WESLACO, RGV – An interactive map has been created as part of the Explore RGV project highlighting 44 sites where birders can see exotic and rare birds in the Rio Grande Valley.

The new “Adventure Guide” has been launched to coincide with the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival that takes place in Harlingen, Nov. 6-10.

The announcement came at a board meeting of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. LRGVDC oversees Explore RGV. The project was kick-started last year with a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Its website and mobile app has around 800 sites across the Rio Grande Valley listed as fun places to visit.

“Explore RGV has been about a year-long project for us. It is a very comprehensive, interactive website and mobile app,” Ron Garza, executive director of LRGVDC, told the Rio Grande Guardian at the conclusion of the board meeting.

“Today we announced two exciting developments for the Explore RGV project. One of them is the unveiling of the adventure guides. The other is the formation of our Partner City feature.”

Garza explained that Explore RGV is a very comprehensive and interactive tool to help tourists and local residents alike.

“It has so much information that people just wanted a simpler version of that information. We came up with a concept called Adventure Guide, which has a simplified format for a visitor or a resident of the RGV to explore specific assets,” Garza said.

“The first one we unveiled today was called the Birding Adventure Guide. This lists 44 sites across the Valley. And the one interesting dynamic we discussed today is that we are fortunate in the RGV that we can almost ‘bird’ from anywhere, backyards, parking lots, things like that.”

Garza said many stakeholders and birding experts were consulted in creating the list of 44 sites for birders to visit.

“Not only did we publish it in an easy-to-read format, you can download it or use the interactive map feature so it can map all 44 sites in relation to where you are at.”

Asked why birding was the first subject for the series of adventure guides, Garza said:

“We wanted to time this around the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Also, the economic impact of birding is immense. What we found out from our stakeholders is that most birders are external to the Valley. They are not residents of the Rio Grande Valley. So, we wanted to develop tools so we could rewrite our own narrative and really encourage local folks to start birding.”

The last time birding in the Valley was studied in any depth from an economic development perspective was 2011. A Texas A&M University study that year found that $463 million is produced by the local eco-tourism industry.

Garza said the next adventure guide to be produced under the Explore RGV banner will be one on Bicycling. “It will be a one stop shop for all the bicycling friendly trails and routes and bike shops,” he said.

Asked where LRGVDC gets the resources to maintain Explore RGV, given that it is such a large, data-driven project, Garza said: “It is an enormous task to keep this information accurate from a staffing perspective.” He gave a shoutout to Blanca Davila, who handles economic development for LRGVDC and the Americorps Vista interns that are helping with the project.

“As a council of government we make sure we expose our assets and ensure prosperity now and in the future. Anything we can do that is modeled around economic development, we make that a priority. But a great thing about projects like this is that we engage the chambers of commerce. The RGV Partnership is a strong partner of ours on this. And all the cities that have CVBs (convention and visitor bureaus).”

Partner Cities

The other Explore RGV-related announcement at the LRGVDC board meeting was the decision to create a feature called Partner Cities. Valley cities will have the opportunity to be official partners of Explore RGV. By being a Partner City, Valley cities will have the ability to add content to a regional events calendar.

“We are also establishing an advisory committee made up of those cities to continue to drive the activity for this project,” Garza said.

Explore RGV was grant funded to begin with. If it is to become sustainable, Valley cities know they will have to contribute financially. As the idea for Explore RGV came about through the work of both the RGV Small Cities Coalition and the RGV Large Cities Coalition, the prospect of Valley cities helping to sustain the project is highly likely.

“When (the small and large cities coalitions) wanted to collaborate more efficiently, (they said) how can we do a regional marketing campaign? We realized that even if we did a regional marketing campaign, people would still have to do research city to city to city. Now we have developed a platform that all the cities can feed into and it kind of becomes a one stop shop, which branches right back to economic development for the cities.”

Although LRGVDC is the council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, Starr County has been included in Explore RGV. “We have included Starr County. They helped the planning efforts,” Garza said.

Garza said the partner cities have contributed “a small amount” of money that will be used for a regional marketing campaign.

“Right now we are just promoting the event 100 percent through social media, so it has been just organic growth. In early 2020, you are going to see things like bus wraps, targeted social marketing campaigns, more billboards. Since the grant only covered the actual development of the project, their contributions will cover things like billboards and to to keep it going.”

Garza pointed out that federal grants are often a one-time allocation. He said Valley cities realize they will have to contribute financially to make Explore RGV a success in the longterm.

“The great thing is, they (the cities) were willing to contribute three years ago but we realized we had nothing to market as a tool. We were able to get the grant done. EDA awarded us a $350,000 grant and now we are able to leverage that grant into so much more.”

Asked if LRGVDC is happy with the organic growth of Explore RGV thus far, Garza said:

“Given that we have not yet spent a dollar on true marketing, yes, it has had tremendous organic growth. I love to hear stories about realtors using this, job recruiters using this. One particular feature is Featured Destinations. This has 34 sites that have a video vignette. You can sit on your couch and get a preview of what that site looks like. People can now navigate this tool to plan trips.”

Garza pointed out that Explore RGV has over 800 sites listed, most of which are free to visit.

“We want to rewrite our own narrative locally. We wanted to challenge the age-old complaint that there is nothing to do in the Valley,” he said. 

It was pointed out to Garza that another narrative being rewritten by Explore RGV is the one dispelling the notion that the Valley is not a safe place to visit. 

“It was a strategic attempt to do that,” Garza responded. “The value of changing this narrative will far outweigh the cost of a billboard campaign. We launched this project so we can accurately tell the story of the Valley. All those videos, we drive by every day and we take those places for granted. External visitors love them.”

Garza added that he is thrilled that the tourist attractions of smaller Valley cities are being featured prominently in Explore RGV.

“We want to make sure we are inclusive and have consideration of the smaller communities. So we allowed smaller communities to be a Partner City for an extremely nominal price. Many of our smaller cities are hidden gems across the Valley. We did not want to make this only about those who have the best resources.”

The cities that have so far signed up to be a Partner City of Explore RGV are:

  • Alamo
  • Brownsville 
  • Combes
  • Edinburg
  • Elsa
  • Harlingen
  • Los Fresnos
  • Los Indios
  • Lyford 
  • McAllen
  • Mission
  • Palm Valley
  • Pharr
  • San Benito
  • South Padre Island
  • Sullivan City
  • Weslaco