The last Sears retail store, at Brownsville’s Sunrise Mall, is closing. It joins the Harlingen and McAllen outlets that also closed their doors in recent years.
For nearly a century, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was our nation’s largest retail company in the United States, until Walmart surpassed it in 1990. Now the company is in bankruptcy and has shuttered hundreds of stores across the country.
Sears certainly isn’t the first giant to fall. Pan American Airways, and later Braniff International, which both flew out of the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, once dominated the skies; now both are gone.
And Sears isn’t alone. Walgreens, CVS, Payless ShoeSource and other retailers have closed dozens of stores across the Valley, and elsewhere, in recent years, eliminating hundreds of jobs in the process.
Such is the fickle nature of the economy: trends change and markets evolve, and sometimes parts of the economy are crippled by factors beyond their control. The Rio GrandeValley’s economy, which relies so much on agricultural production, is still recovering from the effects of a decade-long drought that plagued most of the 1990s. Dozens of downtown storefronts in Brownsville, McAllen and other Valley cities are still empty as a result of Mexico’s 1994 economic crisis that reduced the flow of cross-border shoppers for years afterward.
Every such downturn leads to a loss of jobs and increased poverty, in a region that already struggles to overcome those problems.
These downturns highlight the need to diversify our economy as much as possible. Any sudden event, or change in the market, can be more devastating to an area that relies too much on that segment of the economy.
Fortunately, that diversity is coming to the Valley, albeit slowly. More importantly, it’s growing all across the economic spectrum, from highly skilled opportunities in the aerospace and medical fields to semi-skilled trades in shipbuilding. Officials also have informed us of efforts to bring more new economic arms, such as industrial metallurgy to fuel distribution.
Such variety strengthens any region. Not only does it help ease the pain of problems in any one industry, but it also helps provide opportunities for a wider range of workers, from doctors and rocket scientists to welders and members of retail and service industries that support residents and visitors alike.
Expanding the economy is a major endeavor, and involves many people. Local officials seek and recruit entrepreneurs looking for new markets; educational institutions create programs that help fill local corporate needs, and of course, workers fill the job openings or work to attain the skills and education needed to fill them in the future.
We see those efforts across the Valley, and applaud those doing the work. Only a generation ago, unemployment in some parts of the Rio Grande Valley was as high as 30%. Now, although it remains higher than the state and national average, it’s fallen to the single digits.
The loss of Sears and other retailers certainly is felt, but a widening economy that provides other opportunities helps make the loss easier to overcome.