EDINBURG, RGV – A call for more concise information on the Rio Grande Valley’s strengths and weaknesses spurred an absorbing discussion on pooling economic development efforts at this week’s LIVE at Bob’s luncheon.

The special guests were Mark Peterson, of Ohio-based Peterson Consulting Group, and Matt Ruszczak, executive director of Rio South Texas Economic Council.

In the Q&A part of the show, Ramiro Garza, A former city manager for Edinburg who now works in the private sector, said he saw the need for more concise data about the Valley. With that, he said, it would be easier to attract more investment to the region.

Later in the discussion, Eric Ziehe, of Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, made a similar point to Garza. Ziehe said he is always sending out marketing material about the Valley nationwide. 

“I would like to see something really concise… that would come from the result of a SWOT analysis but would delineate what is available in the Valley, everything from a deep-water port to the digital piece (Center for Education & Economic Development) in Mission,” Ziehe said.

Ziehe said he wants “everything in the Valley and not broken down by city. I don’t want to see what Brownsville has or what Mission has. I want to see Valley-wide what we have. A two page piece.”

Ruszczak responded: “Good idea. Homework.”

Peterson, a former senior executive at Ohio-based Procter & Gamble, had introduced the need for a SWOT analysis into the conversation. 

In response to Garza’s analysis that regional data was needed to help explain the Valley’s strengths, Peterson said: “You need to do a SWOT analysis. You need to step back and say what are the region’s real strengths that you would like to leverage and then how do you build that story out.”

According to Wikipedia, a SWOT analysis is a “strategic planning technique used to help a person or organization identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to business competition or planning.” The analysis is intended to “specify the objectives of the business venture or project and identify the internal and external factors that are favorable and unfavorable to achieving those objectives.”

Peterson has been visiting the Valley regularly since being appointed “expert-in-residence” at Mission Economic Development Corporation’s Center for Education & Economic Development. This three-month stint has ended but Peterson has been retained by various Valley-based companies to help them grow. 

Also in response to Garza’s question, Peterson said he has yet to see a regional approach to economic development in the Valley.

“If there is a clear strategy for this region, I have not heard it articulated. You could probably put it together with the talent around this room in a few hours but, it is not on paper, people have not had a chance to do head-nodding and add value to it and discuss it and debate it and say, hey, if we all link arms, and we put ten percent of our sales tax that is going towards economic development into a regional economic development… to get to say, hey, there is something bigger here that is going to require a clear strategy, of people saying, hey, I can support that strategy.”

Peterson said that from what he has seen so far, the Valley has some definite strengths.

“I would look at it and say, you have a great agriculture base here that is probably under-leveraged. You have some great technology and manufacturing capabilities, that may not be fully understood in terms of the community – I am talking about both sides of the river. You would also be wise to look at what is across the river and what value is there. And the value of locating here and not there. And what is driving people to put the plants in Mexico versus here. Could you swing that back, is there a way to differentiate. That would be a big opportunity for job and wealth creation in the Valley.”

Peterson said there is not a regional economic development strategy for the whole Valley but that is where he would start.

“That will tell you what data you need to pull and what collateral material you need to put together, to have at your fingertips so you can send a link if Senator Cruz gets a question. You can hit the send button of the Rio Grande Valley’s strategy and the assets and send a link to whoever is responsible for coordinating it,” Peterson said. 

“You have to have a strategy that people buy into and are supporting and then you can build out the collateral.”

In his response to Garza’s question, Ruszczak sales tax revenues generated by a community should not be used to lower property tax in order to get a certain official re-elected to office. “It should be used with a long term strategy in mind to affect incremental change,” Ruszczak said.

Ruszczak said Ohio has been winning a lot of accolades for its approach to economic development, noting that the state had been placing well in the Governor’s Cup.

Peterson responded that Gov. John Kasich deserves “a lot of credit for that for breaking down barriers between departments.” In particular, Peterson said, Kasich had taken various economic development funding buckets and pooled resources. “Effectively it is a not-for-profit private organization outside of the state bureaucracy and it is funded by the the state liquor sales.” However, Peterson said states could take different approaches.

Getting back to the Valley, Peterson said: “If you look at agriculture in this region, or oil and gas in this region, those are huge industries, to be as successful as you have been here in the Valley, you have some core competencies that may be not be fully recognized and leveraged and communicated to people who are looking to invest in the Valley.”

Asked by the Rio Grande Guardian if he was arguing for the Valley’s EDCs to be collapsed and replaced with one super EDC, Peterson said: 

“No. I think there is a big role for local economic development groups because each community needs to look at its own economic development. I think the gap is, there is not a really robust regional approach. There are efforts but not everybody has bought in. There needs to be some thought put towards a regional approach. I just don’t think it has gotten the investment yet, as fully as it needs to.”

Peterson added: “If you believe that I am right and you get the right strategy, you get people excited about it, you will find the funding. You find some way of doing a fair share funding approach. You would go back to those communities and say, here is where we are going, here is what we are going to do, here is how it will work, and you go through some model like that.”

Peter Higgins, proprietor of Bob’s Steak & Chop House, also had a question for Peterson and Ruszczak. Higgins pointed out that he has overseen retail development at The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley.

Development, retail development, this might sound somewhat naive but, you folks doing the presentation use the word collaboration a great deal. 

“I have been privy to certain negotiations over the years where, intriguing development, specifically retail development,” Higgins said, arguing that local economic development groups should “develop a merchandising plan” and not “solicit businesses that just don’t fit into certain areas.”

Higgins asked if EDC directors local to The Shoppes, such as Pharr, Mission, Edinburg, McAllen, had ever worked together in region’s interest to solicit national businesses. 

“Am I naive in thinking something like that could happen?” Higgins asked.

Ruszczak answered: “I guess the best answer is, kind of.”

Ruszczak noted that there are some organizations, such as RSTEC and one representing the real estate industry, that are supposed to be regional collaborative bodies.

“There is some loose collaboration. Part of the challenge of running a regional organization to get everybody to make the commitment to be on board. That is the biggest challenge, that is where your resources get constrained. Some of these elephant hunting trips require resources,” Ruszczak said. 

Ruszczak said he would like to see an international metropolitan statistical area created in order to include the assets along the border in Tamaulipas. He said some Valley EDCs to team up for different trade shows. 

“Could we do better, absolutely,” Ruszczak said. 

By way of an example, Ruszczak said he had contacted members of RSTEC to tell them of a lead he had received from a manufacturing company interested in relocating in the Valley. The company would hire 100-plus employees, he said. “We share the information… but we are resource-constrained.”