McALLEN, RGV – McAllen Mayor Jim Darling and Reynosa Mayor Pepe Elías Leal are to travel to South Korea to try to attract more manufacturing companies to the South Texas-Mexico border region.

Tamaulipas Governor Egidio Torre Cantú is sending a staff member on the seven-day trip, which begins on Nov. 9. The trade mission is being organized by McAllen Economic Development Corporation.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Darling said this would be his first trip to Korea.

“I have developed a great relationship with the mayor of Reynosa so I am excited about this trip. We are going to talk to officials with Hyundai and some parts plants. We are going mainly to meet with a group of parts manufacturers to try to take advantage of some of the things that are happening in the automobile industry in Mexico,” Darling said.

Darling noted that due to security concerns, some U.S. and international companies have left the border region and set up maquila plants in the interior of Mexico. However, he said he does see trade opportunities for McAllen and the region generally.

“We think we can attract some of the manufacturing on this side that is not labor intensive. With Just in Time delivery, being closer to the automobile plants helps. So we think there are opportunities when we meet with the Korean delegation. They like doing business with Mexico. Hopefully, we will be able to bring some manufacturing companies back,” Darling said.

McAllen EDC leaders signed an MOU with KAIST on a trip to Daejeon, South Korea, in April. McAllen Mayor Jim Darling could not make that trip but will be going there next month.
McAllen EDC leaders signed an MOU with KAIST on a trip to Daejeon, South Korea, in April. McAllen Mayor Jim Darling could not make that trip but will be going there next month.

Darling said that during the trip he is slated to speak at a symposium with elected officials from Germany, Singapore and England. “I have to speak for about 15 minutes about our program and then participate in a one hour question and answer session. We have a pretty robust schedule.”

In his interview, Darling paid tribute to former McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez for the emphasis he placed on forging relationships with municipalities and states in Mexico. “Fortunately, I have been able to pick up the ball from Mayor Cortez and run with it. There are a lot of things we are working on in Mexico. I have met the Governor now twice in maquiladora situations. We are trying to do a trade zone with San Luis Potosi. They really appreciate McAllen in Mexico,” Darling said.

Darling is an attorney by profession and works for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. He said the company has “fantastic” in understanding his obligations as mayor of a major city. “I do not feel any pressure from them,” he said. He said his employers realize the importance of the trade mission. “This visit to Korea is a great thing for the city and for the region,” Darling said.

McAllen EDC has been organizing trade missions to South Korea since 1990. In recent years, the group has developed a strong relationship with KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. KAIST was formed 40 years when the South Korean government decided to make in Daejeon, the fifth largest city in Korea, its national research center. It is now one of the leading research universities in the world and only accepts the top one percent of graduates. Its research park sits on 381 acres. In 2012, KAIST issued 1,381 patents.

“Close your eyes and picture a 381-acre research park that employs 10,000 professionals with PhDs. This is what is happening at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology,” said Keith Patridge, president and CEO of McAllen EDC, in an interview with the Guardian back in April.

In the interview, Patridge said MEDC wants to engage with the residents of the Valley to see if university research, coupled with advanced manufacturing and rapid response manufacturing is the way to go. If so, he believes, the Valley can learn a lot from KAIST and Daejeon. He said a collaborative agreement McAllen and Daejeon that was signed during the trip to South Korea could be the first step.

“Is this what we would like for our region? KAIST officials have identified ten or 12 Korean companies that would be a logical fit for the McAllen area. What we are doing now at McAllen EDC is not for today. It is for 40 years from now.”

Patridge said McAllen made a long shot bet on the maquila industry 30 years ago and it paid off handsomely. He wonders aloud if its leaders today want to make the same long term commitment on advanced manufacturing and allied research. If so, he said, the Valley could benefit from the ties McAllen and the University of Texas-Pan American are making with the City of Daejon and KAIST.

“While we were there, the folks at KAIST said, look, we do a real good job of coming up with ideas, of discoveries but we do a lousy job of commercializing them. We discover something, it goes on the shelf and then we go on to discover something else. They said you guys (in McAllen) are focused on applied research and commercialization. We would like to form a cooperative, commercialization agreement with McAllen and UTPA,” Patridge explained.

“Universities all over the world have been trying to get this kind of relationship with KAIST. A lot of it has to do with the relationship Miguel (Gonzalez) has. We worked with them. We developed this agreement and we signed it. The goal is to bring new technologies and technology companies from Korea to McAllen and then as we develop commercialization and new companies we take them from here to Korea. It becomes a two-way fertilization of ideas. It is a natural fit.”

Professor Miguel Gonzalez is dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at UT-Pan American.

Mayor Darling was slated to sign the Memorandum of Understanding agreement with KAIST during a visit McAllen EDC organized in April. However, scheduling conflicts meant he could not make the trip. Here is the MOU:

The City of McAllen, a major advanced manufacturing center for North America, and Daejeon Metropolitan City, a global leader in science and technology, have agreed to work together in a spirit of friendship to promote closer partnerships in the fields of economy, science and technology. The cities will work together to provide economic opportunities in business, trade and investment based on a principle of reciprocity. The cities agree that this initial MOU from the mayor’s letters between the cities on May 11, and May 27, 2011 is the first stage of developing closer relationships between the two cities in the years to come. 31 March, 2014.