BROWNSVILLE, Texas – A number of Rio Grande Valley leaders attended a recent roundtable discussion hosted at the Port of Brownsville by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.

Some of the VIPs had new developments to share. Here is a sample:

Dr. Janna Arney, executive vice president and provost, UT-Rio Grande Valley

Dr. Janna Arney, executive vice president and provost, UT-Rio Grande Valley, gave two brief updates on the economic development front.

“Our Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Center will be opening in Brownsville. It is currently under construction. Our goal is (to open) December or January. That group does an amazing job of taking existing start up companies, as well as companies that need that nurturing and incubation to move to the next level. They will be called the E-Bridge, it is in downtown Brownsville, we are really pleased with that.

“We also have the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center that is also further investment in creating a workforce. We have trained over 300 small businesses.”

Arney thanked Sen. Cornyn for helping the UTRGV when it was starting up. She said it now has over 32,000 students. 

“I can remember you (Sen. Cornyn) visiting us when we were just opening our doors. It has been a journey and it has only been six years. It has really been remarkable and we have had support from every member here and all of our community, We are a regional university and we do serve the entire Rio Grande Valley. Our name is indicative of where we see ourselves and what we see ourselves doing and doing well.”

McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos

McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos said the City of McAllen is working with the City of Hidalgo and Hidalgo County to provide Covid-19 vaccinations for maquiladora workers from Nuevo Leon. 

“It had already been done with maquila workers from Reynosa. We do this because we know that if those individuals get ill, those are the people that manufacture the parts of the goods sold in the U.S. So, it is very important for us,” Villalobos said.

“We have to think regionally, we are working together, McAllen, Brownsville and other cities. But it also has to include Tamaulipas, Reynosa, Nuevo Leon. It is amazing what these regions do for our community. We are about to start, hopefully, training workers in Reynosa. It is a project we are looking at. It all goes back to trade.”

Villalobos asked Sen. Cornyn for an update on when land ports of entry will be reopened to Mexican visa holders.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell pointed out that his city is home to United Launch Alliance, which makes components for the Atlas 5 rocket. Boswell said there is no reason the Valley cannot attract more manufacturers in the aerospace industry.

“We have proven for a long time we can do advanced manufacturing. We could envisage more aerospace companies. I see a lot of opportunity. With your support (Sen. Cornyn), I know we can bring more of these jobs to our region.”

South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty

South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty said the big issue for his city right now is transportation. However, in his remarks he did not call for the construction of a second causeway.

“What we are running into now is our transportation issues. We are getting blocked up on the bridge on weekends. We can’t get service industry employees to come to the island to work because they can work in other towns and not spend an hour and a half to two hours in traffic on a Saturday night to go home. So, we definitely need to figure out some way of moving employees around, back to the mainland where their homes are in Hidalgo County or Cameron County. That is a big issue for us,” McNulty said.

SPI Mayor Patrick McNulty

McNulty said the SPI leadership is supportive of all of the economic development initiatives outlined at the roundtable discussion.  

“As the Rio Grande Valley grows we (will) have more vacationers that come to South Padre Island, maybe on the weekends or during the week and we become more of a year-round community. So that helps us greatly and I concur with all the workforce (leaders). As the Rio Grande Valley grows we have got to have a a good, stable, educated workforce and we are fully supportive of that.”

McNulty said SPI city leaders are appreciative of UTRGV for putting in a hotel/restaurant management training program in place. “I think that is very vital for us. Finding the employees and being able to service that vacation destination.”

McNulty said SPI also appreciates the work of the Port of Brownsville.

“As the port grows we get the beneficial use of the sand. Without the sand on the beach we don’t exist. So, we have got to have that sand. We have got to have the port grow and look forward to Next Decade (a liquified natural gas company) as there might be a further dredge and we get more beneficial use of the sand.”

McNulty added: “Thank you for all of your help in making sure we get sand the beach. That is a big one. That is my only problem. Nobody else has that. We really look forward to the growth of the Rio Grande Valley because it is a huge economic engine for South Padre Island. So thank you.”

Ramiro Gonzalez, director of government & community affairs for City of Brownsville

Ramiro Gonzalez, director of government and community affairs for the City of Brownsville, spoke about Brownsville’s efforts to reduce the so-called digital divide. He said the city has applied for a big grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“When Mayor (Trey) Mendez got elected, Brownsville was considered the least connected city in the country. And so he really made it his agenda to tackle that issue head on. We are actually pretty far ahead of what I consider any other city,” Gonzalez said.

“We have plans. We have allocated $19.5 million in ARP funding for the middle mile. We applied for an NTIA grant. My understanding is there was about $2.2 billion in requests. I like to say, if NTIA doesn’t fund the least connected city in the country they shouldn’t fund anybody else, right?”

Gonzalez, pictured above, said Brownsville has applied for $27 million from NTIA.

“It is a really targeted ask to provide connectivity to the least connected areas of our city. It does not cover the whole city but it is the last mile connectivity for the least connected people of the city of Brownsville.”

Gonzalez also mentioned the impact of SpaceX on the Brownsville economy. The company is developing a rocket launching facility at nearby Boca Chica.

“People mention SpaceX. We are aggressively trying to foster the NewSpace ecosystem here in Brownsville and we look forward to continuing with that. We are getting a lot of attention from suppliers and startup companies and everything that comes along with being the home of SpaceX.”