RAYMONDVILLE, TEXAS – Willacy County Judge Aurelio ‘Keter’ Guerra says deepening Port Mansfield’s ship channel to allow for ocean-going barge traffic can be a “game changer” for his county’s economic fortunes. 

Guerra made the comment during a roundtable discussion at the offices of Willacy County Navigation District (WCND), which operates the port.

WCND Port Director Ron Mills agreed with Guerra’s analysis of the potential impact a bustling commercial port could have on the poorest county in Texas. Mills said if it were not for public policy advocate and TV broadcaster Ron Whitlock, a Willacy County resident, and his company, The Shepherd Group, the Port of Port Mansfield (POPM) would never had received the funds to dredge the ship channel.

The roundtable consisted of Guerra, Mills, Whitlock and WCND Board Chairman Chad Kinney. Two media outlets were present for the two-hour discussion: the Raymondville Chronicle and the Rio Grande Guardian

“We brought them (The Shepherd Group) in initially to help us with a 99-year lease issue that I was personally concerned about,” Mills said. “I did not like the fact that the leases were being terminated. People who had their family fortunes invested in weekend homes could lose their homes, potentially. We stopped that.”

Mills later explained to the Rio Grande Guardian how that happened. “Mr. Whitlock was able to stop families from losing their homes by successfully advocating for a solution to, and collaborating with state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., and state Rep. Ryan Guillen on passage of a bill authorizing 99-year land leases at the Port of Port Mansfield because leases during the 50 years were running out and expiring. It was the only Texas port legislation to become law that legislative session as all the other port bills were vetoed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. But he let Ron’s bill become law without his signature.”

Mills then gave the inside scoop on how Whitlock achieved the near impossible: securing $25 million in federal funding for the long-awaited ship channel dredging project. 

“We used The Shepard Group to help us bring in $25 million,” Mills explained. He said the first $17 million was announced a mere five weeks after Whitlock visited Washington, D.C. to advocate for the funding. He said the D.C. trip was preceded by about two years of intensive public policy advocacy broadcast and social media coverage and collaboration with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, Filemon Vela, and Vicente Gonzalez.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has now dredged the channel to 17 feet, which allows ocean-going barges and tugs to enter its mainland harbor. This has not happened in the entire history of the port, which opened for business in 1962.

Over the decades, silt had restricted access to the harbor to only the smallest of fishing boats. The ship channel stretches about 12.5 miles, from the offshore sea buoy on the Gulf of Mexico side of Padre Island National Seashore to the Port Mansfield harbor. It is now 17 feet deep and 25 foot wide at the bottom, and roughly 200 foot wide at the top.

“We went out with Mr. Vela on a boat trip. Mr. Vela at the time had made Mr. Trump unhappy by calling him names and cussing him. And he voted against Ms. Pelosi. Only 18 Democrats voted against her. That put him on her enemy list. He flat told me to my face, and Ron later, I can’t help you.”

The ‘Mr. Vela’ Mills was referring to was U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, who represents Willacy County in Congress. The ‘Mr. Trump’ is Donald Trump, who was president at the time. And ‘Ms. Pelosi’ is Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“The Corps actually lost that $17 million because they did not budget it fast enough, and so we were back to ground zero. And so, I called Ron, and said, you have got something else to do, brother,” Mills said. 

“And so, he went up and talked to Cornyn and Cuellar again, and they got us that $20 million back. And by then, I guess Mr. Vela had made nice with Ms. Pelosi or something and we were short about four million bucks on the project and so Vela was able to get them to piggyback $4 million.”

Mills said he could not take credit for securing the dredging monies.

“I won’t take credit for any of it. If it had not been for Ron going up and doing this (Rio Grande Partnership RGV-to-DC) trip and going and seeing Cuellar and Cornyn in D.C., we would never have gotten the money. We would still be in the same position.”

That position, Mills said, was an economic backwater.

Whitlock responded: “One of my motivating factors was that Willacy County’s people are the poorest, per capita, in the entire state of Texas. I wanted to help my community.” 

Besides, Whitlock said, another important factor has been in play throughout. “I have always told Ron (Mills) and the port commissioners that only God can get the credit for the accomplishments we have achieved at Port Mansfield. I was simply His vessel, whom He directed by corporate prayers of agreement.”

Mills said WCND continues to use The Shepherd Group.

“Since then, we have had him (Whitlock) do odds and ends, different things. He has hooked us up with Hollis Rutledge and those guys, which is definitely something I have long needed because I had never written a grant in my whole life until two years ago and now, I have written two and they both got shot in the foot,” Mills said.

Hollis Rutledge is president of Mission-based consultancy Hollis Rutledge & Associates.

“So, we now go to someone who writes grants for a living and so hopefully we can be more productive. Even if we don’t get all of them, if we get one a year, that is good enough. But now he (Rutledge) is writing six or seven grants a year for us. And it is all because of this man,” Mills said, gesturing towards Whitlock.

“So, for us The Shepard Group has been very beneficial. It has been a long arduous battle to keep things focused because we have had a lot of new commissioners and they have not seen the history as it has developed. But it (the tie-up with The Shepherd Group) is definitely something that has been beneficial to us.”

Modernizing the port

Earlier during the roundtable discussion, Mills spoke about plans to modernize Port Mansfield so it can once again become a thriving commercial port.

“In about 180 days the concrete work will be done. Hopefully, within another 100 days after that the seawall will be done and then we will be looking for customers. Actually, we will be looking for customers before then. We will be ready to service the customers. Within 200 to 250 days, we should be ready to receive customers.”

Kinney, the WCND board chairman, said maritime jobs can be well paid. “We want good paying jobs,” he said.

Judge Guerra then spoke about the 1,200-acre solar farm project slated to be built on the Yturria ranch.

“It looks for the first time that we are going to have a solar power project in Willacy County. All these windmills came in. We can leverage that. I would love for this (solar) company to bring in their materials through this port. That would be a story in itself. Don’t get me wrong. Going green, I know it gets political. But I think it goes hand in hand with being in the forefront (of the green energy movement),” Guerra said. 

Earlier, Judge Guerra acknowledged the importance of Port Mansfield. “Having commercial traffic can be an economic game changer, not just for the port but for the whole county.” Guerra said he would like to see all the materials and equipment needed for the creation of a 1,200-acre solar farm slated to be built in his county be brought in via the port. 

Mills agreed. He said would love to see the solar farm operator use his port to transport materials and equipment in. “To set it (the solar farm) up, it will be the windmills times ten. There is so much more involved. That initial start-up will involve a lot of jobs,” he said. 

Mills also agreed with Guerra about the benefits of Port Mansfield specializing in the renewable energy sector. He said that under the Biden Administration, the Corps of Engineers is being encouraged to assist ports that “go green.”

Mills said: “There is a prohibition against the Corps of Engineers supporting fossil fuel ports. That is in paragraph three (of the Green New Deal). Paragraph 2 says, if you are a port that incentives green you will be put on a priority list for higher funding. Paragraph 3 says you are screwed if you are moving fossil fuels. Paragraph 1 and 2 basically say your chances of getting extra attention from the government are much better now because we want to promote green new energy.”

Mills said that while there is a political element to this, Port Mansfield can be the beneficiary.

“It is political. It is their (the Biden Administration) way of getting the Green New Deal through one piece at a time. For us, we have no fossil fuel ties. We are one of only two ports in the whole state that do not have fossil fuel ties because we do not have any (commercial traffic). We can say, you know what, we can stick with this green new energy. We are going to say, windmill blades and generators and all these components for the solar power industry are going to come through our port,” Mills explained.

“I take this information to the Corps of Engineers and say, hey, you have to give me priority if I am doing this.”

It was left to Chairman Kinney, a fisherman who uses Port Mansfield, to illustrate the historic nature of Port Mansfield finally being able to handle barge traffic. 

“I was a kid in the 70s. This is the best opportunity we have had since the 60s or the 50s for commercial traffic, which we need to keep open to help our recreational use. The commercial traffic will bring the jobs in to Willacy County. It is going to be huge, to keep that passageway open for the long term,” Kinney said.

“A five- or ten-year stint won’t be enough to make a return on anything. We need to have a long-term vision on that. We need to find a way to keep that traffic flow moving. It is like a highway, if you have got a bunch of potholes it is going to be impassable and nobody is going to use it. We have got to move forward and keep the tenants coming in.”

Mills agreed with Kinney.

“We are not just talking about containers here. We are actually having fishing boats and other types of vessels that are soliciting from Chad and saying, hey, do you have a place where we can bring our boats. They have not been able to come here for 30 years. Our growth is not just going to be container traffic.”

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