Starr Co., STC host economic summit

RIO GRANDE CITY — Higher education staff, county officials and private industry representatives planned for the future and discussed the link between learning and those entering the workforce at a summit Friday at the South Texas College campus in Starr County.

STC partnered with Starr County Industrial Foundation to plan a strategic map for economic development in the area via an event dubbed the Starr County Economic Development Summit: Shaping the Future.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration provided a $100,000 federal planning grant to both STC and the foundation in late 2018 to help the two entities update and improve the county’s strategic plan, according to a news release.

A declining unemployment rate in Starr County and the competitiveness of graduates from STC and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley were among the topics open for discussion. The unemployment rate in Starr County decreased to less than 7%, down from double digits in previous years, according to Julian Alvarez, commissioner of labor for the Texas Workforce Commission.

Part of this happened by learning where the demand is from local industry leaders and by having higher education institutions offer options, he said.

“The unemployment rates have been considerably reduced to single digits, something that we never had in this area in a while, or should I say in a very long while,” Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal said.

Villarreal said there’s always room for growth, and this meeting enables different perspectives and roles to be discussed and put into action.

STC President Shirley Reed stressed the need for partnerships. One of the key aspects of the institution is to build a “college going culture,” and enable further economic growth with an educated populace.

State Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Judith Zaffirini, along with state Rep. Ryan Guillen, took part in a keynote luncheon to describe the state of education. The representatives essentially summed up the education bills passed this session.

Public education issues dominated the 86th Texas legislative session, with reforms in school finances, property tax relief and school safety.

A panel called “Economic Development and Fostering Emerging Industries” allowed private industry representatives to discuss the state of jobs in their industries.

Rorik Peterson, a central region director of development for EDP Renewables, which operates and owns wind farms and solar farms across North America, was one of the speakers.

Peterson said the county is “pro-growth minded,” which will lead to expansion in the economic sector.

“Not all communities and not all counties are as organized and as proactive as this. That makes our job so much easier, and makes the type of investment that we bring so much more feasible,” Peterson said. “The collaboration between private industry and education is very important to make sure that we have the resources we need to be successful.”

Sandra Garza attended the summit and is the program director for Serving Children and Adults in Need, a non-profit organization.

Garza said the discussion on recent legislative efforts throughout the session impacted her the most, and it’s something she wishes to share with young people.

“They’re the ones going to be the next generation of workforce and education, and it pertains a lot to them since we work directly with the youth,” Garza said.