EDINBURG, RGV – There is growing excitement among Rio Grande Valley leaders about newly sworn-in Texas Governor Greg Abbott participating in the Valley Legislators Tour this week, but some elected officials are angry that Starr County is being overlooked.

Traditionally, the tour takes place in late January every other year when state lawmakers are in session. The tours alternate between the Lower Valley – Cameron and Willacy counties – and the Upper Valley – Hidalgo and Starr counties. This year the tour is in the Upper Valley but Starr County has been excluded. All the action will be in Hidalgo County, organizers at the Rio Grande Valley Partnership have confirmed.

The tour starts on Thursday and ends on Sunday. In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, RGV Partnership President Julian Alvarez acknowledges it may have been a mistake to leave Starr County out of the itinerary. And, when asked about Governor Abbott’s participation on the tour, he said reporters should talk to UT Rio Grande Valley. Alvarez’s preview of the tour is included later in this story.

Julian Alvarez, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.
Rio Grande Valley Partnership President Julian Alvarez.

First up, though, is Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal. He is not at all pleased that legislators will not be visiting Starr County.

“This is the first I have heard about it that they are not including Starr County. To me, I believe it is a huge oversight,” Villarreal said, in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian via telephone from Austin during preparations for the inauguration of Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

“If we want to take care of the huge projects that are coming into the Rio Grande Valley we have to be totally inclusive, not exclusive. We are one of the bookends, the Rio Grande City, Starr County, area and the other bookend is Brownsville, South Padre Island and everything in between is equally important,” Villarreal said.

“The other day I ran into (elected officials) Dan Sanchez and David Sanchez from Cameron County and the first thing we started talking about was regional issues. We did not talk about particular territories or cities or municipalities or counties. We all have to have an understanding that if we want to succeed we have to join forces and Starr County does offer some very big benefits in the way we understand immigration and Operation Strong Safety. We have the only insight into that operation in the entire state of Texas.

“So, when you tell me that state legislators of any kind are not including Rio Grande City as part of the tour I believe they are being short sighted and they are not being all-encompassing of what the Rio Grande Valley really is.”

Asked if he had been consulted about Starr County participating in the schedule for the Valley Legislators Tour, Villarreal said: “Very early on, I want to say back in December. I told the staff person, everything they need from the perspective of organization; they can include the City of Rio Grande. We were all in.

“We were waiting for definite word and confirmation of what the schedule was going to be, the dates and times. Now, you are telling me we are not part of it. That is the first I hear of it and it is appalling. It is more of the, ‘let’s put the blinders on and choose a specific area.’ You are not seeing the whole picture.

“That is the problem of government. Until you get a panoramic view of what the situation is you cannot assess an area. With a very dynamic area like the Rio Grande Valley, we are 1.3 million strong. We probably have 300,000 registered voters. We have opportunities for our medical school, for higher education, for STC (South Texas College) and UT RGV.

“We are all trying to work on the same page and then all of a sudden we find we are not on the same page, we are not even on the same chapter. Legislators, when trying to get a view of what the Rio Grande Valley is all about, they absolutely have to include the Starr County area. We have ports of entry, we have a dynamic culture. We have been in the area 250 years or more. If you want to understand an area, really try to do it, don’t pick and choose. Whoever is organizing this event is being really shortsighted.”

Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal.
Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal.

Asked if Starr County had been left out because it could not come up with sufficient sponsorship funding, Villarreal said: “If that is the excuse it is a very lame excuse and you can quote anything I have just told you. I do not mix words and I do not want you to filter anything I say. If that is the reasoning, no perspective, short sighted planning; very little vision. If you want to understand the dynamic parts of Texas, include all parts of Texas, not just the ones that seem more glitzy or glamorous.

“Go to the areas that have been established as areas of high need, like ours. I will give you an example, when the Texas Department of Public Safety put Operation Strong Safety in Rio Grande City they received 100 percent complete cooperation from the City of Rio Grande. They are actually based out of our municipal airport. When the National Guard came in, we contributed also. We are team players.

“Nobody but nobody is going to tell me we are not part of the team when we are. Now, if they choose to exclude us that is very superficial, very short sighted. We are inclusive and we can come up with whatever is needed as we have in the past. We have a track record here. Whoever is putting this tour together is showing poor leadership and little desire to understand the problems at multiple levels.”

Villarreal said he had spoken to RGV Partnership President Alvarez about the Valley Legislators Tour back in November.

“We talked very casually about what the project might include and he told me without a doubt that we would be included. He was going to coordinate with Rio Grande City and our economic (Starr County) Industrial Foundation. All of a sudden, you are telling me, after some months have passed, that things have changed.

“If it (the decision to exclude Starr County) is coming from the local level you will hear me be even more forward with my comments. But, right now, I do not know where it is coming from. If they want to play the game, let’s only hang out with the cool kids, we are all cool kids and we all deserve representation.

“The State of Texas does not belong to a certain faction. It does not belong to a preferred faction, it belongs to us all, not matter how rich, how poor, how Hispanic, how ethnic or non-ethic. It does not matter. We are one state and we are a very forward-thinking state and the way you show your forward-thinking is by being inclusive.”

After Villarreal gave his comments, the Rio Grande Guardian contacted RGV Partnership President Alvarez, who was also in Austin, putting the finishing touches to the tour schedule and checking to see which legislators would be on the trip.

“It is unfortunate we cannot see Starr County. Hidalgo County is just so big. There are just so many great things happening in the area. We are just so limited on the time we have with these folks. They just really want to come down here and experience South Texas. So, it is not just educational, it is kind of sharing our culture and some of the other things we have down here; the generosity of the people,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said one of the stops on the tour would be a Border Patrol station. “That pertains to the whole Valley so it may not be in a certain county but everything that we are doing here kind of pertains to all of us.”

Asked if RGVP was breaking with tradition in not including Starr County, Alvarez said: “I have not been around for the past tours and I am sure there is a lot of truth to it. But, again, the people in Starr County are great. It is just, we were looking at the things that were happening and there’s some exciting things happening throughout the whole Valley. I could have gone back to the Port of Brownsville. You are right, I probably should have gone to Starr County but I was just so limited and there are just so many requests coming in asking for 15 or 20 minutes of someone’s time because that is really all they get – they get a very short time to speak to these people.”

Asked if the visiting legislators would visit South Padre Island, Alvarez said: “No. The things we will be discussing on the tour include, obviously, healthcare, transportation. It is like the bridges. I wish I could share and highlight all the great things that all of our bridge directors are doing in every county. But, unfortunately, I was not able to do that so I had to focus on the Pharr Bridge. And, you know, everybody is doing such a great job here.”

Alvarez said education would be a big part of the tour. He said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp would be on part of the tour.

“We have Chancellor Sharp flying in to specifically address this group of legislators and their staff members for a specific time so we had to look for a place in Weslaco to do that. Because of some of the speakers that are coming in that we feel are very important, such as the president of Paramount Produce and the folks who represent Royal Technologies, those people are specifically flying in for the tour and so are SpaceX. So, I had to logistically make it accommodating for the folks that are coming down as well.”

A SpaceX rocket launching site is being developed at Boca Chica beach. Does that mean the visiting legislators will hear from SpaceX officials in Brownsville, Alvarez was asked. “No,” he replied. “SpaceX will be making a presentation but they will be making it jointly with the Royal Technologies president who is coming in for the tour. Because it has to do with manufacturing and with technology as well, we decided to put them in there.”

Alvarez said that although, this year, the tour is focused on the Upper Valley, Port of Brownsville Director Eddie Campirano will be involved.

“Eddie Campirano will have an opportunity to speak to the group. I have asked Eddie at one of our evening receptions to talk a little bit about what is happening in our port. So, even though we are not going to the port, I think the thing that most people forget is that you do not have to go to a site to understand what is going on. It is more of being able to speak to these people on a one-to-one on an informal basis.”

Asked if it is correct that STC, McAllen Medical Center and Knapp Medical Center were also not part of the tour, Alvarez said: “That is correct. So, we may not be going to their physical location but we will have representatives from their organizations. I just met with South Texas Healthcare System and they will have a representative on the (healthcare) panel, as well as Knapp Medical, Valley Baptist and DHR.”

Asked if organizing the tour is harder than ever – due to the Valley’s growth – Alvarez said: “That is kind of a good sign because there are a lot of great things happening here. It is a great problem to have. You talk about the earlier tours and the history, we were (back then) able to go to some of the other communities and visit. But there are so many things happening here. When was the last time we were able to brag about our ports of entry and how important they are to the country? And healthcare: I had to talk about that because we have a big announcement on Thursday night. There is going to be a big announcement at the Thursday evening event at the Edinburg Conference Center. That is going to be really important. We are going to have someone coming in to be part of that.”

Asked if that person was Governor Abbott, Alvarez paused and said: “I will let the folks at UT RGV answer that.” He added that the special announcement at Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance on Thursday would happen at 6:05 p.m.

Alvarez acknowledged that scheduling the Valley Legislators Tour was the toughest part of his job. “This is the toughest part of my job. We do this all year when it comes to talking about how great (the region is) and showcasing the South Texas area to everybody but this is tough because there has been lots of talk about.”

Asked if the Valley Legislators Tour would include a visit to a colonia, which has happened on past tours, Alvarez said: “We do not have one scheduled but we have asked for certain information. For example, we will be going to (Hidalgo County) Judge (Ramon) Garcia’s ranch. We are scheduled to be there. There are going to be a lot of conversations about our water issues, our colonias. There are just so many things to talk about. And, every elected official is invited to go to these events and partake in these discussions. We allow our elected officials to do that regardless of where they are from in the Valley. Sometimes, it is more advantageous for them to do that, on a one-to-one, than as part of a bigger group; to build those relations.”

Alvarez said as things stand there will be 25 legislators on the tour. That could change, however, with some last minute additions. “We have 54 people booked on the flight from Austin at 11:35 on Thursday morning. Some legislators will already here. We will fly in to Harlingen and the legislators will be greeted by the nationally-acclaimed UT-Pan American mariachi group,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez added: “I do want the folks to know that regardless of where we go, we always promote the entire Rio Grande Valley. We may not have gone to a specific site but we always keep them in our conversations with everyone.”