In the next month, several cities in Hidalgo and Starr counties are expected to submit proposals to the University of Texas system offering to sell or donate the land for UT Rio Grande Valley’s administration building.
Like all aspects of the new university, which was created with the help of the entire region’s conjoined political muscle, the administration building will create white-collar jobs in whichever city it lands.
“It puts you on the map, certainly,” said Gus Garcia, the executive director of Edinburg’s economic development corporation.
“The goal for the new UT (school) is to be Tier 1 status,” he added. “There’s research dollars associated with being Tier 1 status. And that research is used to commercialize.”
The initial spirit of regionalism that helped bring the university to the Rio Grande Valley remains in the pursuit of an administration building.
“We realize that the improvements that are being contemplated right now are improvements for the entire region,” said Roy Rodriguez, the interim city manager of McAllen. “No matter where it goes, it’s going to impact us all.”
Regardless, the request for proposals that UT System released last month will pit city against city as each competes to land the building.
Though they acknowledged a regional outlook in interviews this week, Edinburg leaders also said their city has certain advantages in the competition.
“It’s not so much a question of does it matter where it goes,” City Manager Ramiro Garza said. “The fact is the UT Board of Regents has issued a request for proposals. And I think we have a duty, a responsibility to respond to that, not just as a city but because of the history of having a presence of a University of Texas division in Edinburg.”
That history extends beyond sentimentality to actual investments of about $20 million in the last 10 years, Garza said, for road maintenance and other infrastructure improvements to support UTPA.
“It’s right in the middle of our city, and it’s grown into our city,” the city manager said of UTPA. “We’ve made investments in the university. Of course with the new university, we’re going to continue to do that.”
Additionally, the first two years of the medical school are already committed to Edinburg.
The city manager and mayor of Brownsville, the other city to already hold a now-independent UT campus, did not return calls for comment for this story.
Garcia also latched onto another portion of the request for proposals.
“Quality of life issues will be important for employee morale, recruitment and retention,” reads part of the document’s introductory section.
“Sites should be near a variety of housing to serve the occupants of the HQ Building, ideally served by quality schools, amenities and recreational opportunities,” it states farther down the page.
Eleven Edinburg public schools were rated “distinguished performance schools” by the Texas Education Agency for the 2012-2013 school year, Garcia pointed out. By far the highest number in the Valley, the total almost equals the 12 combined in McAllen and Brownsville.
“You’ll see that Edinburg with the distinguished schools has a very strong advantage,” he said.
The city should be competitive in other quality of life criteria, Garcia added. And the Edinburg-McAllen-Mission-Pharr area provides the densest population center in the entire Valley.
“The population center is a factor,” Garcia said. “When you look at the faculty and where they want to go and where they want to live, typically the population center is where you want to go.”
Additionally, Garza said, the city’s place in the center of the entire Valley — not just the two main campuses — could help.
“We feel that Edinburg is centrally located because you can’t forget about Starr County. Starr County has a campus right now,” Garza said. UTPA maintains a three-building campus in Rio Grande City, adjacent to the South Texas College campus in Starr County.
Rodriguez was more tight-lipped about what advantages McAllen holds in the process.
“That’ll be in the proposal,” he said.
Asked if McAllen would be competitive in the quality of life criteria, he responded:
“I think McAllen’s competitive for every kind of thing.”
The head of real estate for UT System downplayed the importance of the quality of life clauses in the RFP.
“There’s an interest in quality of life kind of as a recruitment tool, but even that’s pretty broad,” said Kirk Tames, the interim executive director of real estate for UT System.
“It’s one of many factors that’s going to be considered,” he added. “Nobody can look at any one factor and say ‘Oh yes, that’s the most important thing.’”
Tames said he didn’t see any particular city with a clear advantage.
“We’ve kept it wide open on purpose,” he said.
The RFP says the administration building will employ about 100 people. But beyond that, it’s difficult to put a finger on the tangible benefits it could bring.
“You’d have a good mix of folks coming into your town to do business there,” Pharr City Manager Fred Sandoval said, who added that Pharr does not intend to submit a proposal, due to the lack of a suitable site.
“(But) it’s really hard to gauge what the actual gains are in the area for those kinds of quasi-governmental buildings.”
And the administration building is only the first of several facilities — most of them larger in scope — the new university will need built in the area.
“In the grand scheme of things this is probably one of the smaller projects or matters out there, at least certainly not a big one by any stretch of the imagination,” Tames said. “From a real estate perspective, this is really just kind of the beginning for UT-RGV.”