MISSION, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley was born from an entrepreneurial mindset that leaders with Mission Economic Development say they have only begun to emulate.

In the early 20th century, a migration of farmers from the Midwest and an influx of Mexican immigration led to dramatic population growth and the eventual birth of the produce and citrus industry in the Valley.

The state historical association says that irrigation along “Main Street”, Business 83 at the time, sparked an agricultural development boom with communities made up of homes of farm owners and workers along with various stores, processing plants, industries, and marketing agencies.

Alex Meade, CEO of Mission Economic Development Corporation.
Alex Meade, CEO of Mission Economic Development Corporation.

These were the Valley’s first entrepreneurs, and they flourished.

More than 100 years later, economic leaders say there are existing programs that position the City of Mission as the fulcrum for another entrepreneurial shift in the Valley.

It began with self-realization. When the EDC transitioned in 2011, economic leaders with the city took some time to consider their trajectory. It was decided that a renewed focus on community development was the EDC’s No. 1 issue and that would be achieved through cultivating entrepreneurship.

Through its Economic Development Board, the EDC developed a five item strategic plan that aimed to foster entrepreneurship and STEM education, as well as business retention and expansion, infrastructure and transportation, recruitment, and quality of life.

“The Valley was founded by entrepreneurs. It goes hand in hand with what we are doing. If you do not have a strong local community, how do you expect other companies to look at your community?” said Mission EDC CEO Alex Meade.

The tipping point will be how the city approaches Millenials, young workers born in the early 1980s or who came of age in the new millennium, Meade said.

Gone are the days of the Baby Boom generation where a job dictated where you live, Meade said. Millenials have the mindset that it is the quality of the community that dictates where they will eventually reside.

True economic development is people oriented, community based and organic, said Meade referencing The Rise of the Creative Class, a 2002 non-fiction book written by American sociologist and economist Richard Florida.

“The millennials look for a place to live first and then they look for a job,” Meade said. “If we do not give them that place, then the companies are not going to come here. The companies are looking for the Millennials.”

This mindset by Mission EDC has spurred a multitude of programs and initiatives partly inspired by the needs of young workers.

It began with Mission’s signature initiative, Ruby Red Ventures, which launched in July 2012 with an annual investment of $100,000.

The initial goal was to spark an entrepreneurial spirit in the community. To date, more than $235,000 has been awarded to 26 local businesses. More than 135 have participated as of Dec. 2015, and the average start-up grant for businesses has been $10,000.

The city then launched its highly successful Code the Town initiative in Aug. 2014. More than $70,000 was set aside to begin teaching computer programming and technology-related enterprise. The initiative received more than 900 participants, 800 students and 100 teachers within its first year of launch.

To date, more than 81,736 lines of code has been written by students since the beginning of the program. Participating students have developed over 2,100 apps, and 98 percent of those students surveyed have indicated that they have a better understanding of coding and its use in everyday life.

Last summer, Mission EDC, Sylvan Learning RGV and Border Kids Code participated in “Bright Spots in Hispanic Education”, an effort by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The participation means that Code the Town has become part of a national online catalog of more than 230 programs that invest in key education priorities for Hispanics.

“I think we need to do a better job. We focus on developing the talent for the jobs that exist today, but there aren’t many folks who are focusing on the jobs that will exist in the future,” Meade said. “It is like paying debt. If you have some money, do you use the money to pay off your credit card that you are going to use again or do you pay off a loan that will free up some extra cash?

“We train people for skills like welding and oil and gas, those are the jobs that exist today. But who is focusing on the jobs that will exist in the future? Not many folks are,” Meade said.

This last year saw Mission EDC push their commitment to attracting Millenials a step further. The city began its rent subsidy program for businesses downtown, essentially an allowance of up to $7,500 if they fall within one of six categories – a coffee shop, a book store, a music store, a bistro, a specialty grocery store or an art gallery.

In June 2015, Mission EDC set aside an annual investment of $50,000 in order to connect Royal Technologies with local youth. The idea behind their Enginuity program is to expose students to opportunities in engineering, design and manufacturing careers in the Valley. In the long run, the EDC hopes that future engineers and STEM entrepreneurs help strengthen the local manufacturing base in the Mission area.

Finally, in Nov. 2015 the city announced its partnership with online marketplace Etsy.

Etsy has designed a craft entrepreneurship program to enhance and supplement micro-enterprise training in cities across the world. The model entails identifying individuals with existing artistic skills and teaching them business and e-commerce skills to help them start their own businesses.

Mission EDC will offer five-week courses that provide qualified Mission residents with micro-business training to help supplement their income and sell their products to new markets. Established businesses on Etsy will teach the classes, and students will learn the basics of starting and running an online business.

The city also recently converted a former ropa usada retailer into the future home of the Center for Education and Economic Development (CEED). CEED will be an education facility that will aim to create an entrepreneurial and Science, Technology, Education, Arts and Math (E-STEAM) ecosystem.

The cities existing programs Ruby Red Ventures, Code the Town and Enginuity will jumpstart CEED, and in effect provide the strategy for sustainable businesses and a 21st century workforce, Meade said.

Expected by summer 2016, CEED will consist of 55,000 square feet, and will house the offices of the Mission EDC and Mission Redevelopment Authority. The facility will also provide ample space for entrepreneurial tenants, conference rooms, lecture halls, training classrooms, computer labs, industrial space, maker space, a coffee shop, and a commons for the public.

“We have taken all these programs, Ruby Red, Code the Town, Enginuity, and now Etsy and now we have justified why we need a new facility. Fifteen years leasing, now we are in need of a new building right next to City Hall,” Meade said. “2015 was a very good year. I think we did a lot of good things here. A lot of the companies we recruited last year, they were barely under construction. Now you are starting to see the fruition of that. Royal Technologies just bought more land from us for a parking lot. They are continuing to grow. We are continuing to sell our properties. As much as you want to claim a win automatically, you have to wait for the buildings.”