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Sergio Contreras, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, and state Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, are pictured promoting the Valley Legislative Tour.

HARLINGEN, RGV – For those legislators whose views of the South Texas border region are colored by negative stories in the national media, come and visit its fast-growing aerospace industry.

That is the message from Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell on the eve of the 2017 RGV Legislative Tour hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. The tour takes place Jan. 26-29 and the first stop is an aerospace manufacturing plant in Harlingen operated by United Launch Alliance.

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell

“I think the Legislative Tour is especially important for those legislators who have not come down here before, that do not know Cameron and Willacy counties. The very first stop on the trip is going to be United Launch Alliance,” Boswell said proudly, in a preview of the tour.

United Launch Alliance was formed as a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to provide turn-key rocket launch services to the United States Government. At its plant next to Valley International Airport in Harlingen, ULA manufactures rocket components including parts for the Atlas V rocket.

“We are going to be able to show legislators and their staff that the aerospace industry has existed here in our community for almost 30 years. We are going to be able to talk about developing the entire industry with SpaceX joining our family,” Boswell said.

“I think people have a different perception of the border and we can show them that we have some pretty advanced things going on. We need to convince the visiting legislators to support these industries in Austin so we can grow them even more.”

Meeting with stakeholders

RGVP, the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce, has been hosting the Legislative Tour since 1975. The idea is to allow local stakeholders to interact with visiting legislators at the start of each legislative session. The focus of the tour alternates between the lower Valley – Cameron and Willacy counties – and the upper Valley – Hidalgo and Starr counties. This year the focus is on Cameron and Willacy counties, with South Padre Island as the base.

Details about this year’s tour were unveiled at Texas Regional Bank in Harlingen last Thursday. Texas Regional Bank is one of the sponsors of the tour.

“Every two years, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership brings a delegation of lawmakers to South Texas to highlight the unique challenges and opportunities of our region. This year, the four-day tour will focus on various sectors, such as education, infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture and international relations,” said Sergio Contreras, president of RGVP.

“We are looking forward to hosting our legislators. We want to thank them for their passion to serve and we also want to thank them for the sacrifices they and their families make. We want this to be a memorable and educational legislative tour.”

Some parts of the tour are not open to the public or media, thus allowing legislators to meet with area stakeholders in a private setting. Asked how many legislators will be on the tour, Contreras said: “We have a solid number of legislators confirmed to attend. Key legislative staff representing other legislators, will also be on the tour. We are looking forward to hosting a great legislative tour with the ultimate goal of showcasing our economic strength, and the opportunities and challenges we have in the Rio Grande Valley. We want to showcase certain industries, such as energy, aviation, recreation and tourism, education, healthcare and others.”

Asked why the tour is important, Contreras said: “Visiting legislators get a sense of what our community is all about, what our culture is all about and what drives our region. They can get a hands-on experience and also have the opportunity to communicate with our key stakeholders in their respective industries. This allows them the opportunity to learn more about these industries and our part of Texas.”

Two state legislators were at the news conference held by RGVP at Texas State Bank – state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., of Brownsville, and state Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, of Harlingen.

Rep. Lucio said he has seen first-hand how a visit to the Valley by a legislator from another part of Texas can lead to a change of opinion on a key topic.

“When he was in the legislature, David Simpson came down with very definite views about the undocumented kids coming across the river, that something needed to be done. But, he left with a very humane feel about how these are just kids who have experienced tremendous hardship,” Lucio told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Rep. Simpson came away thinking, we should not hold it against the kids for coming but provide services that are needed. He went back and said that in a press conference and took some heat for it. Some in his district thought, ‘no, we need to escort them right back to the border, who cares what happens to them when they get there.’ Rep. Simpson said, ‘folks, we should be offering them aid, we should be doing the humane, Godly thing.’ He took a tough position in his district. That was from coming down here and seeing it first-hand.”

Lucio, D-Harlingen, pointed out that is rare for visiting legislators to come to South Texas unless they have specific business to attend to.

“You have got to want to come to South Texas. We are not a pass-through community when you are traveling to another location and you have to stay the night because your flight was delayed. Legislators that come to the Valley get exposed to things that provide them a new perspective. So, it gives us an opportunity to showcase not only our successes but our needs. It allows us to advocate that an investment in South Texas is not only good for the region but also the whole state.”

Lucio said it is not just the challenges the Valley faces that need to be showcased to visiting legislators. He said local success stories should be highlighted also.

“There are several things we can improve on but at the same time we need to stand back and appreciate what we have achieved in the last 20 years. Education, health and wellness, quality of life, opportunities. Even our social events are significantly better. So, imagine what we can achieve if we have a little more investment from our state and federal government, in programs that can have a big impact, like job training, workforce readiness, and technical education that will bring up our standard of living and average earnings.”

Healthcare Panel

Manny Vela

Manny Vela, CEO of Valley Baptist Healthcare System, said he was looking forward to participating on a panel discussion about healthcare policy that has been organized as part of the Legislative Tour.

“We are honored to be a sponsor of the event and I am honored to participate in the healthcare panel discussion that will be taking place next Thursday evening. Healthcare is a consistent challenge here on the border. Consider the fact that we have the highest percentage of medically uninsured in the country down here. We have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity, the highest rates of illiteracy. Those are a combination of factors that make it very challenging,” Vela told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We are incredibly proud of what we do from a quality, safety, patient care experience perspective. Our goal is always to offer the highest quality care in the safest environment, offering as much passion and compassion as we can. We are successful at that and I could not be more proud of my entire team for that.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows United Launch Alliance’s Horizontal Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The HIF is where United Launch Alliance assembles its Delta IV rocket for launch. (Photo: Jason Rhian).