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Dr. R. Armour Force, chief academic officer of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, signs on to support the Promesas del Valle Initiative.

PHARR, RGV – PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King says one area that can really benefit from the new Promesas del Valle Initiative is adult education.

PSJA has set up seven adult community engagement centers to meet demand for more adult education and job training courses and it is still not enough. In the first year of operation 2,500 adults signed up for classes in the centers. In the second year it as 3,600. Now in its third year, PSJA expects 5,000 adults to sign up for classes.

By pulling together so many entities from the fields of education, healthcare, municipal government, the non-profit world and the private sector into the Promesas project, King argues, resources can be pooled and leverage gained.

“I think our work with the adult population will really accelerate under Promesas del Valle because that is an area where there is clearly limited funding right now. With the K-12 sector, with the Higher Ed sector, by themselves there are a number of funding models that are state supported and federally supported that we can go after. But, for work with the adult community that does not directly involve college course work, whether it is job training or other ways of improving the quality of life of the adult community, it is a lot more difficult. Funding is very limited,” King said.

“So, this is an area where the Yo Prometo partnership is very critical. Only by aligning and combining resources, knowing what each other is doing and building on the strengths of everyone and getting commitment, can we really impact the adult population. And we are going to do that.”

King said the Promesas subcommittee that focuses on the adult population in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo area will be looking for “creative ways” to find additional resources in the community. “It could be through our faith-based partners, through the churches, through our winter visitors, or individuals that are retired but want to help, we have to find different ways of securing the resources to really impact the adult population. It is very critical,” King said.

News conference held

Details on the Promesas del Valle Initiative were unveiled at Pharr City Hall on Thursday. County leaders, as well as those from the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo area, explained that they are seeking official designation as a “federal promise zone.” They said if they get the designation they will have a much better chance of receiving additional federal funding to help revitalize the area, reduce poverty, reduce unemployment, improve economic development and improve educational opportunities. The leaders said they are “committed to the revitalization of the tri-city region (Pharr, San Juan, Alamo) through strategic, collaborative efforts to increase opportunities and outcomes in the areas of economic development, education, health, housing and crime reduction.”

Among those to sign the Yo Prometo declaration were representatives from the City of Pharr, which will be the lead agency, the City of San Juan, the City of Alamo, PSJA ISD, Hidalgo County, Region One Education Service Center, South Texas College, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Workforce Solutions, VIDA, La Unión del Pueblo Entero, and Lone Star National Bank.

Laura Reagan-Porras, a grant writer and consultant who is coordinating the City of Pharr’s application, said there is certain criteria required for federal promise zone status. For urban areas, she said, the zone must consist of one contiguous area, have an overall poverty of more than 33 percent, and whose boundaries must encompass a population of at least 10,000 but no more than 200,000 residents.

For rural areas, Reagan-Porras said, the zone must consist of one contiguous area and have an overall poverty rate of 20 percent or above. The zone must contain at least one census tract with a poverty rate at or above 30 percent, and the boundaries must encompass a population of no more than 200,000 residents. In rural areas this population limit may not include any incorporated municipalities or unincorporated areas with individual populations greater than 50,000.

The City of Pharr’s application will include nine Census tracts, Reagan-Porras said. Of these, eight have a poverty level of above 40 percent and one has a poverty rate of 38.6 percent. One of the tracts has a poverty rate of 57.6 percent.

Reagan-Porras explained how the PSJA area application came about.

“This is the third round issued by the government. In the first one, only five zones were designated, including San Antonio. We, PSJA, submitted on the second round but it was a rush job, we knew we were not going to win but we wanted to get into the system. We got great feedback from HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and other officials.

“It was through PSJA, City of Pharr and Region One’s collaboration that this committee got together to do all the background work, which was basically a strategic plan for the Tri-City area, in terms of revitalization with all the sectors of the community.”

Asked what the Promise is all about, Reagan-Porras said: “The Promise is that together, as agencies, we are going to commit to improve the quality of life of the Tri-City area, in health, reduction of crime, education, housing and economic development. And we have metrics to determine our success for each one.”

Asked how much money would flow into the area if the designation is awarded, Reagan-Porras said: “It is not so much about the money initially because it is actually a minimal amount of money for the coordination effort. It is really about the designation, which lasts for ten years. If we get the designation, any grant application that the region applies for has an extra ten bonus points. That means mega federal dollars are open to us.”

Collaboration already underway

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, PSJA Superintendent King said the entities involved in the Yo Prometo collaboration are already working together.

“We are building on the partnerships we already have, strengthening them and deepening them. We are putting together a coordination team between all the entities. Instead of coming together at sporadic times for different initiatives, with some of us working on one initiative over here and others working on another over there, we are coming together and saying we are going to combine all of our planning and resources on an ongoing basis to work on all of these areas, to work on educational attainment, economic development, the unemployment rate, the poverty rate, public housing, crime. What we are saying is, we have these areas of focus and we are going to create an ongoing permanent partnership to address all of these areas in a coordinated fashion.”

King said the City of Pharr has done a great job in taking on the role of lead partner. “In the last round, PSJA was the lead partner. The way this is structured, it makes more sense for one of our city partners to take the lead. This go round we are seeing a better understanding of the process from all the partners, including the district. We have a better understanding of the ongoing commitment it is going to take, working together on a long term basis. So, we have an oversight working group, and then we have working groups within each sector. So, for example, we have a subgroup working on educational attainment, one working on economic development, another working on housing, etc. We have SWAT teams to focus on each area.”

Asked why it is important for regional collaboration, King said: “The economic development community needs to know not only what we are doing in the education sector but what we are capable of doing. We need to know what they are doing and what they are capable of doing. If we can align our work the potential is really there. If we know they are trying to build out a certain sector we can sit down and strategize, and ask ourselves, how do we do this? Attracting companies is one thing but supporting micro-businesses, how do you do that? What is the role of education in that? What is the role of the city government, of economic development, of non-profits, and so forth? The aim is to organize and coordinate a strategy and impact economic development, impact the employment rate, and things like that.”

Views of the participants

Other Valley leaders at Thursday’s news conference gave the Rio Grande Guardian interviews about their commitment to the Promesas del Valle Initiative.

Pharr Mayor Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez said: “This is one of the biggest endeavors we have seen in this area. We do not just want to apply, we want to get it done. I anticipate that using our collaborative efforts, using our federal influence to get the job done. The area deserves this. It warrants it. We need it to get our people to the next level. So we will pursue it very aggressively.”

A number of the leaders who spoke at the news conference said they will continue to strengthen their partnerships even if they do not get the Promise designation. To this point, Hernandez said: “This is just a tool to enhance what we are already doing. Pharr already works in collaboration with STC, with PSJA, with the cities of Alamo and San Juan, with Valley Interfaith and VIDA, we are already doing it. Regardless of what the federal government does we are going to continue to deepen our relationships because it is the right thing to do for our community.”

Cornelio Gonzalez, executive director of Region One Education Service Center, said: “Region 1 is very proud to be included in this project and when you see the hope of a promise, it is hope for the future of our community. It is wonderful to see so many leaders from private business, the city, education, and every service agency committed and united to bring home better services to our community. I think this is a wonderful project and we are very glad to be included and to make this promise.”

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said: “I am a product of this area. I was born and raised in the Alamo area. I lived there for the first 11 years of my life, until we moved to the Edinburg area. I am very happy to be a part of this. Our Valley is in fact one community and we are all in this together. It is important we work together and do all we can to help each other out. We are already seeing great things happen in the Valley and we are going to see a lot more.”

South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed said: “We are absolutely committed to working with our partners to improve the quality of life for our residents and we have been for many years. Now we are formalizing this. To receive the designation is going to have a significant financial benefit. We will be very competitive for federal grants to help bring in resources to establish even more collaborative efforts that are so desperately needed in the community. I was saying to Dr. King, we make it sound as though this is so darn easy. In fact, this partnership business is tougher than marriage. Some days are better than others. You have really got to be committed to get over the tough spots in the road because it does not always go smoothly. But if you are committed, you will make it. And that is what counts.”

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance signs Promesas del Valle Initiative

Dr. R. Armour Force, chief academic officer of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, said: “As the representative from the private sector I think it would be important for us to say that small things become great things in large part by developing these types of partnerships. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance is very committed to the region, to provide the comprehensive healthcare that we have been looking for all these years in the Valley. As part of that initiative we now have the opportunity to expand our healthcare system and also our facilities. And so, recently, with CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) giving us the green light to expand the hospital we now look for an institution that will be 1,100 beds.

“Last time I checked, that is going to take a lot of people to help us. And so, as we reach out into the community we are looking for opportunities now to develop those type of skilled workers that we need to help us as we put the healthcare system together. We have reached out to our colleagues and people who we want to continue to work with, both in the colleges, like STC, and UTRGV, our new affiliate, and also the PSJA school system. And, as you have heard, we have already developed a system of education that reaches down into those schools and we look to expand on that and look to expand it into the hospital for opportunities not only for them to get their education but also for opportunities to be able to work and use those skills and to continue to develop career opportunities with that.

“We have also founded other opportunities such as the area of research and we are working with our partners to develop some research initiatives that we think we will be able to use as a platform for innovation and entrepreneurship. Those will provide other opportunities for growth and development, all of this to support the economy and the region. We are very committed to these partnerships. We are very excited about these opportunities and I think that what has been said, that regardless of whether we get the funding or not we are committed to work with our partners in terms of developing and expanding the economy of the region but most importantly, of course, our primary mission at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance is to improve the healthcare of the region.”