WESLACO, RGV – As he leaves the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council after an incredible 39 years of service, it is Ken Jones’ fervent wish that cities and communities in the region continue to work together.

The LRGVDC’s board of directors provided a reception for Jones on the same day they officially opened their new Center for International Economic Development Opportunities and the same day they moved into their new boardroom. Fittingly, the new boardroom was named in honor of Jones.

A couple of weeks before the reception, Jones, a Mercedes native, sat down for an exclusive video interview with the Rio Grande Guardian. He reflected on his career, the changes he has seen in the Valley and his wishes for the future of the region.

Looking back at the start of his career, Jones said: “Although it was agricultural, I could always see the Valley’s potential. The Valley started coming of age. One catalyst was working regionally. I have seen the different communities start working regionally. When they started doing this I could see a jump start in the level of economic activity, job creation and overall economic vitality.”

Jones pointed out that these days, federal and state agencies require Valley cities to show how the funding applications they are making have general support across the region. He said they also look favorably at such requests if the project in question has a regional impact.

Asked if working together was his No. 1 wish for the various Valley cities and communities, Jones said: “It has been exciting to see all that happen through the years. I think it will be the catalyst for more to come. That is my hope because the region has so much to offer. And so much more to accomplish in the next 20 to 25 years. If the communities still embrace each other as one, I think great things can be accomplished. Remember, we are fifth or six in size in population now among all the councils of government in Texas. The political clout we can have is remarkable.”

Asked why working together makes sense, Jones said: “Strength in numbers and economies of scale. If the cities work together there is a much higher chance of them achieving their goal. If they see you working together it is so much easier for the legislators, be they federal or state, to say yes, rather than kick it down the road.”

Asked when the trend towards regionalism may have started, Jones said: “I think the trend may have started in the early 1990s. The uptick in our program expansions was in the early 1990s. That is when our funding started to shrink. Local leaders had to start working together. From that point one it gathered momentum.”

Jones points to an increase in programs the LRGVDC has taken on and the increase in funding it has received as evidence of the group’s importance to the counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy. And he provided statistics that illustrate the Valley’s staggering growth.

“In 1967, the first year of the LRGVDC, we had a staff of five and a budget of $54,942, and a regional population of 335,450. In 1977, when I became employed with the LRGVDC, we had a staff of 39, a budget of $1,413,240, and a population of 380,516. In 1992, when I became the executive director we had a staff of 40, a budget of $3,686,494, and a population of 661,370. Today, we have a staff of 157, a budget of $33,324,892, and a regional population of 1.3 million,” Jones said.

“If you look at the diversity of the programs that we do and the opportunities we have in the future it is pretty exciting.”

Asked which programs introduced during his time at the helm were the most important, Jones said: “All of them. I could mention economic development. I could mention aging. Everything we do is people oriented, service oriented. That is the most important thing. I could mention Valley Metro. We started out with five small buses and a van. Valley Metro is helping so many more people now. I could mention solid waste planning, water supply planning, law enforcement training, homeland security, they are all important.”

With regard to homeland security, Jones pointed out that then-Gov. Rick Perry looked to regional councils of government to help the state develop a statewide homeland security plan in the wake of 9/11. He said that in the area of telecommunications, LRGVDC, in the mid-1990s, worked on a toll free calling system. “It is hard to believe now but before then everybody had to pay long distance.  On a lot of things, we have been on the cutting edge, in some cases ahead of our time.”

Jones said he is pleased the LRGVDC now has a permanent home, having purchased a new single story building from the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco just a few years ago. That building now houses a high-tech board room, named in Jones’ honor. Across the terrace stands the new 11,000 square foot Center for International Economic Development Opportunities, which was built thanks to a grant from the Economic Development Administration. The building has allowed LRGVDC to double its workspace.

Asked for his wrap-up remarks, Jones said: “I guess my hope is the regional concept continues. That is the answer for the future, no question. I am confident that will happen. I look forward to peaking in every once in a while to see how that is progressing.”

And what of his future? “I am looking forward to entering the next phase in my life. I am looking forward to the next step. My appreciation is for all the help I have received. It is not just one person who can pull this off. I have been truly blessed.”

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first in a two-part series about Ken Jones’ upcoming retirement from the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. Part Two will be published this coming week. The main photo accompanying this story was taken by Steve Gallegos.