MERCEDES — To address lingering high unemployment rate, Starr County has current and upcoming projects to spur economic growth, details of which were presented to the Citizen’s Forum of the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission on Wednesday.
Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, began by detailing the county’s economic growth and unemployment rate over the years.
After the Great Recession, the county saw growth in sales tax up until about 2016 when there was a slight decrease.
“A number of things can be attributed to that,” Benavidez said. “One of the major items we believe created the significance is the decrease in traffic from our customers in Mexico.”
That, in turn, is thought to be due to the increase in violence in Mexico which has caused safety concerns.
Currently, the unemployment rate sits at about 12 percent but Benavidez said the belief is that it will continue to decrease with the implementation of new strategies.
In 2017, there were about 460 commercial permits issued in the county. Also, there was about $50 million in investment for commercial and retail projects.
“Now, we don’t expect to compete with McAllen in retail; we already lose half a billion dollars in sales tax to McAllen,” she said, “But we’re making inroads, perhaps not to attract more shoppers from the Valley to our community, but keeping more of our residents to shop in our community.”
Last year, the county also saw $700 million worth of projects in the energy industry that are currently under development and the county is also working on an $80 million commercial development project.
The county also has a lot of mobility work they have to do, Benavidez said.
Realignment of Farm-to-Market Road 755, originally expected to be completed in December 2017, is now expected to be completed in about 60 days.
The realignment, a $17 million TxDOT project, is the first leg of another project: Loop 195.
Loop 195 — expected cost about $200 million, according to Benavidez — will stretch about 18 miles long, ending north of Roma. The loop is meant to create alternative access to Highway 83 and alleviate the traffic there.
“(It’s) not only creating another route that is going to serve as another route for vehicular traffic,” she said, “but also allow these communities to further develop their own assets by moving some of this traffic up away from the center of town.”
Another strategy they’ve been employing is utilizing the assets that they have.
“Starr County has always been known, and I’m sure anyone involved in drainage districts knows this, for being a farming community,” Benavidez said. “Ranching is another asset that our community has, but we actually found a way to transform that into growth opportunity.”
Since 2013, the county has had about $1.2 billion worth of renewable energy projects under construction. That has mainly been in the form of wind farm projects that have been constructed but now the county is also working on bringing in the first solar project to the area.
“These are one of the ways that we have to look at diversifying our economy,” she said. “Ensuring that it’s clean, it allows people that have large amounts of property to utilize their property while also making revenue.”