EDINBURG — Developer Alonzo Cantu sat in the front row during the program Monday before the ribbon cutting here for Bert Ogden Arena, a venue he mostly funded and built with his construction company.
“The Bert Ogden Arena is going to be the catalyst to make the Rio Grande Valley the next great American destination,” said Robert Vackar, president of Bert Ogden Auto Group.
The celebration punctuated the $88 million, 9,000-seat venue, which attracted area dignitaries and city leaders including Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina, Vackar and his wife Janet Vackar — whose father is the arena namesake, Bert Ogden.
Ogden started his first auto lot in Edinburg. Cantu has said that he purchased his first vehicle from Ogden.
“When Alonzo was talking about the arena, I was so excited and touched and honored that he chose my father’s name,” Janet Vackar said. “It’s just an honor to be associated with such a fabulous thing for the community and to look at his name in lights and know that he is remembered by not only me, but everyone.”
As speakers take the mic, encouraging Cantu to say a few words, he rejects repeated attempts.
Cantu attributes his reluctance to take center stage as a need for highlighting the project rather than himself.
“I don’t want it to be an ‘Alonzo Cantu’ event,” he said of his reclusiveness. ‘There’s only so much we can do. I think time will tell how successful it will be and how good it is for the Valley.”
And still, after the ceremony, a seemingly endless line of individuals representing organizations, chambers of commerce, and municipalities jockey for position to take photos with Cantu.
Cantu sits in a suite overlooking the largest arena in the Valley.
When asked about his perspective of the view he built, he talks about work still to be done — how he was at the arena at 3:30 a.m. that morning working on his “punch-list items” to finish before it officially opens Friday with singer Luis Miguel.
“I have a whole list, believe me,” Cantu said. “You’d need a couple of newspapers to fill it out. I’m very picky.”
And at the suggestion the venue is “flashy,” Cantu pushes back.
“I consider it quality. You can see this in Dallas or Houston. Why can’t the Valley have it?” he asked, extending the logic to other facets. “Why can’t the Valley have excellent health care and be able to do transplants, like they’re doing now?”
Why has the state and federal government looked over the Valley for infrastructure or highway funding in the past, he posited, or why couldn’t the big Texas universities invest in the Valley, a region populated by over a million people?
“I think in the past, we’ve been treated unfairly and we don’t get proper funding,” he said, adding that he was “glad that the state government is stepping up … finally paying attention to us.”
But Cantu talks like someone who couldn’t wait for someone else to improve things. Through his ventures, he paints a picture of a Valley improved through partners collaborating on shared goals.
“The haters — the naysayers — don’t understand what the vision is,” he said.
Regardless of one’s opinion of Cantu, it’s undeniable that he’s influencing the region. Board member of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Foundation, CEO of Cantu Entertainment Group, Lone Star National Bank chairman of the board of directors, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance co-founder and chairman of the hospital’s finance committee — Cantu has a diverse set of objectives. If you ask him, they’re all connected to enhancing the Valley and helping keep talent and resources here.
“For decades, we’d had people leave here — brain drain — because there are no jobs,” he said. “In order to create jobs, you have to have quality of life, health care and good schools.
“They’ll stay here.”
He said one of the appeals of the UTRGV School of Medicine was Valley kids having the opportunity to become doctors locally. He sees these students with cultural familiarity as assets.
“You know the people and the culture, so it’s a lot easier to get people,” he said.
When conceptualizing the UTRGV SOM with then-University of Texas System Chancellor Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa, UT System recognized a potential limitation was the Valley’s dog-eat-dog, “Friday Night Lights mentality” — where cities vie against one another.
“We worked together and that’s what we got,” Cantu said of the universities merging and medical school. “There are a few people in the Valley that have done a good job of working together to think regionally.
“I think more and more you’ll see communities working together.”
And Cantu says he practices what he preaches when supporting political figures, as he’s not married to a particular side.
“I support anybody who supports South Texas, regardless of the political affiliation. With Border Health PAC, we give money to people who come down here, look at what we have and help,” he said, claiming to have changed politicians’ perceptions of the Valley. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat, Republican, independent … and we don’t give any money unless they visit.
“We’re not a Third-World country. We’re not in a war zone. You don’t have to wear body armor to live here.”