WESLACO, RGV – The soon-to-be launched Explore RGV interactive website and mobile app had its origins in efforts by local leaders to counter negative perceptions of the Rio Grande Valley provoked by national politicians and media outlets.

The project will debut at an evening reception at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council on Wednesday, Nov. 14. The day before, LRGVDC Executive Director Ron Garza will discuss Explore RGV in conversation with Rio Grande Guardian Editor at Bob’s Steak & Chop House in Edinburg. 

The LIVE at Bob’s luncheon will also include discussion on the LRGVDC’s legislative agenda and a new bike-sharing program the agency has launched.

“Explore RGV is a platform with an interactive website and a mobile app. It really is the clearing house for all our fixed assets across the region,” Garza said, explaining the new project. “It has been developed through a $350,000 grant from EDA approximately a year ago.”

Asked how the project came about, Garza said: “The inception of this project was started to combat the negative perception. The brainstorming came from city leaders. Our small and large city coalitions wanted to target our negative perception. They asked, what can we do about that? We thought of doing a regional marketing campaign. As we ventured into that we realized we were not yet ready for such a campaign because we did not have a clearing house of information.”

Ron Garza

So, step one, Garza said, was creating a database of the Valley’s tourism assets and using the database to create an interactive website and mobile app.

“This is step one, highlighting our treasured highlights. But, maybe in the future we could have a joint marketing campaign from the cities. As everybody knows, if somebody comes to visit one city in the Valley, most likely they will come and spend money somewhere else.”

The perception that the Valley is unsafe and lawless is not helped by national politicians looking for a photo op with Border Patrol on the Rio Grande. It makes them appear tough on border security but reinforces the message that the region is a militarized zone, not a place for tourists.

Garza said one idea would be to invite these politicians to also check out Explore RGV’s website and mobile app. “We can say, come and see this. It is all about how you frame it. We have all seen the national media boat rides. Sometimes they happen to be passing through a World Birding Center or a national refuge where people spend millions of dollars on eco-tourism.”

Many of the Valley’s assets are free to enjoy, Garza pointed out. “When you think of eco-tourism, we have so much. It gives you a sense of renewed protectionism. If those are our moneymakers, we have to protect those treasures.”

Garza said $350,000 grant for Explore RGV came from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. He said much of the money funded the hiring of staff do do asset-mapping.  

“The most challenging part of this was the data gathering. We did a regional asset map that tracked and mapped close to 1,000 local assets that we entered into a database,” Garza said. 

“We have solved that age old question, what is there to do in the Valley? We have found nearly 1,000 things to do. We entered these into a database and in turn created  an interactive website and mobile application that anybody can download for free.”

The assets listed on the website and app are both category-driven and map-driven, Garza explained. 

“If you are interested in shopping, the outdoors, museums, culture, transportation resources, it maps every single asset that aligns to that category. And, you can search by keyword.”

Many Valley residents will know all about the treasures listed in the database. Some, however, will not. Garza thinks Explore RGV will be of benefit to local residents and visitors alike.

“When visitors want to come here, they have to do independent research on one of multiple cities, such as South Padre Island, Brownsville or McAllen. That is great as an anchor but it leaves out so many hidden treasures. What this does is give a visitor a very comprehensive tool.”

Garza said a lot of collaboration with stakeholders went into the project. “All the cities, all the convention and visitors bureaus, all the chambers helped shape this project. Now, they can use it as a tool.”

The reception being held at the LRGVDC is mostly for Explore RGV stakeholders and the media. It is there that the project will officially be launched, Garza explained.

“We will display our marketing package, including two short commercials. Those short commercials will put things in perspective in two ways. One will focus on a couple that come and visit the Valley, giving them a snapshot of many different assets. The other is aimed at a family visiting the Valley.”

In addition, Garza said, there will be Featured Destinations page on the website and mobile app. 

“We used a lot of information to find about 30 destinations that rise to the position of anchors. Through an aerial video, you get a 30-second to one-minute overview of that asset. We hope it leads to more people wanting to stay longer, spend more money and visit more cities.”

Garza gave particular thanks to the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.

“The RGV Partnership produces the Official Guide to the RGV. They were about to do it again but now we are producing the Explore RGV publication. We are doing the electronic portion of this, they are doing the print publication. Some people still love that media.”

Garza also thanked RG Vision for creating the logo, the marketing and the infrastructure of the app. 

“Their strength is innovation and creativity but this is a government project. They had to work within this framework and make it fair and equitable across the region. It easy to peg a lot of assets in a bigger city like Brownsville or McAllen. It becomes a lot more challenging if you have to find them in the rural areas. We wanted to ensure they have just as much notoriety as those in the bigger cities.”

By way of example, Garza mentioned Port Mansfield. “Not a lot of people know abbot this asset. The photographers were just amazed at what they saw and they are from the region.”

Asked if Starr County is included in Explore RGV, given that the county is not part of LRGVDC, Garza said: 

“We always include them where we can. We could not expend personnel dollars in Starr County. So, we asked them to provide the data. The publication and the website and the app have four counties included. Starr County has so much history. They are one of the anchor points of the Valley. We were glad to do that.”

LIVE at Bob’s

Editor’s Note: Click here to reserve tickets for the LIVE at Bob’s event with Ron Garza.