BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The prospect of a $1.5 billion, LEED-certified steel manufacturing plant coming to the Port of Brownsville moved a significant step closer on Tuesday.

The Brownsville Navigation District Board of Commissioners – the governing body for the Port of Brownsville – voted unanimously to sign an option agreement to lease approximately 800 acres adjacent to State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel to Big River Steel, LLC.

The agreement allows the Osceola, Arkansas, based-company to do due diligence wok on the land, in preparation for a high-tech steel manufacturing plant, storage and distribution facility. The operation is expected to produce 500 full-time jobs. Around 1,500 workers would be hired to construct the plant.

Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez and Cameron County Commissioner Sofia Benavides were in attendance at a special meeting of the Brownsville Navigation District. BND Chairman John Wood called the agreement with Big River Steel a “monumental” development.

“Economic development does not come fast. We have been working on this for almost two years now. To have in our grasp, in our near future, a $1.6 billion project come to the area, it is going to change the Rio Grande Valley,” Wood told the Rio Grande Guardian and 88FM shortly after the board meeting had ended.

“This project is going to create a lot of full-time jobs. Five hundred good-paying jobs. Even the construction, if there are 1,500 construction jobs, it is going to mean a lot to our area.”

Praise for OmniTRAX

Wood said the anticipates the steel plant to be up and running within four years.

“I congratulate the other four commissioners. We have all worked on this real hard for two years. They are a good group of guys and the staff has been wonderful about it. So, has the Big River staff.”

John Wood

Asked about the plant, Wood said Big River Steel has a similar operation that has just opened in Osceola.

“The Arkansas plant is clean, it is pretty, it is new, a little over a year old. They are exceeding their expectations on production already – which means the people up there are getting large bonuses. I have to thank and compliment OmniTRAX, they are the ones that brought this group to us. They are an integral part of this. Remember, they have an agreement to work with the port for development of industry and land and they have really come on board with this one. We are really proud of OmniTRAX.”

In a Port of Brownsville news release, Wood said: “We are excited about this step forward and remain confident the venture will be beneficial for all parties, for Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley. The addition of 500 new full-time local jobs, and the impact of those jobs in terms of retail spending, services, and new housing impacts represent a transformational moment for Brownsville and the Valley.”

Mayor Martinez said he wanted to congratulate each of the five BND commissioners.

“Thank you for what you do for Brownsville and thank you for what you do for the port. I would like the whole world to know that together we can do marvelous things so, my love in my heart for you guys. I appreciate it,” Martinez said.

Visit to Osceola and Lunch with Jeb Bush

County Commissioner Benavides also congratulated the BND board of commissioners.

“I want to congratulate all of you for taking this giant step in the right direction. I was fortunate enough to travel to Osceola, Arkansas to visit this plant. I was really impressed. Congratulations for bringing and working with this company and making it possible for the Port of Brownsville and Cameron County to move us forward.”

In an interview after the board meeting, BND Commissioner Ralph Cowen told the Rio Grande Guardian and 88FM that the next step is for Big River Steel to do its due diligence work.

“They are going to be taking soil samples, laying out the plant. They will design this plant the same way they have with the one in Osceola. It will be a LEED-certified plant, which is the most environmentally friendly plant you could have. For a steel mill, that is quite something. This is not your-old style steel mill, bellowing smoke, the type you see in Pittsburgh or London,” Cowen said.

Asked about the economic impact of the project, Cowen said:

“It is going to provide some high paying jobs. They are talking $75,000 a year jobs, 500 of them. I have been to Big River Steel’s plant in Osceola. They have some very strong investors. Sitting at our table was Jet Bush. They did not say what his role was, he was at the grand opening of the plant in Osceola They are a big company, with some deep pockets and this is the real deal.

“As we go forward, a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, it starts to add up very quickly. The economic generator our port is, it is the only one that has the potential to pull us out of poverty and into prosperity. And that is desperately needed.”

Cowen predicted Big River Steel would hire local workers.

Ralph Cowen

“This is what they did in Osceola. Osceola is just a little town surrounded by farms, along the Mississippi River. We asked where they found the workers and they said, ‘well we just hired farm boys.’ And it worked. They run it through robotics and iPads. It is fantastic what they are doing. I was very impressed. I got the impression they are producing much more steel than those plants hiring three or four times the labor. And, they are making a higher quality steel, a lightweight extra strong steel for the automotive business. And we have a lot of auto plants in Mexico.

“They will also use the scrap steel we have at the port, and they will bring in scarp steel. So, they have a round trip for their rail cars. These guys are world class and world players. They play on the world level. We are very fortunate to have them. This is the kind of thing we need here.”

Eradicating poverty

Cowen then elaborated on his point about the steel mill helping to eradicate poverty in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Poverty is a form of bondage. I almost feel like Martin Luther King, free at last, free at last, free at last. I finally got free of poverty. It used to follow me around like a shadow. Now I see opportunities. I am very thankful we have been able to put this together. I want this to be a better place. These will be generational jobs. It will help keep our people here. And we will have all the suppliers and truckers, and all the ships coming in and out. We are blessed. The Port of Brownsville is already No. 2 in the nation for foreign exports. This will put us at a whole new level again.”

Regional Impact

Interviewed after the special meeting, Mayor Martinez said he had learned a lot about foundries.

“A plant of this nature, because of the kind of product that goes through the port, is extremely advantageous to us. When it becomes an eco-system of manufacturing, whether it be parts for tractors, or whatever it is, it is an essential component of what you need,” Martinez said.

“A foundry is important. I have been looking at a lot of foundries, because of our project with SATA, and it is difficult to find a plant as clean as this company is. I am very heartened to have some of these companies really get up to snuff on technology and take care of the environment, which is important to all of us.”

Martinez also spoke about the importance of regionalism. He said the Big River Steel project will have a positive impact regionally.

“It is another great giant step for what this Valley is doing. It is not only Brownsville, it is the whole Valley. People can have differences of opinion on how you create regionality but, I tell you what, it is a matter of doing it the right way. It would be a difficult task to be sit there and say, I want to be regional but I have got to take it all. No, that is not going to work. I am not in favor of that,” Martinez said.

“I am in favor of something equitable and something fair and something that makes everybody move in the same direction, at the same pace, given where they are at. Brownsville just happens to have tremendous assets. We have the water, we have the island, we have a spaceport, we have an airport, we have Matamoros right across the street. We just happen to be very blessed and we have some beautiful resacas that I hope everybody comes and enjoys.”

South Texas Manufacturing Association

Coincidentally, Eddie Campirano, port director and CEO of Brownsville Navigation District, spoke at the monthly meeting of the South Texas Manufacturers Association on Tuesday. The meeting was held at the McAllen Country Club. Campirano gave a 40-minute power-point presentation about the port and spoke briefly about the Big River Steel project. He dubbed it Project America.

“We are excited because I think it is getting to the point where something is going to give. I will only tell you this. If you go to our website, you will see there has been a notice posted for a special meeting today at 4. The purpose of that special meeting is to consider and act on a lease option agreement with Big River Steel. So, you can use your imagination what is going on. This is a 1.6 billion project. It will create about 500 jobs. This is a big deal. This could be the beginning of things to come. It is going to take the region to support this kind of industry.”

Interviewed after the special BND meeting, Campirano told 88 FM:

“I think the significance of this project is that it is a sign of the things to come. This is the start of establishing a steel mill in the Rio Grande Valley that will bring a lot of good paying jobs, 500 is the estimate. And a significant amount of investment. It signifies what the region is capable of. This is the sign of, hopefully, many exciting things to come. It is a big day. It is not big just for the port. It will have a big impact on the entire region.”

About the Port of Brownsville

The Brownsville Navigation District Board of Commissioners comprises John Wood as chairman, John Reed as vice-chairman, Sergio Tito Lopez as secretary, Carlos R. Masso and Ralph Cowen.

The Port of Brownsville is the only deep-water seaport directly on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the largest land-owning public port authority in the nation with 40,000 acres of land. It transships more steel into Mexico than any other U.S. port.

In 2017, the Port of Brownsville moved 10.6 million tons of cargo. The port’s Foreign Trade Zone No. 62 is currently ranked second in the nation for the value of exports, reporting more than $2.8 billion in exported goods in 2016. FTZ No. 62 has consistently ranked in the top three nationally since 2012, and this marks the second time in two years that it achieved the nation’s number two ranking.

The Port has more than $43 billion worth of projects currently in the works, with activity at the port responsible for adding more than $2 billion to the regional economy, $3 billion to the Texas economy, and for the creation of more than 44,000 jobs.