MCALLEN, RGV – Not content with approving construction of the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp says he has another great project lined up for the Rio Grande Valley.

Speaking at a dinner where he received the 2018 Border Texan of the Year award, Sharp teased the new project. He said he is working with various Valley leaders on legislation to further help the region.

“This is ground zero. This is where it is at. It is the reason we wrote that border report 20 years ago,” Sharp said, citing his famous 1998 “Bordering the Future: Challenges and Opportunities in the Texas Border Region” report.

“Texas A&M is not done yet. As Mayor Darling, as Alonzo, as Chuy and Eddie can tell you, we have another little bill up our sleeves that we think is going to be of great benefit to this region.”

The leaders Sharp was referencing in those remarks were McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, businessman Alonzo Cantu, state Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, and state Sen. Eddie Lucio.

“There is nothing that we can think of that will promote this area that we won’t work on,” Sharp said. “This is where the universities need to pay attention, this is where the state legislature needs to pay attention, and everybody else.”

Sharp started his speech by discussing his role in the Valley landing a four-year medical school, which the University of Texas System approved earlier this decade.

“Alonzo Cantu and Chuy cooked up the whole deal from the beginning. They said, pretend that you want this medical school. As I recall, I had my poor head of medical schools come down and she actually thought we were fixing to do a medical school. She did not know she was just the bait for the medical school. But it worked. Alonzo called me back about a week later and said, ‘My God, we just got a $50 million check from the Chancellor of the University of Texas.’ We were happy that it worked out but we would have done it.”

Sharp then paid tribute to those who helped Texas A&M develop plans for its Higher Education Center in McAllen. He gave a shout out to Mayor Darling, McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board member Fred Farias, and a Valley advisory committee that included Cantu.

Sharp also thanked South Texas College President Shirley Reed “for taking in my baby Aggies” while the Higher Education Center was being built. The engineering students will be in their new home in the fall, he said.

Sharp also praised Chad Wootton, Texas A&M’s associate vice president for external affairs, for working around the clock on the higher education center, and Susan Ballabina, deputy chancellor for agriculture and life sciences, for being the “moving force behind Healthy Texas.” He noted that at one time Texas A&M placed an ad in a Valley newspaper that told pregnant women to come to the McAllen Civic Center at 8 a.m. He said he received a call at 7 a.m. informing him 1,000 people had been in line since 6 a.m. He said 7,500 pregnant woman visited the center that day.

Sharp also noted Texas A&M’s long presence in the Valley. He said it started with scientists helping the ranching community in 1917. Then came Texas Agri-Life Extension in 1923, which helped the citrus farmers. Next up was a health science center, which helped with community outreach and offered degrees in nursing and public health. As for Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, Sharp pointed out it has been helping in 42 colonias for the past 25 years.

Why A&M does what it does in the RGV

Sharp spoke in depth about why A&M does what it does in the Valley. He said it is in Texas’ best interest to help Valley students improve their educational attainment. The reason, he said, is that Texas will look like the Valley 20 years from now.

Sharp said he remembers the days when Bob Bullock was Texas comptroller. He said Bullock would tell him that when companies were looking at moving to Texas they would ask what the state’s tax rate was and what incentives were available. Sharp said when he became comptroller, the two questions from prospective companies were, how many 18 to 21 year olds does the state have, and what was their level of education.

“All of a sudden, the rest of the country is not having that many babies,” Sharp said, noting that with the exception of Utah, the Valley has the most 18 to 21 year olds coming through. “This is exactly what those businesses are looking for. The education level, that is the one we have to work on. That is the one where the State of Texas can no longer afford to ignore this part of the state with regard to higher education. That is what the MALDEF suit was about.”

Back in the 1980s the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund successfully sued the state of Texas over public school finance. The suit said Texas shortchanged Latino communities, especially those with a high percentage of low-income families and English language learner children.

“So, if you have kids here that for some reason cannot leave home or cannot afford to leave home and go all the way to Austin or to College Station to get a degree, despite the fact they have a 4.0 GPA sitting in their classroom, and a SAT score that knocks the lights out, do you want to completely ignore those kids or do you want to come down to their neck of the woods and allow them to get their degrees in McAllen, Texas or in the Rio Grande Valley?” Sharp asked. “That was the driving force behind this McAllen education center.”

Sharp said it is imperative to improve educational attainment in South Texas.

“What the future of Texas is going to be is like this: if you have the largest population of 18 to 21 year olds going into the workforce and they are uneducated, then 20 years from now then we get to join this city in every bad category that exists in workforce and everything else,” Sharp said.

“If we produce the largest workforce and they are the most highly educated, then we have an economic boom that makes oil and gas and cotton look like a barn dance. This is ground zero. This is where it is at for Texas. Anybody that does not know that hasn’t been to the Rio Grande Valley and hasn’t looked at the demographics and hasn’t seen what economic potential this place has.”

Sharp repeated this last point home.

“If anybody else ignores this neck of the woods, let me tell you something: If you are the richest guy in Dallas, Texas, or the richest woman in Houston, whether your kids or grandkids stay that way is going to depend on how you treat these little first-graders in McAllen, Texas, and Brownsville, Texas, and other places like that. Those little spindletops, if you will, are going to determine what the rest of the future of Texas is about. If they are uneducated they will drag this economy, not just for this region but the whole state of Texas, down the tubes,” Sharp predicted.

“And that is why we do what we do. Yes, I want to make Chuy happy, yes, I want to make Eddie happy, and all these state representatives, and Alonzo. But the real future of Texas depends on getting this right.”

Sharp said he was told by the Border Texan of the Year organizers that he could choose where the program’s donations would go. He said he wanted all monies raised to go towards scholarships for students at the McAllen Higher Education Center.

He ended by saying that when he was running for statewide office and things were not going well, his campaign organizers would always send him to the Valley. One time he asked why this was. He said they told him that that was where his friends were and that he always came back in a good mood. “That is exactly right, I love this place,” Sharp said.

Interviewed after his speech about his “the Valley is ground zero” remark, Sharp told the Rio Grande Guardian: “This is ground zero because what companies have been looking for, these last 20 years, are two things. They want a lot of 18 to 21 year olds to get in the workforce and they want them well-educated. If you have those two things you will knock the socks off everybody else. The reason is, you have more in the Rio Grande Valley than just about anybody else, except for parts of Utah. So, what we have to be about is making sure they are healthy and making sure they are well-educated. That is why we have Healthy Texas and that is why we have the McAllen Higher Education Center.”

Editor’s Note: Video Journalist Apolonio Sandoval, Jr., contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas.