WESLACO, RGV – Five site selectors from Germany recently learned about the benefits of investing in Weslaco and the Mid-Valley area.

During a dinner at Arturo’s Restaurant in Weslaco, presentations were made by Steve Valdez, director of Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council executive director Ron Garza, logistics businessman Joaquin Spamer, HEB facility leader Juan “J.J.” Serrano, Jr., and Samuel Zapata, assistant professor and extension economist for Texas A&M AgriLife Research Extension.

The Weslaco stop was one of many made throughout the Rio Grande Valley over a three-day period. The tour was organized by the Rio South Texas Economic Council with cooperation from the European American Investment Council.

Zapata presentation

In his presentation, Texas AgriLife’s Zapata spoke about the economic value of agricultural crop production in the Valley. He said it was worth $700 million. “Agriculture is really important in the Valley,” Zapata said, pointing out that cotton and sorghum are the top commodities produced.

Which of the two is the most important economically varies according to prices in the marketplace, Zapata said. Sometimes it is cotton, which is used to produce clothes, and sometimes it is sorghum, which is used as a food for animals. A lot of Valley-produced sorghum is exported to Mexico and China, Zapata said.

Third in value is citrus, Zapata said. Around 27,000 to 28,000 acres of Valley farmland is given over to citrus production. The most famous crop, Zapata said, is grapefruit, which is popular in places like Japan and Poland. Along with sugar, citrus is rather unique to the Valley, Zapata told the site selectors, and this is due to the warm weather.

Zapata spoke about the work Texas AgriLife does in monitoring pests and new diseases that come from the tropics. He also said researchers are currently conducting an economic analysis of imports and exports and the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Spamer presentation

Marie McDermott, executive director of Weslaco EDC, said she particularly wanted the site selectors to hear the story of Spamer, an entrepreneur who exports cotton to Mexico and Asia, and fruits and vegetables to Mexico. His company is called CiLogistics.

Joaquin Spamer

“We have been very successful in getting goods cheaper and faster to market,” Spamer explained. He said rather than send cotton on to Houston and then across to Long Beach, California, for export to Asia, he has created a trading route via the west coast of Mexico.

“We have a small logistics company that specializes in agriculture. We started with a 20,000 square foot facility in Hidalgo and now we have 1.1 million square feet of product space,” Spamer said. Of this, 380,000 square feet of warehouse space is in Weslaco. Another building measuring 210,000 square feet is planned. “We have been blessed by doing business in South Texas and doing business in Mexico is great,” Spamer said.

Spamer also spoke of an operation taking place in one of his properties in McAllen that organically treats produce such as mangoes that allows their shelf life to be extended. Keith Patridge, president of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, also spoke about this operation. “The shelf life of the produce can be extended anywhere between 12 and 30 days,” Patridge said. “This will interest Amazon Fresh.”

Spamer also spoke about leasing property in Mission to Black & Decker. “Everybody is eager to bring business to the region. We have a unique geographical location. We expect more growth,” Spamer said.

Serrano presentation

Serrano, of HEB, said he manages a 480,000 square foot warehouse operation in Weslaco. The facility stores all-dry groceries, though there is interest in a cold storage transportation operation. HEB has 226 employees and a 92 percent retention rate, Serrano said.

HEB’s decision to invest in Weslaco was based on geography, Serrano explained. He said Brownsville and Rio Grande City are less than 50 miles in either direction of Weslaco. Within that span HEB has stores. “We have good relations with Weslaco and the EDC,” Serrano said.

Garza presentation

In his presentation, LRGVDC executive director Garza gave an overview of the work of his organization and how it interacts with 30 different state and federal agencies, as well as 44 different municipalities in the region. He pointed out the LRGVDC, which is headquartered in Weslaco, is the official council of government for Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo counties.

“Coordination is absolutely key, especially when you talk about public safety,” Garza said. “Any event like a hurricane, a disaster, it is a lot of moving parts coming together.”

Ron Garza

Garza said an important component of the LRGVDC is economic development. “Our new RGV 2020 is a little bit different. We redesigned the plan because of the growth in the Valley right now. Normally, our plans are over a five-year period. This year we are looking at a plan that is implantable by the year 2020.”

Garza said LRGVDC is undertaking the 2020 project because the Valley “is on the cusp of tremendous economic growth.” He said Valley leaders realize the region has to prepare its human capital for that growth.

Garza said the U.S. Economic Development Administration has been great for the Valley because it has awarded the region a lot of grants. “I think there have been grants for almost all the places you will see on the tour,” Garza told the site selectors. “The EDA has been a tremendous source to the Rio Grande Valley.”

Garza said the LRGVDC also does planning for foundational services, like water and solid waste, which many people would never think about. “We are an entity governed by elected officials that looks at things on a regional level,” he explained.

Garza also spoke about the Center for International Economic Development Office. “This is a synergy melting pot of international resources. Matt (Ruszczak) and his organization, Rio South Texas Economic Council is housed there. He is next door to our economic development director (Terrie Salinas). And on the other side of Matt is the Texas-Tamaulipas Trade Office. Having them next to each other is an important thing.”

Valdez presentation

Weslaco EDC’s Valdez gave the most in-depth presentation. Earlier in the evening he had been the tour guide while the site selectors were given a bus tour of downtown Weslaco.

At Arturo’s Valdez gave a presentation about the growth of the Mid-Valley.  One highlights, he said, was Weslaco’s positive performance in retail permits and sales tax revenues.

“Retail permits and sales, we’re at 2.8 (percent). If you research some different local economies you can see that it’s difficult to stay in plus and we’ve been consistently in plus for many years,” Valdez said. “The permits last year alone (stands at) $13 million.”

Discussing house building, Valdez said: “Travel throughout the city of Weslaco in any direction and you’re going to see single family units going up. I think that number, 700, is a little low because about two days ago I found another subdivision that was going up that had at least another 50 units. So, there’s a lot of growth, a lot of youth, a lot of education – it is a nice merge. Single family home units, building and construction are a big factor here.”

According to Valdez, education is probably the largest industry in the Mid-Valley and in Weslaco. Some of the educational institutions the city is working with include the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Kingsville and South Texas College. He’s said STC’s student enrollment in Weslaco, numbering about 4,000, is second only to the campus in McAllen.

“Approximately 65 percent of population is under 21 so that means a lot to our labor force and college education,” Valdez said. He pointed out that students can get specialized teaching in nursing, welding, diesel mechanics, etc.

Valdez said even though a larger percentage of EDC funding will be distributed to industry, logistics, distribution and cold storage trucking firms, the City of Weslaco will reap the benefits of the retail sales tax and will provide jobs for the community.

“We believe that those types of jobs, even though they might be low level skill jobs, they’re still going to be full time, they’re going to have great benefits and they’re going to be at minimum anywhere from $8 to $12 per hour,” Valdez said.

Valdez showed a slide which said the median household income is $37,000; that the number of new jobs increased 49 percent in 2016; and that the unemployment rate was 6.7 percent in 2016. Valdez said the average cost of a home ranges from $75,000 to $80,000.

Valdez also showed a slide that listed Weslaco’s target clusters. They are: Logistics/Distribution /Cold Storage/Trucking – 30 percent; Component/Supply Companies/Education – 25 percent; Bioscience/Agriculture Research/Health – 25 percent; and Retail/Hotel/Call Center – 20 percent.

One of Weslaco’s greatest advantages is its central location in the Valley, Valdez pointed out.

“We are proud of the fact we are centrally located,” he said. “Twenty minutes in each direction to the east or west you find international airports. Nine miles south you find the Progreso International Bridge, which allows overweight and oversize trucks. And just 12 more miles is the Donna International Bridge.”

And when it comes to infrastructure, Weslaco is blessed, Valdez said. He pointed out that a railroad system runs parallel to Business 83.

“The Mid-Valley airport and the Weslaco industrial park, you’re surrounded by law enforcement all the way around so it’s very safe. There’s U.S. Customs in the actual airport so if there’s international travel, within an hour you can call and have them fully staffed to go through the airplanes that might travel in and out of our airport,” Valdez said.

“As I mentioned there’s about 280 acres, there’s a little over 40 to 45 different industries that call this place (the industrial park) home. You can literally see the land available. It is all owned by individuals–some available, some not. It’s right off the overweight corridor. We’ve got access to Interstate 2 so it’s very, very, open and available for growing industries.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Samuel Zapata, assistant professor and extension economist for Texas A&M AgriLife Research Extension.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Ena Capucion contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the sixth in a six-part series about the visit of five site selectors from Germany. Click here to read Part One. Click here to read Part Two. Click here to read Part Three. Click here to read Part Four. Click here to read Part Five.

Editor’s Note: As a bonus for readers, to go alongside this series, the Rio Grande Guardian will soon air a livestream with Rio South Texas Economic Council executive director Matt Ruszczak that includes the PowerPoint presentation he gave to the five German site selectors at the Embassy Suites in McAllen, Texas.