McALLEN, RGV – McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge’s greatest challenge at work – fighting the perception that the Rio Grande Valley is a dangerous place to do business – has been reinforced by a UT-Rio Grande Valley senior vice president.

At an MEDC board meeting on Thursday, Theresa A. Maldonado said she had to convince a “very distinguished” potential department head at the UTRGV School of Medicine that the Valley would be a safe place to move to.

“I asked him what might keep him from coming here and he said crime,” said Maldonado, senior vice president for research, innovation and economic development at UTRGV. Maldonado said she moved quickly to convince the applicant that the Valley is safe. “I am more afraid in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, than I am in the Valley,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado was giving a report to the MEDC board of directors on behalf of UTRGV. “There are so many great things happening in the Valley. The word is not getting out there,” she said. “What are we going to do about our image?” she asked the board. “If we had a story in the Washington Post, what would we say?”

Charles Marina, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, responded by saying his group is undertaking a rebranding campaign. “We all need to be ambassadors. This is a great community. The crime is on the other side of the river,” Marina said.

Earlier, while giving his monthly report, MEDC President Patridge spoke about a recent bus tour of maquila plants in Reynosa that MEDC hosted. Patridge said the trip succeeded in its mission of showing McAllen community leaders that Reynosa is a safe place to live and work. However, he did note that there was a shootout this past Sunday in the city. “They (the authorities) were trying to arrest the top (cartel) guy so we had a little bit of a distraction with that. That was a planned raid. It was not a shootout, although it ended up that way. But, it was planned.”

Patridge said the bus tours would continue, probably twice a year. He said the next one would include educators from UTRGV, South Texas College and McAllen ISD. “Image continues to be the biggest issue we have to deal with,” he said.

Maquila plant manager Mike Myers gave INDEX Reynosa’s report to the MEDC board. INDEX is the largest trade association for maquila plants in Mexico. Referring to Sunday’s shootout in Reynosa, Myers said: “The extermination is going on. I applaud them (the Mexican Army and Mexican Navy). They are picking up the bad guys.” Myers said whenever a cartel leader is arrested by the authorities, streets are blocked off and sporadic shooting takes place. “The Army and Navy are doing a good job,” he said.

Interviewed after the board meeting ended, UTRGV’s Maldonado said she feels safer in the Valley than she did in Washington, D.C., or Atlanta, Georgia, two cities she has lived in before. “I feel very safe down here,” she said.

Maldonado said that while McAllen cannot fight the “image problem” on its own it does have great leaders who can pull together neighboring communities in order to present a unified message. She said she would like to know whether BiNED can help fight the negative publicity the Valley gets. BiNED stands for Bi-National Economic Development. It is a group that was started in Brownsville and Matamoros but now incorporates Harlingen, McAllen and other communities in the Valley. “I was there for the big signing for BiNED. What happens next?” Maldonado asked.

Maldonado said Valley residents also need to have greater self-belief. “Our community needs to realize we are one of the most important regions in the U.S. I came here because I saw the great potential it has. I had wanted to be here since 2000,” she said. Maldonado joined UTRGV last year. Her mother comes from San Benito and her father from Eagle Pass.

Maldonado added that in the past state leaders in Austin have not paid attention to the Valley, in part because different communities would fight with each other. She said things have changed, citing the major investment made by the UT System and the Legislature in UTRGV. “All eyes are on our campus. We cannot mess this up,” she said.

Also interviewed after the MEDC board meeting, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling pointed out that McAllen is ranked the safest city of its size in Texas and the 7th safest in the United States. “We want a safe border, not a closed border,” Darling said.

MEDC President Patridge said after the board meeting that safety in the Valley is the first question raised by the prospective investors he speaks with. “It takes a short amount of time to create an image and a long time to change it,” Patridge said. “We have to continue to educate people, one person at a time.”

Patridge said the recent bus tour to Reynosa was invaluable because community leaders from McAllen saw with their own eyes what Reynosa is really like. He said business can be lost if workers in the hospitality arena tell visiting executives that Reynosa is too dangerous to visit.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge, UT-Rio Grande Valley Senior Vice President Theresa A. Maldonado, and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about the campaign to present the Rio Grande Valley in a positive light. Part Two will be posted later this week.