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Dr. Slade Gardner of Lockheed Martin and Marv Esterly, director of aviation for Valley International Airport, are pictured at the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, held this past week at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo: RGG/Carl Lindemann).

HARLINGEN, RGV – Marv Esterly, director of aviation for Valley International Airport in Harlingen, says the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, held this past week at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, was a great success.

Esterly was at Space Com to promote the Harlingen Aerotropolis, a 480-acre tract of land on the east side of VIA that Harlingen leaders hope and believe will become home to aerospace, logistical and aeronautical companies.

“At the beginning I had my doubts about the expo, given that it is the first year and it takes time to build momentum. But I was really incredibly surprised by how much interest there was in the Harlingen Aerotropolis. We had a lot of people come to the booth wanting to know more about it,” Esterly said.

Esterly said he was told the official attendance was 1,500, which he thought was a good number for the first year of the show. He acknowledged that those who came by the Harlingen Aerotropolis booth were curious about the name of the entity.

“It is a fairly new name so people wanted to know what an aerotropolis is. We did a lot of explaining about our aerotropolis and what our target industries are. One of them, of course, is the commercial space industry, because of our anchor tenant, United Launch Alliance. We did a lot of explaining,” Esterly said.

Asked how much interest there was in companies looking to relocate or expand into the Rio Grande Valley, and specifically at the Harlingen Aerotropolis, Esterly said: “We had a few companies looking at our area, particularly small companies. A lot of people are interested in our connection to Texas State Technical College and UT-Rio Grande Valley. They were very interested in what is going on, with the Challenger Center and our partnership with TSTC. These companies are looking for well-qualified employees and being able to train these employees. They were pleased to hear we are partnering with TSTC.”

Esterly noted that developing a commercial space cluster is very much a regional effort that will require partnerships between municipalities, education institutions and private industry. He said with SpaceX set to build a rocket launching operation just outside of Brownsville and United Launch Alliance based in Harlingen, the seeds for developing a commercial space cluster have been planted.

“We had a lot of questions at the expo about SpaceX and a lot of questions about United Launch Alliance. They definitely feed off each other and are clearly vital to building that cluster for the commercial space cluster down here in the Valley. Having both of them here helps both of our communities, Harlingen and Brownsville and the whole Rio Grande Valley.”

The Harlingen Aerotropolis was recently designated a certified quality site by McCallum Sweeney, through a program with AEP. It is one of only a handful in the nation with that designation. The land lies along FM 509, a state highway running south to the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge. This road was recently designated as part of an overweight corridor that unites the Port of Harlingen, the Harlingen Industrial Park and the Harlingen Aerotropolis through to the international bridge. It also connects those areas to the Port of Brownsville.

Asked how optimistic city leaders are for the Harlingen Aerotropolis, Esterly said: “Very optimistic. I certainly am optimistic. When I came down here, I looked at the area and thought this is an untapped resource, a diamond in the rough. I still believe that. There is so much potential here.”

Esterly came to VIA a year ago, having previously served as aviation director for Midland International Air & Space Port in Midland, Texas.

“We are in a great location,” Esterly said of Harlingen Aerotropolis. “We can offer a great quality of life and a relatively low cost of housing and a low cost of living. Those are things our potential employers are looking for. Potential employers also like the fact that the average of our workforce is 28 years. That is huge for them. They want to know our young people are interested in the commercial space industry.”

An added bonus in attending Space Com was the connections Esterly made with motivational speakers in the space industry.

“We made some great connections with some motivational speakers, scientists in the industry. We have about three of them that are really committed to coming down here and working with us and talking to students at the college and the high schools. We want to bring them here, we want to get our young people motivated. We want them to study in the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math. The commercial space industry is an industry they can be involved in the future, here in the Rio Grande Valley. It was so motivating to see all this technology at the expo and to think it is going to really light the eyes up of our students.”