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San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez is pictured with members of the San Benito High School Flamenco Ensemble at the Governor's Small Business Forum. (Photo: Norma H. Benavides)

HARLINGEN, RGV – The mayors of Harlingen and San Benito have praised the contributions of small business owners in helping produce a vibrant and growing economy for the Rio Grande Valley.

San Benito Mayor Celeste Sanchez said if it was not for small businesses her city would simply be a bedroom community for Harlingen. Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell said helping small businesses succeed puts more of a strain on municipal planning departments but it is worth the effort.

The mayors gave their opinions in short speeches at a Governor’s Small Business Forum held at Casa de Amistad and hosted by San Benito Economic Development Corporation, Harlingen Chamber of Commerce and San Benito Chamber of Commerce. The keynote speaker was Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos. Larry Ruggiano, a small business specialist in Governor Greg Abbott’s economic development office, also spoke at the event and introduced a video message from the governor. There were panel discussions on best practices for hiring, access to capital in the Rio Grande Valley, and the challenge of cyber security and fraud prevention.

Mayor Boswell thanked Governor Abbott’s office for staging the small business forum in the Valley. “We talk a lot about big projects. They get a lot of the limelight, a lot of the spotlight. We have under construction in Harlingen a psychiatric hospital that will employ 275 people when it is up and running. Bass Pro Shops, Sam’s, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, they grab a lot of headlines,” Boswell said. “But, we know those are home runs, great for our area and they employ a lot of people. But, it is the singles and the ground yardage that we can grind out with every small business that develops that really stimulates our local economies and really keeps us continuing to grow and develop.”

Boswell added: “We know as local communities we have to provide the type of environment that Governor Abbott talked about in the videotape, about how we can make it easy for businesses to start out in local communities. That, of course, puts a lot of pressure on our planning departments, and other local departments, chambers and economic development agencies that can help guide people in starting up businesses, small businesses in a community.”

Salomon Torres, executive director of San Benito EDC, was master of ceremonies. He praised Mayor Sanchez for reviving the San Benito Chamber of Commerce. “It was dormant but now, thanks to the mayor, it is vibrant,” Torres said.

In her remarks, Sanchez said small businesses are the backbone of any community. “They are the backbone of our community, certainly. We don’t have the home runs that Harlingen has but we will soon. We recognize our small businesses and we do everything – we embrace you, we welcome you to our community and we are always prepared to do everything in our authority, within our capacity to retain our small businesses. They create jobs and they create the economy and without the small businesses in our community San Benito would not exist. It would only be a bedroom community. But we much more than that. Thank you,” Sanchez said to the small business owners in the audience.

Sanchez asked Ruggiano to convey to Governor Abbott’s her gratitude for hosting the Governor’s Small Business Forum in the Valley.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, spoke briefly at the event. “As a small business owner myself I know the pains of starting a small business and keeping it going, having employees, making payroll, getting paid,” Lucio said.

Angela R. Burton, district director for the Lower Rio Grande Valley District of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said her office stands ready to assist small businesses. Burton moderated a panel discussion on access to capital in the Valley.

“This year our office, along with our lending partners, we are third in the nation in volume in lending growth,” Burton said, winning applause from the audience. “We are first in the nation in growth in dollar value, we are at about 150 percent in growth in dollar value. I want to personally thank our lenders and our wonderful businesses that are going to the banks and asking for SBA loans.”

In his keynote speech, Secretary of State Cascos said government is not a job creator, entrepreneurs are. He said Texas is the No. 1 state for job creation, thanks to entrepreneurs moving into Texas. “I wish we could do more for those businesses that have been in business for ‘x’ amount of time, versus investing money in trying to attract new businesses. Why don’t we do something for those businesses that are here, that have been here; that have created jobs for the last five, ten, 15 years?” Cascos asked.

Cascos said that after giving a speech in Lufkin, Texas, he was challenged for his assertion that a flower shop owner who created two jobs should be applauded for her entrepreneurial skills. “Whether it is one job, ten jobs, or 20 jobs, there is no litmus test for job creation. Anybody who creates one job, invests their money, works hard, is an entrepreneur,” Cascos said.

Cascos then ran through some numbers to show how successful Texas is economically. He said that in 2014, 457,900 new jobs were created. He said that since 2009, 25 percent of all new jobs created in the United States occurred in Texas. “That is a big deal,” Cascos said. Part of the state’s success can be attributed to not having a personal income tax and for being a right to work state, Cascos said, adding that Texas possesses the 12th most powerful economy in the world.

After his speech, Cascos presented gifts to four local companies that were selected as business award recipients. The four were Long Chilton, LLP, of Harlingen, Edible Arrangement of Harlingen, A-Press Express Cleaners of San Benito, and La Especial Bakery of San Benito.

Two of the daughters of Enrique Ornelas spoke with pride about how their immigrant father started La Especial Bakery back in 1941. They said he needed $3,000 dollars to buy land in San Benito and hauled a big jar full of coins that was under his bed to the bank. He not only had enough money to buy the land but also a neighboring lot for his brother-in-law. Late in life, his daughters said, Enrique Ornelas told them he regretted not receiving a formal education and made sure they received a good education. But, they said, even without a formal education their father did so much for the community, giving to charity and attracting loyal customers from across the Valley and beyond.