying he does not want opportunities to enhance his city to fall through the cracks because people are working in silos, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has called for an economic development summit.

Darling made the proposal at a city commission meeting on Monday. The summit will be held before McAllen leaders develop the city’s new budget in July. Coming out of the summit, Darling said he wants to have a unified economic development plan in place within the next 12 months.

“Hopefully, a summit will turn into an economic development program that meets all the requirements that we need to have in place. The first step is get all the input we can and the best way to do that is a summit,” Darling told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the end of the city commission meeting.

“McAllen’s economic development is kind of fragmented. I kind of went over eight different entities or more that have something to do with economic development. Sometimes we have silos and things fall between the cracks. We have some things that overlap. The idea is to be as efficient as possible but also to be as thorough as possible.”

Darling said he was clear what the goal is.

“Within 12 months I want to see a united program for economic development. I am going to make that my priority. Hopefully, we can work on it so that when it comes to budget time, next year we will have a plan in place and we spend money where it needs to be spent and augment where we need to augment.”

At the city commission meeting, Darling listed a number of groups whose work impacts economic development. He mentioned McAllen Economic Development Corporation, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, McAllen’s tourism and visitors bureau, the city’s retail development office, the development corporation that handles the city’s sales taxes, and McAllen Bridge Board.

He also listed ancillary entities that impact economic development in McAllen, namely UT-Rio Grande Valley, Texas A&M University, South Texas College, the Greater McAllen Realtors Association, the maquiladora association (INDEX Reynosa), the workforce development board (Workforce Solutions, the Valley chamber (Rio Grande Valley Partnership), LRGVDC, (Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council), local school districts and other educational organizations, banks that have access to capital, and trade groups such as Border Trade Alliance and the Texas Border Coalition.

Darling also listed economic development fields the City of McAllen is interested in. “Some of them we do very well, some we have gaps in,” he said. He mentioned medical research, manufacturing on this side of the border, advanced manufacturing and high tech, retail new to the market, existing retail, sports, entertainment, eco-tourism, quality of life, arts entertainment, parades that draw people to the city, bridge and transportation infrastructure, and technology.

“I am trying to identify who does it and what we are trying to do. I would like to have some sort of summit, I think MEDC is planning one and I invite all the commissioners to appoint two or three people from the community. Throw it out there and see where we go with it, so we can come up with a unified economic development program within the next 12 months for sure,” Darling said.

McAllen City Commissioner Omar Quintanilla said he supported the idea of an economic development summit. That way, everybody can get on the same page, Quintanilla said.

“Now is the right time. I know that the MEDC is working on a strategic plan,” Quintanilla said. “There are so many organizations, in order to have one plan you have to get everybody together. I am glad you (Mayor Darling) are bringing it up. We need a coordinated effort to help MEDC.”

Darling spoke of an “interesting week” involving economic development. “I think I went to three economic development things. We made two presentations. The Bridge (Board) made one where I thought it would have been better for MEDC, and MEDC made one the Bridge should have made. The other one, no one was there. It got me thinking about eliminating silos and really doing a comprehensive economic development plan.”

Interviewed after the city commission meeting had ended, Darling said he would like to see McAllen city commissioners invite experts to the summit.

“There is a resource pool of great, great people out there. They have experience in all kinds of things. Sometimes, we the bureaucrats are responsible for the programs but we do not do the work. Let’s use some of the talent we have around us. Hopefully they come in for free and we listen to them and involve them in the programs.”

Darling said McAllen EDC has great strength in areas such as manufacturing and logistics but does not do retail.

“Either we will better define the roles of some of our existing partners, or maybe merge a couple of them. I think it might be difficult for one to do all, especially when you think of the work the bridge board does, but I do think knowing what everybody is doing and doing it in a concerted effort is going to be much more efficient,” Darling said.

The mayor pointed out that the City of McAllen did not have a retail office until he got elected.

“I said, it was kind of ironic, I went to three economic development programs this week and two of them were put on by some of our people and some entities never even knew. I was the only city person at one of them. People do not know what other people are doing,” Darling said.

“I think we have some entities that really do a good job. MEDC, when you look at it over the years, has changed. Through their efforts everybody knows Reynosa and their capabilities, from Korea to Japan and to a certain extent the United States. But, things have changed. We have talked about redirecting some of what they do to medical research. Hopefully, advanced manufacturing also. They are going to have a board meeting. We had one last year. The consensus was, we still think that that (maquilas, manufacturing, and logistics) are their primary purpose. I do not necessarily disagree with that but I also think there are probably eight or ten areas that I would like to see us address and not all of them are manufacturing.”

Asked to comment on the observation that many of the up ad coming leaders in McAllen have no appreciation of the role the macula industry in Reynosa has had on the McAllen’s economy because Reynosa has had 11 years of cartel violence, Darling said:

“You have a huge, strong (manufacturing) base (in Reynosa). The idea is to expand on that. There have been roadblocks to expansion beyond MEDC. President Trump said yesterday that, ultimately, Mexico is going to pay for the border wall. Every time he says that he does damage. I do now know how much that affects the maquila industry but it certainly does affect how Mexico looks at us and trade is affected by how people feel about each other.”

Darling said he had spoken to MEDC President Keith Partridge about economic development strategy.

“I said, when you look at our unemployment rate, which is traditionally the lowest in our MSA (metropolitan statistical area), and you look at the kind of logistics jobs that the maquila industry generates in the United States, those people are making ten dollars an hour. They are great people but the opportunity for great wages is not there. When you look at how many of them live in McAllen, very few of them do. And so they are shopping in other cities. So, you do not get the benefit of that kind of worker to our city,” Darling said.

“I told Keith, I would rather see a $10 million warehouse going up on our tax rolls than do economic development for the employment sector. I do not think that is where your money is getting the most value. That does not mean I do not think we should try to lower unemployment in McAllen but it was not accomplishing that when you look at the workforce development board numbers.”

Darling said he has been to ribbon-cutting ceremonies for warehousing operations in McAllen where 100 or so people have been hired. “I ask how many people live in McAllen and the answer is three. I do not want to isolate ourselves but, by the same token we have to make sure we spend our economic development dollars to the best extent we can for the City of McAllen.”

Darling added: I told the mayor from Donna, when you benefit, we all benefit, but I think we have to direct our economic development portions to, firstly where it benefits McAllen and hopefully that benefits the region as a whole. Certainly not do anything to hurt the region. I do not think we should be in competition, to the extent we are in competition. It all grows together. But by the same token we need to make sure we spend our taxpayers’ money appropriately.”

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first in a two part series about economic development in McAllen. Part Two, focusing on McAllen Economic Development Corporation, will be posted later this week.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows McAllen EDC President Keith Partridge in conversation with McAllen Mayor Jim Darling at a McAllen City Commission meeting on Monday, March 12, 2018.