HARLINGEN, RGV – Hidalgo and Cameron counties are forecast to be the fastest growing counties between 2015 and 2019, according to a soon-to-be-published report.

The report, which focuses on the economic vitality of South Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Corpus Christi, has been produced by Texas A&M Engineering & Extension Service, otherwise known as TEEX.

John A. Adams, a business development manager for knowledge engineering for TEEX, painted a rosy picture of South Texas when giving the keynote speech at a North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative (NAAMREI) summit at TSTC Harlingen on Friday.

“The report just came out. Even though we had this workforce shortage, Hidalgo and Cameron will be the two fastest growing counties in the United States, between 2015 and 2019. El Paso was sixth, Laredo was 12th and Corpus Christi was 19th. This growth reinforces what was said this morning, about the population doubling,” Adams said.

Adams said he was impressed with the panel discussions at the NAAMREI event. The discussions focused on transportation, sea ports and aerospace.

“I am trying keep up with these presentations. I lost track at $4 billion in projects. Do you realize what you are doing here? You are doing more than the entire state of Oklahoma. These three counties, well primarily two, Hidalgo and Cameron, you have more projects, two ports, airports, educational facilities, health care, more than the entire state (of Oklahoma).”

Adams said it took two and a half years to complete the report. He said the research involved visits throughout South Texas, from Corpus Christi to Cotulla and on down through Laredo to the Rio Grande Valley. Hundreds of people were interviewed. He said the report excluded San Antonio because this is not part of South Texas. “I was born across from the Alamo so I can say that,” he joked.

Adams said when he started researching for the South Texas report he did not expect the oil and gas boom created by the Eagle Ford Shale play to have had such a positive impact. “It has been like the drop of ink in the water bottle,” he said, pointing out that the Legislature is now $12 billion in revenues over budget. “That is money in the bank. What a sweet spot to be in.”

Adams pointed out that direct energy industry activity at the ports of Harlingen and Brownsville is less than five percent. He said the region’s diversity will allow it to withstand any downturn in the energy sector. “The entire Texas economy would have to collapse. Here is the good news, the diversification, the regionalization of this economy is making the difference. That is what we have found out. Never before have I seen this. It was always McAllen, Brownsville, Corpus, Laredo. People are starting to talk (positively about the region),” Adams said.

The “only problem” for the Valley, Adams said, occurs when cities and economic development corporations do not work together, when they do not embrace regional collaboration. “The only problem is on Friday Night, when you play across the city lines in high school football. That gap is partisan. But to locate a company, that is regional. Medical care is regional. Education is regional,” Adams said.

Adams praised the contributions of immigrants that live and work in the South Texas region. “There is an inbound flow of about a thousand per day. They are mostly 25 to 35 and they are coming here with certifications, they are coming here ready to work. They aren’t coming here ready to go on the rolls.”

Adams said the unemployment figures for the region shocked him. “Unemployment is below five percent. I would never have dreamed it. I would never have bet you it would be below 12, 14 percent. What a dynamic to have and the challenge to bring that workforce to bear,” he said.

Adams then listed all the different types of welders that are needed in South Texas. He said there is a shortage of welders in the following industries: fabrication and repair, bridge building, oil field structures, installation repair, ship building, demolition and repair, light manufacturing, value added manufacturing, aviation maintenance repair and overhaul, pipeline installation, oil and gas production facilities, offshore rigs. This is a welding sector in which, right now, today, we are over 1,500 welders short,” Adams said.

“Schools are doing everything they can, the cooperation is there. The problem is the throughput is not there with all these entities to produce enough welders. In Eagle Ford a kid in school can learn welding in four weeks and they are stealing him for the oil fields. And they are great wages – $16, $18, $20 an hour. I would take the job too, if I was 20 years old.”

Adams said that in his view the role of local economic development organizations, government and the education institutions is to foster regional cooperation and growth. “What has happened here with this organization (NAAMREI), with Rio (Rio South Texas Economic Council), all these overlapping organizations, all of a sudden, folks are realizing it is truly, truly, a regional dynamic. (Your job is to) bring in and attract new companies, maintain and grow and have retention of existing companies, new technology and value added jobs,” he told the audience.

Adams said he has been amazed at some of the success stories. He said that when he visited the Port of Brownsville he was expecting to be there 30 minutes but stayed six hours. He said he was very impressed. He said the key thing that has to happen with all the positive news about growth and investment is that South Texas has to package the stories well and get them out to as wide an audience as possible. “The promotion has got to continue. You cannot keep talking to each other. You have got to project it out. Get in national organizations, go to the activities. The message has to remain fresh. You ought to have a ton of press releases about the (USS) Ranger coming in, SpaceX, everything. Continue to tell the story. You are on the map. People know about South Texas.”

And, Adams said, things will get even better when the oil and gas shale reserves in the Burgos Basin are extracted.

“When this Burgos comes in, the oil and gas dynamic will be even greater. The Burgos – I am no expert, all I have done is look at all these reports – is going to be twice as big as Eagle Ford. It is shallower. They want to drill 300 wells, 200 wells. I do not know. I have been all over northern Mexico. I have driven over that entire area. I rented an industrial park in northern Mexico. Little did I know we were standing on all this oil. And when they get to it, they are not going to Tampico. They are going through Brownsville, because of the terminals, the facilities; the expertise. You ain’t seen anything yet. Oh, and by the way, the companies will be staging here (in the Valley) to support this. They are going to treat northern Mexico as if it is offshore, since the infrastructure is not in this northern Mexico area. They are going to need helicopter services to take you to the pad to do the work, just like they do offshore. Oh, and by the way, right off the coast, off Boca Chica, another big find, deeper, they are not going to get to it. It is a reserve.”

Adams encouraged those in the audience to do in-bound fan tours. “You do it already. Do more of them. Bring them in here. Invite everybody’s brother here. Make sure they see what you are doing.”

When discussing SpaceX, Adams said he was part of the creation of Space Florida. He said the 12th launch is almost more exciting than the first one. “The ground starts to shake and you are looking at this thing. You ought to close the schools and take all the kids out there because it is absolutely awesome. You are going to wake up. The suppliers are already coming in here. I don’t know if you realize but you have 1,000 employees within 15 miles of here that are already in the space business, indirectly. It is going to pump up your MRO (maintenance, research and operations) business, your aviation business; you have got your airport. This is big stuff.”

Adams also touched on what is known as reshoring – U.S. companies that moved manufacturing operations to China but who are now returning. “Reshoring, it is happening and it is happening in droves. They went to China because the wages were 25 cents an hour. But, very quietly, they are coming back to the U.S. They are coming back to Mexico, which is good. We want them to come back to Mexico and be real close to us. But, they are coming in to South Texas, around the automobile (industry), around Corpus (Christi). Sixty percent of the investment is Corpus is foreign investment. Be prepared for this. Have your team ready, your economic development; your universities.”

Adams said it helps that Texas, like Florida, is a right-to-work state with no income tax. “Rock ‘n roll and pro-business: if you have got that you are ready to go. You can feel it. That is what is coming in here. That is the excitement that is happening.”

Concluding his speech, Adams said working on the report has been a lot of fun.

“It has been a labor of love, to go all over this region and see everything. The report should be ready in about 45 days, after they (his bosses) bless it. It will package and quantify what is going on here in South Texas, from the 5,000 feet level. It will put some meat on the bones so you will be able to package it and tell the story and hopefully have this story projected out.”