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Mexico's consul to Brownsville, Rodolfo Quilantán Arenas, pins his ribbon on the Brownsville Wall of Dreams.

BROWNSVILLE, RGV – When the Hanna High School Varsity Men’s Choir sung for him during his State of the City address, Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez had to turn away because he did not want the audience to see how choked up he was.

Highlighting the importance of providing opportunities for his city’s young people was a key theme of Martinez’s remarks. He spoke to friends about it afterwards. “People ask me, why do you help them? My response is we owe it to them to give them a chance in life.”

During his speech, Martinez focused on education, effortlessly segueing from the vision of SpaceX founder Elon Musk to the vision of the mothers and abuelas (grandmothers) of Brownsville. He recalled a famous moment when Musk came to Boca Chica beach for the groundbreaking of SpaceX’s rocket launch facility and how a reporter asked the young entrepreneur what he saw when he looked out to the sea. “The future,” Musk told the reporter. “That’s kind of heavy,” Martinez said, remarking how he wished he had Musk’s wisdom. “I wish I had thought about Pay Pal but I may not have been here to today,” Martinez joked.

“That wisdom has been in our families for a long time. It has been passed down by our mothers, our abuelitas and on down the line. The difference is they did not see it in Boca Chica beach. They saw the future in education,” Martinez said. “Nothing honors the dreams of our mothers and abulietas more than the University of Texas having a permanent home at a downtown campus in Brownsville, Texas. For all the children and parents who did not have the opportunity to go to college but happily made those sacrifices so that their children could, the university says to them ‘this could be you’.”

Martinez said he often hears people in Brownsville saying, ‘I wish we had what other towns have.’ Martinez said his response is, “You know what; other cities would die to have what we have in the University of Texas. It baffles me sometimes. I feel like, really?”

And to those who ask what does Brownsville get out of its relationship with the University of Texas System, Martinez responds with this: “A college education according to statistics is estimated to provide $2.1 million more in lifetime earnings. That is a little bit of change. Here is the deal. The greatest predictor of a child’s likelihood of going to college is whether their parents went to college. At the University of Texas at Brownsville, one out of two students are first generation college students. What does that mean? Not only are we transforming their lives but we are transforming the family lives of generations to come. So, when I think about it, our mothers and our abuelitas knew what they were talking about.”

Martinez noted how savvy the City of Edinburg was in offering UT a ten acre tract of land in order to secure the incoming UTRGV and associated medical school. “They said proudly this donation will be repaid tenfold with the growth of jobs and this university and medical school. So, I suggest to you in Brownsville, we need to resolve any hurdles to allow any institution of learning to move forward and grow.”

Martinez then got huge applause with this statement: “I stand here before you and tell you this from the bottom of my heart. I will make no apology for doing what it takes to ensure a kid growing up in the Southmost area can look up and see the brightest of futures staring her or him right in the face. That future, I am telling you, grows brighter by the day.”

He then passed on some information from Dr. Francisco Fernandez, founding dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine. The new medical school has received preliminary accreditation, Martinez said, and, to further applause, that it would be producing Valley physicians by 2020.

In his report on how Brownsville is doing economically, Martinez noted that unemployment was down and sales taxes and building permit values are up. Not only that, bridge revenues for Veterans Bridge are up 26 percent and activity at Brownsville International Airport is busier than ever.

“When we mind our finances we mind our future. But this is more than about statistics. It is more than about sales tax receipts or building permits. This is about ensuring that our children have no limits to what they do,” Martinez said. He proudly noted that a Brownsville student will no longer have to leave the region in order to get a quality education. “Brownsville is increasingly the land of opportunity and not just the land of dreams,” he said.

SpaceX is a prime example of what can be achieved when everyone pulls together, Martinez said. During his last State of City address, much of the focus was on anticipation of SpaceX’s arrival. Now, two years later, the company has broken ground on its rocket launch facility. “They are hiring people, just as they said they would. And they are having a vendor’s fair this very month in this very place you are sitting in. So, now, when we talk about a dream we now talk about the reality. It is now here,” Martinez said, to further applause.

Because of the success of companies like SpaceX and Boeing, Martinez said, NASA will no longer have to write checks to the Russian space program to take U.S. astronauts into space. “We are actually going to have manned flights. There is no more hitch-hiking to the space station. We are going to have our own astronauts with our own space ships and Brownsville is where it is going to go from.”

Martinez said securing SpaceX “was no gimme.” He said it took “an incredible amount of teamwork, collaboration, nurturing, planning and some old fashioned, what they call grit and ganas.” He gave a shout out to Brownsville Economic Development Corporation leaders Jason Hilts and Gil Salinas and its entire board. He also praised former Governor Rick Perry and his use of the Texas Enterprise Fund for helping lure SpaceX to Texas.

Without UT-Brownsville, the Valley may not have gotten SpaceX, Martinez said. And, without UTB’s STARGATE project, the Valley may not have gotten SpaceX. “It puts Brownsville in the mix of the aerospace industry and the exciting research and jobs that come with it,” he said.

STARGATE project students Keith Boehler, Aldo Fonrogue and James Murray are pictured with Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez.
STARGATE project students Keith Boehler, Aldo Fonrogue and James Murray are pictured with Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez.

Martinez then introduced three young students involved in the STARGATE project, Keith Boehler, Aldo Fonrogue and James Murray. STARGATE stands for Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Gigahertz Astrophysical Transient Emissions. “That is a wow. It is not about where you started but about where you are going. It was sort of a dream. It is now a public-private partnership with the University Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. They are developing new radio frequency based technologies for both academic and commercial uses,” Martinez said.

Martinez said that when the University Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy came to the Brownsville EDC three years ago and asked for half a million dollars in seed money they were told, if SpaceX comes you guys can have the seed money. “Thank God SpaceX came and with it a whole other lot of opportunities because out of that first half a million dollars that the Brownsville Economic Development Corporation invested they have now pole-vaulted that into over $8 million. He said UTB’s Irv Downing can attest to this. “It paid off with over 15 times the original investment. That to me is what it means to believe in Brownsville,” Martinez said, to great applause.

The three students from the STARGATE project to speak at the State of the City address are local students, from Porter, Rivera and St. Joseph’s high schools. “That happens to be our future,” Martinez said.

Martinez went on to say that this fall, Brownsville ISD is launching a Space Academy, which will focus on science, math, technology and engineering. He said Brownsville ISD was “getting ready for the space industry.” Martinez said Brownsville ISD “is owed debt of gratitude. And, he said, Texas Southmost College deserves praise for its success in producing a trained workforce.

“As we as a city aim higher we are taking all of our young people with us,” Martinez said, rejecting the notion that Brownsville students cannot compete. “Just give us a chance. That is all these young kids are asking for,” Martinez said.