McALLEN, RGV – A certain tenacity to endure major challenges is a theme that comes up often when speaking to Mike Rhodes.

As a latecomer to the Rio Grande Valley, Rhodes said he saw the signs for burgeoning development and weathered the obstacles to become one of the premier developers of high-end real estate in the region.

It amounts to staying power, according to Rhodes who among his many roles is widely known as the founder and president of Bentsen Palm Development, owner of Esperanza Home Builders and former chairman of IDEA Public Schools.

His story, however, begins in Palestine, Texas, southeast of Dallas.

Rhodes said he honed his business acumen from his wife’s grandfather, Paul Vernon Calhoun, a well-known businessman who over the course of 50 years operated Calhoun Packing; a successful chain of meatpacking plants in east Texas.

Calhoun would eventually sell Rhodes half the company, which he then sold a decade later to Iowa Beef Packers (IBP). At the time, IBP was the largest meat packer in the world, and was later acquired by Tyson Foods, Rhodes said.

“I ended up working for my wife’s grandfather, and he and I hit it off quite well,” he said. “I ended up running the company, and he ended up selling me half the company. About 10 years later I sold the company to IBP. At the time, my intent was to retire early. That plan went on for two years before boredom had me going crazy.”

It was during that two-year retirement period where he began scanning the country for real estate in order to invest the proceeds from the sale of the company. Rhodes said he and his wife Lori have always had a passion for real estate. Together, he said they tore down and rebuilt factories, and at the time counted more than 60 homes they bought and eventually resold or rented.

Their venture into new real estate brought them to the Rio Grande Valley in 1998. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been passed a few years prior, and at the time Rhodes said he caught a glimpse of its potential in the region.

“I like world history and economics. If you look at major trade routes between countries, that’s where civilizations boom. I thought ‘well, you have NAFTA and a very young population and Mexico’. It looked promising,” Rhodes said of his thoughts at the time. “I have always been quite conservative, and I wanted land for long-term holding. I had the opportunity to buy 10,000 acres here in Hidalgo County at several locations, but in one big purchase.”

Rhodes would eventually use that land to build, or donate it for major developments in the region.

In south Mission, he utilized 2,500 acres of riverfront property to create Bentsen Palm Development.  Additional land he owned would be used as the site of the Donna Bridge Development.

During that same period, Rhodes said his companies partnered with Mission to build the “largest sports park in the Valley”, donating 75 acres for four baseball fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, lighted hike and bike trails, and a fishing and birding lake.

He also donated 75 acres for the veterans’ cemetery, as well as the land that launched the World Birding Center headquarters in the region for about $2.5 million. He was also instrumental in establishing the North American Butterfly Association, now the National Butterfly Center on 100 acres.

Rhodes would eventually become chairman of the board for IDEA. During his 10-year span on the board, Rhodes said the charter school system went from one school to 44 locations scattered throughout the Valley and central Texas.

“It has been a wonderful thing,” Rhodes said about IDEA. “The competition that has resulted has bettered all education in the Valley and Central Texas now and eventually in the United States.

“There are a dozen or so high performing replicable large charters that are causing change in the education nationwide,” he said. “We have always been more to building communities than profit.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four part feature on Rio Grande Valley land developer Mike Rhodes. Part Two, featuring Bentsen Palm Development, will be posted later this week.