MISSION, RGV – The one thing an economic downturn has shown Mike Rhodes is that the development he has put in place in the Rio Grande Valley has the staying power to weather the toughest obstacles.

Referring specifically to his Bentsen Palm Development in south Mission, the story of how that project came to fruition is a lesson in patience and initially failure, he said.

Mike Rhodes
Mike Rhodes

It begins when Rhodes was a relative newcomer to the Valley. Development wasn’t exactly part of the plan when he purchased more than 10,000 acres in Hidalgo County in the late 1990s for what he called “long-term holding”.

As a property owner, Rhodes would earn a modest income from farmers, and the original intent was to set up trusts for his children through his initial investment, he said.

Among that massive land purchase, the couple bought 2,500 acres of riverfront property in south Mission, a stones throw from Bentsen State Park. That property would eventually become their Bentsen Palm Development, which took a hit during the economic downturn, but went on to become one of their most successful ventures, Rhodes said.

“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 in one big purchase, but like most Texans I knew very little about the Rio Grande Valley,” Rhodes said. “The more I started studying it, I realized that it was an area where you can hold land and have irrigated farming. In other words, there was income from farming. So, there wasn’t a cost to hold the land, in fact there was return on investment just to hold the land. I set up trusts for my kids, but I didn’t buy all that land to be a developer.”

As avid conservationists and gardeners, Rhodes said he and his wife Lori set out to build the perfect community. What followed was five or six years of hell because of the recession, Rhodes said. However, when it was all set and done, the growing development would consist of 500 built homes in a roughly 4,000 home community.

“It started with actual lots available in 2006, which led to a great year in 2007 with lots of houses being built and then kaput, but the one thing the downturn taught us is we certainly have staying power,” he said. “Our dream was to develop it into 11 different types of communities, all linked together by hike and bike trails, public and private parks within gated communities, and to teach people how to garden organically.”

That dream was initially marred by numerous setbacks.

Over the course of several years, Rhodes recalls how he had to construct the Bentsen development’s fiber backbone and in-house communications company in order to bring in high speed Internet to the mostly rural location. That facility now serves the development with high speed Internet, digital TV, digital telephone and smart home technology and security.

When his development lacked the access to quality schools, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools, which at the time was a tiny but upstart charter school system in Donna, Texas, to bring only its second campus to the Mission area.

“Everybody told me how I couldn’t change the school districts and how I was screwed here. They said I couldn’t do anything about it, “ Rhodes said. “Well, as with many things I refused to believe that. So I was sitting at home reading the Sunday paper maybe 12 years ago and the front cover of the Parade Magazine was Tom Torkelson from IDEA Public Schools, who at that time only had the IDEA Academy in Donna.

“I’m reading this article and the Gates Foundation and others were talking about how this was the best thing happening in education in the United States,” Rhodes said. “I get Tom (Torkelson) in a room and begin showing him how he has to replicate this school thing. We offered to donate the land, which we did and we also donated $1 million to IDEA to try and replicate it. That was the second school of his.”

Bentsen Palm would grow into a community surrounded by 3,000 acres of native wildlife habitat adjacent to its namesake Bentsen State Park, considered the top birding destination in the United States.

“We have over 500 homes there now. We annexed it into the City of Mission, got the city’s utilities in. We took our time with that whole process which was not a good thing because timing was not on our side,” Rhodes said about the Bentsen Palm development. “That property is about 2,500 acres and it’s surrounded by 3,000 acres of wildlife habitat which is really unusual in the Valley because most of it has been cleared for irrigated farmland.

“I have two miles of river, and then the Mission wildlife area over here where we put the hike and bike trail all the way to the Conway,” he said, pointing to a map on his office wall. “The one thing this downturn taught us is we certainly have staying power. We don’t have any debt on the land. Two master-planned communities during the recession would have broken many developers. Luckily, we are not in that position. It certainly taught us a few things as we went through it. ”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four part feature on Rio Grande Valley land developer Mike Rhodes. Click here to read Part One, an introduction to Mike Rhodes. Part Three, featuring Alliance River Crossing in Donna, will be posted later this week.