In two days, the Rio Grande Valley celebrated the arrival of almost 20 years of momentum.
Either by the calendar’s masterful planning or by its sheer coincidence, Valley officials gathered under expressway interchanges Monday to unveil signage for Interstate 69 and then headed to campuses Tuesday to a ceremonial bill signing for the new university and medical school. To be sure, the wheels that put those events in place on this week’s calendar were in motion long before the new interstate signage was printed up or Gov. Rick Perry’s office purchased new ink pens.
The effort to extend I-69 to the Valley traces its history back to at least 1995 when U.S. 77 and U.S. 281 were added to the future corridor. The push for the Valley’s first medical school gained its first significant foothold in 1997 when state lawmakers approved the medical school’s precursor, the Regional Academic Health Centers in Harlingen and Edinburg.
But their convergence this week shows the collective effort by the Valley at the local, state and federal level to make them happen, said Julian Alvarez, the president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce that organized the I-69 events.
“Everyone throughout the four-county region has always felt that our best interests in the Valley are our transportation, educational and healthcare needs,” Alvarez said. “We’ve been able to accomplish that in the past two days.”
Both celebrations have great significance for the Valley moving forward.
Local economic development officials have long complained that the Valley’s status as the largest metropolitan area of the country without an interstate left them automatically ruled out by site selection companies looking to place manufacturers or other companies. Although the I-69 designation represents only a partial step forward with the Valley’s interstate segments still disconnected from the rest of the system, economic development officials say it will help promote South Texas as a stronger option to prospective employers.
Gov. Rick Perry’s signing of Senate Bill 24 — merging the Valley’s two universities and creating a school of medicine here — also has the potential to reshape the region’s economic and health fortunes.
University of Texas System officials said their plans are to create a research-intensive university that will allow it to tap into state and federal grant programs and educate students with degree plans that are desirable to employers. The medical school will help combat the Valley’s significant doctor’s shortage and also create new employment opportunities.
In his remarks at Wednesday’s bill signing, Perry reflected on his initial trips to the Valley in 1990 during his first statewide campaign for agriculture commissioner. Perry said the trips taught him about the dynamics of the border region and its untapped potential, and he said this week’s announcements mark a “milestone on this journey” that the Valley has been on during the past 20 years.
“The Rio Grande Valley, as you know, has been one of the recipients” of the state’s growth, Perry said. “I will suggest to you the next decade and possibly the next 20 years will be even greater here with the potential of businesses like SpaceX truly changing the landscape.”
It appears Perry isn’t the only one noticing the changes.
Valley elected officials have often complained that it was hard to get their counterparts at the state or federal level to pay attention to them. Perry himself said that the state’s border region was a “thought that came and went” in the minds of most.
But consider the list of attendees at various events this week: Perry was the keynote at the university bill signings in Brownsville and Edinburg on Tuesday. Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison attended the I-69 ceremonies in Mercedes on Monday morning. Attorney General Greg Abbott campaigned in McAllen on Monday evening, the day after announcing his gubernatorial bid. Comptroller Susan Combs spoke at an obesity summit in McAllen on Tuesday. And land commissioner candidate George P. Bush, a scion of the state’s most prominent political family, will host a fundraiser tonight in Pharr.
If they weren’t paying attention back then, they evidently are now, and it could mean more investments in the future.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said it’s significant that the I-69 developments came from the federal level and the university improvements were advocated by state officials. Hinojosa said the Valley’s growth can be traced to its steady development of a middle class and its growing reliance on trade with Mexico, especially after the start of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
“This is a new chapter in the Valley,” Hinojosa said.
Yes, much work still remains, both on further developing the interstate and university and on whatever outcomes they could reap.
By any metric, the Valley remains one of the poorest parts of the nation. Its unemployment rate is typically the highest in the state. And a host of other issues — from frequent bouts with corruption to Mexico’s ongoing troubles with organized crime — still threaten any advancement.
But the educational and infrastructure improvements, two foundations to economic development, have further changed the dynamics, said Alex Meade, the CEO of the Mission Economic Development Corp. On a recent business trip to Detroit, the home of America’s auto manufacturers, Meade saw signs for I-69 and thought about the work it would take to connect the city to the Valley and Mexico, a large auto supplier.
“We definitely should be proud of what we’ve done but this is just a beginning,” Meade said. “The things we’re doing are definitely right now but for the long term.”