BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Jason Hilts understands the sexiness associated with SpaceX and the excitement generated across the Rio Grande Valley over plans to launch rockets from Boca Chica beach.

However, having grown up in Detroit, Michigan, the Brownsville Economic Development Corporation executive director also loves manufacturing. Which is why Hilts did well to keep his emotions in check when hosting a news conference to announce that SATA, an Italian company that produces machine parts for companies like Caterpillar, John Deere, General Motors, Fiat, and Chrysler, is to open a machining operation that will employ 300 people at the new North Brownsville Heavy Manufacturing Campus.

Jason Hilts
Jason Hilts

“I am not normally an emotional person but today is a special day as we welcome a new family to Brownsville,” Hilts said as he kicked off the news conference.

Discussing BEDC’s success in landing first SpaceX and now SATA USA, Hilts said: “I love SpaceX. They are great for our community. They are building their launch pad. It was sexy bringing them in. But, you know what, I love this (SATA) project because this is really going to grab the people of Brownsville. It is going to dig deep into the community and create more opportunities for people. This is what it is all about.”

And, explaining his high regard for manufacturing, Hilts said: “I am a Detroit guy. I grew up in Detroit around manufacturing. You drive around downtown Detroit and along the Detroit River and you see smokestacks, you see steel companies, you see smoke. Some people say that is pollution. I saw that as opportunity, I saw people working, alright?”

Hilts then explained that SATA USA’s arrival in Brownsville is just the first piece of larger heavy manufacturing jigsaw.

“We are working to bring a foundry with this. Along with that a forging operation. Hopefully steel aluminum die casting, and plastic injection molding. Just imagine the type of suppliers and support industries we can bring in. Also, how many entrepreneurs we can potentially create from these kinds of companies and jobs coming into the community? To me this is huge. It is a starting point.”

Hilts ran through the names of other manufacturing companies BEDC has brought to Brownsville in the recent years and months – companies such as CK Technologies, True-Tone, Fisher Dynamics, MVP Plastics, and Cardone. “This (SATA USA) is just the next piece. We are going to keep adding pieces,” Hilts said.

MVP Plastics is an Ohio-based automotive supplier which BEDC recruited last year. Cardone Industries is a Pennsylvania re-manufacturer of after-market auto parts, with operations in Harlingen and Matamoros. They recently expanded into the Brownsville area. BEDC is likely to hold a news conference next week to announce the Cardone project.

Regarding SATA, Hilts said the company is a “value-added” machining operation. “They are a piece of a puzzle we are working to put together. They are the first piece coming. They are a machining operation doing value-added machining for companies like Caterpillar, John Deere. They are in the automotive industry, heavy equipment industry, trucks, construction, agriculture. They are very diversified. They are committing to create upwards of 300 jobs, high level manufacturing jobs. But, this is just the start. If the pieces fall into place, which I believe they will, this project has the potential to create over $3,000 jobs for the region.”

Hilts proudly announced that Brownsville is serving notice that it plans to be a global manufacturing center. “We are going to continue to make things happen,” he said.

A key point Hilts wanted to get across at the news conference was that success in bringing a quality economic development project to a community can take a long time and requires strong partnerships. He said this was certainly the case with SATA, which, while it was under wraps, was known as Project Sizzle. He said the project started almost four years ago.

“Quality economic development projects take time, you have to develop relationships, you have to understand the needs of the client. You have to know how to bring the various components together, the entities together to make the project happen. And then you hope that you will be blessed by the company making the decision to come into your community,” Hilts said.

“Understand that we are dealing with the global marketplace. Our clients (SATA) are a global company. They are in Italy, they are in China, they are in India, they are in South America, Brazil, Argentina. They had a chance to go anywhere they wanted to. But, thank God, and with help from the State of Texas, they are coming to Brownsville.”

There was a lot of applause when Hilts said this. He then explained how it happened.

“This started almost four years ago with a lead from the Governor’s Office and then we responded to a proposal. Then we received a site visit. And when the first team came in and they met with us… I remember we met at the PUB’s office on 511 at the Southmost Water Plant… it was their first time in Brownsville and before they came to Brownsville they had no idea Brownsville existed,” Hilts said.

“We started talking about what we have in our community. We told them we have industrial park land; we have our own utility company; that the utility company is working to bring more power generation to the community. That we have a labor force, that we have a community college, that we have a deep sea port, that we have ship breakers at the port. They said, ‘Wow, you have all that. You can import raw materials for our facilities?’ We said, yes. ‘You have access to Mexico through an overweight corridor?’ We said, yes. All of a sudden the check marks on the list starting coming in our favor.”

After this, Hilts, said “it became a real fight.” He said negotiations began in earnest. “Understand how many meetings we have had with them over the last four years. We had meetings in Brownsville. We had meetings in Austin. We had meetings in Dallas, Texas. Some of you may know the Hunt Corporation. They allowed us to use their boardroom one time. We brought people in from around the country to meet and talk about this project. I don’t know how much you know about Ray Hunt, a billionaire and a successful businessman from the Metroplex area. He walked in and said, gentlemen, if you are going to invest in a place, Brownsville is the place to invest in. That says a lot. That is huge.”

Unbelievable support

Next on the agenda, Hilts said, was a meeting with Congressman Filemon Vela. Hilts said Vela brought in Select USA, which was created by President Obama and the Department of Commerce to attract foreign investment to the United States.

“We had worked with them (Select USA) previously with the State of Texas. They said, you know what, we can help. So what happens? The director of Select USA calls the owner of the company. Then, our ambassador to Italy calls the owner of the company and invites them to the embassy in Rome. I am not sure if they had a chance to go but they had a discussion. Secretary Pritzker, who was here last August to inaugurate the new (rail) bridge to Mexico, personally called the owner of the company. Unbelievable support from the federal government.”

Meanwhile, meetings were taking place with the Governor’s Office and staff for Cameron County’s legislative delegation. Hilts gave a shout-out to state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., and state Reps. René Oliveira and Eddie Lucio, III. The two Lucios spoke at the news conference. Hilts said without the help of the state legislators and their staff, Project Sizzle would not have happened. He pointed out that discussions on the project began when Rick Perry was governor of Texas. The plan was to get an incentives package approved by Gov. Perry via the Texas Enterprise Fund. When Gov. Greg Abbott took over, Hilts said, BEDC had to start those discussions all over again.

“It started with Perry’s administration and then it got caught up in the transition and a new administration came in. We had Governor Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick and Speaker Straus. And then we had to start working it all over again. Thank God we have great representation in Austin.”

Expanding on his central point that projects such as Sizzle rely on a team effort, Hilts also gave thanks to Cameron County Commissioners Court, the City of Brownsville, and Brownsville Public Utilities Board. He pointed out that the City of Brownsville gave Project Sizzle a tax abatement. Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez and Cameron County Commissioner Alex Dominguez, who represents Brownsville, also spoke at the news conference. “I am appreciative of their leadership,” Hilts said.

Hilts also thanked the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation for its leadership and commitment to doing industrial projects in Brownsville. “There is a desire in this region to support commercial projects, to throw money at bars and restaurants. But, thank God, our leadership at the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation had the foresight to purchase land that we were able to use for this project; to strategically locate it where a power plant is going to be built; and to be able to stay with us as we worked this project for four years.”

Lastly, Hilts thanked the board of directors and the membership of the Brownsville EDC. “Without your support and understanding that projects take time to develop, especially good projects, this would not have happened,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on Brownsville EDC and SATA USA. Click here for Part One.