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Experts say Valley’s university merger a boon to economic development

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Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012 11:19 pm

BROWNSVILLE — The University of Texas System’s ambitious plan to combine the Rio Grande Valley’s higher education entities into a single super university encompassing Brownsville, Harlingen and Edinburg is obviously huge news for higher education in the region.

But what about economic development? It turns out the two go hand in hand. UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa touched on the subject Friday during a meeting at the UTB campus, where he laid out details of the plan that the UT Board of Regents unanimously approved Thursday in Austin.

Cigarroa described it as a “bold and transformational step” on the part of the regents that would alter the educational, health and economic future of the Valley and the state as a whole. The regents also approved $100 million over the next 10 years to kick-start the future South Texas School of Medicine, which would also be part of the still nameless proposed regional university. The medical school would give the Valley a further competitive advantage, as would the region’s geography and demographics, Cigarroa said.

He cited a draft of a new economic study that predicts 10,000 new jobs in the Valley by 2022, with an average salary of $65,000, if the new university and medical school become a reality. According to the study, 7,000 jobs would be created directly and the economic ripple effect would add another 3,000.

“Right now the average salary for the Valley is below $30,000,” Cigarroa said. “This is a huge opportunity also to diminish poverty and (boost) the economic vibrancy of this region.”

“The ability to access and manage knowledge is really the key to success for the modern economy,” said Jon Hockenyos, whose consulting firm TXP is conducting the study. “I think this could very well be, if not the largest, one of the largest economic development opportunities for the Rio Grande Valley.”

The new university and medical school would have a total operational budget of $419 million and assets of around $540 million, making it one of the Valley’s largest entities, Cigarroa said. With an expected student population of about 28,000, research expenditures in the neighborhood of $11 million and $70.5 million in endowment funds, the new university would be similar in size and portfolio to UT’s other “emerging research universities,” according to the system.

Gil Salinas, vice president of the Greater Brownsville Economic Council, said he experienced a range of feelings upon first hearing that UTB would be merged into a regional university, but finally realized “this is long overdue.”

“Eventually it’s going to translate into better quality education for our students,” Salinas said. “Some of our brightest sometimes leave the area from lack of opportunity. Now we’ll have this mechanism in place to truly develop a pipeline for industry. The way we look at just business in general in a region is, education is a blueprint to the success of any community.”

Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez said the plan is a win for the region, comparing it to another game-changing development in the Valley — introduction of the railroad.

“A hundred years ago the railroad opened up the Valley,” he said. “A hundred years later the Valley’s going to open to the whole world. It can be transformative if we do this right.”



Steve Clark writes for The Brownsville Herald. 

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