BROWNSVILLE, RGV – As he said he would, Mario Lozoya of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation brought up the subject of the digital divide when he appeared at a Wilson Center conference in Washington, D.C.

GBIC’s executive director was a panelist at the 6th Annual Building a Competitive U.S.-Mexico Border Conference hosted by the Mexico Institute. The Mexico Institute is part of the Wilson Center.

The title of the panel discussion was: From Risk to Asset: Economic Development in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region. The panel consisted of Lozoya, Jon Barela, CEO of The Borderplex Alliance and Federico Schaffler, director of the Texas Center for Border Economic Enterprise Development at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. The moderator was Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute.

When it comes to the digital divide, Lozoya painted a bleak picture.

“Connectivity, in terms of broadband, 67 percent of the households in Brownsville are not connected,” Lozoya stated.

“When you are going into a technology phase, and the teacher is asking the students to do their homework or their research online, to turn in your homework online, you are leaving a lot of the population behind.”

Lozoya started his remarks with a powerpoint presentation that highlighted the challenges his community faces.

“Here are some key numbers. They are not just relevant to Brownsville, they are relevant to a lot of communities in the border region,” Lozoya said.

“Thirty-one percent is below the poverty level. We just looked at this data, we are at $15,000 per capita but if you look at the 2010 census, we are at $13,000 per capita. It is literally the poorest community in the country.”

When it comes to education, 64 percent do not have a high school degree, the GBIC leader stated.

“Really, 14 percent don’t make it out of 9th grade, so when we start looking at the human capital, these are the challenges we have on the border region.”

These challenges do not just exist in Brownsville, Lozoya pointed out. The three poorest metropolitan statistical areas in the nation are in South Texas – McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Brownsville-Harlingen, and Laredo.

“In terms of problem-solving, we really need to hit it with a lot of different prongs, a lot of different angles.  Education and workforce development is literally our top item, based on the condition I just showed you,” Lozoya said.

“The disconnected condition, the poor condition, and the educational attainment. We feel that workforce development is key, especially when we look at high-skill, high-tech programs and the lead time to get somebody prepared to assume the jobs of tomorrow. It takes usually four to six years. We really need to start in the middle school and get it going.”

Lozoya highlighted a recent success story: the award GBIC received from the Texas Workforce Commission for its “We Grow Our Own” workforce development initiative. “We are very proud of the work we are doing and we want to continue it and share it along the Valley as we grow.”

Lozoya also spoke about an education bill he championed – Senate Bill 22 – that was passed into law a couple of years ago.

“It allows high schools to graduate with a two-year degree with a technical degree. We went to Austin and said we need dual credit in technology so we can get our students in that high tech space right away, while in high school so that when they graduate they have a technical degree and a high school diploma,” Lozoya said.

“There are about 15 schools in this space in Dallas, there are two more south of Dallas and they are in Brownsville, Texas.”

Another initiate GBIC is working on involves the creation of a manufacturing innovations hub. 

“Right now it is a concept,” Lozoya said. “Based on what is happening in Brownsville with SpaceX, with shipbuilding, LNGs talking about coming into the region, we think we need to be prepared in a larger way, not just in workforce but in research and development. We hope to do it with a multi-national university system, (such as) Monterrey Tech, University of Texas, Texas A&M, Tecnológico de Matamoros, which will make it a regional concept.”

Also on the manufacturing front, Lozoya said he is hoping to get the scope of work of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center tweaked. TMAC is funded through the Department of Commerce, with grant monies given to various states. “We want it to change its scope of work or add a scope of work to include workforce development as well,” Lozoya said.

Regional partnerships are also important, Lozoya said. “We are really work very hard with the Consul in Tamaulipas, with the economy secretary.”

And as for incentives to lure companies to Brownsville, Lozoya explained what GBIC is not doing. 

“We are not incentivizing any companies unless they are providing high pay, high tech jobs at a certain level of pay. We recently closed six deals that added 1,155 jobs that average $15:40 an hour, which is a lot in the Brownsville area. Which creates a $42 million pay roll. Those are the new kinds of ways in which we look at incentivizing companies to come in.”

Lozoya added that he hopes to share the best practices GBIC is creating with other communities in the Rio Grande Valley and the wider border region.

Chris Wilson’s Perspective

Christopher Wilson

Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute, introduced the panel discussing “From Risk to Asset: Economic Development in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region.”

Here are Wilson’s remarks:

“We have spoken for a lot of the day about how you can move things back and forth across the border, the most efficiently, the most effectively, understanding how you can balance it with some of the security challenges and some of the migration challenges at the border. Of course, that is of fundamental importance for border communities and for the United States and Mexico and our economies as a whole.

“But, I don’t think that is enough. It is not enough for a U.S. border community, it is not enough for a Mexican border community. To really have the vibrant communities that we want, the quality of life that people in the border region aspire to, we need to do more than just move widgets back and forth across the border. It requires strategies for economic development that leverage the unique position of those communities along the border as a way to attract companies to do business in the region. There is a unique value proposition there. There is the combination of the competitive advantages of Mexico and the United States side by side that makes working and producing in the border region particularly attractive and interesting. 

“I mean, if we look back over time and go back to, say, the maquiladora program, the border industrialization program of the 1960s, it was the beginning of free trade between our two countries, focused on our border region, the Mexican border communities in particular. It was effective in attracting a certain amount of manufacturing investment to that part of the border, to the Mexican side of the border. It was called the Twin Plant model. That was the idea of the maquiladora program. Meaning that there would be a plant on the Mexican side of the border and a plant on the U.S. side of the border. Well, on the Mexican side of the border, those plants appeared. But often times they didn’t have that twin component on the U.S. side of the border. That was a necessary condition for economic development but it wasn’t sufficient. To get those investments on the U.S. side of the border, we needed people like these guys here to go out and make the case to companies that this is actually the right place to be doing the business. And then we need set of factors that makes it really attractive for those companies to land in those regions. 

“So, those are some of the things I want to think through and talk to our panelists about today. But, I think there is a ton of what else is needed that we can think about. Workforce development is more key than ever. Having the qualified, well-trained workforce to operate more sophisticated machines, more sophisticated equipment than ever, is one of the things that companies are looking for. 

“Quality of life, like John Wagner of CBP was talking about, is what everybody needs in their local communities to attract talent to fill those positions, so that companies want to go and do business there. Access to energy, access to infrastructure, the list goes, kind of, on and on. We can get some prioritization as to which are some of the most key elements are from those who live and work in this type of business along the U.S.-Mexico border.”