Updated: Aug 18, 2021
“Build it and they will come.” Although it proved true in the baseball themed Field of Dreams, does this also work for regional economic development? Or, is the Rio Grande Valley destined to use the Friday Night Lights playbook of friendly (or not) completion. Our history shows that we have applied lesson from the diamond and gridiron, but in the end, it may not matter.
Interstate: A Homerun for the Region
While Laredo received an Interstate Highway before the Rio Grande Valley, it is doubtful it was a result of lobbying as an economic development project. The United States’ Interstate System is a direct development of military needs to mobilize troops; connect raw materials to industrial centers; and protect international borders.
In 1922, General John "Blackjack" Pershing (we’ll stick to sports analogies) presented Congress a proposed map of roads that would meet these military objectives. The Pershing Map included an interstate route from San Antonio to Laredo and southeast along the U.S.-Mexico border to the Rio Grande Valley with terminus in Brownsville (ie, U.S. 83). An alternative route lead from San Antonio to Hidalgo County, approximately along what is now U.S. 281. By the time the General Location of National System of Interstate Highways (the Yellow Book) was proposed in 1955, the route from Laredo to the Valley was eliminated.
Congress funded that Interstate System in 1956 without the Valley include. This relegated our region to the most populous area in the U.S. without an interstate. Not until the advent of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s would the need for a more efficient movement of goods and materials between markets in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico would a Valley interstate become a real possibility.
Batter up. Interstate 69 was the solution and the fight for designation pitted Hidalgo-Starr against Cameron-Willacy. Would U.S. 281 or U.S. 77 be the designated interstate? Or U.S. 59 and Laredo hit the homerun?
Dallas-Fort Worth seemed to provide an option – two legs to the same region. Constructing I-35 between Dallas and Ft. Worth seems more cost-effective but both cities made the case for their own route and the region benefited. Similarly, in 2013 U.S. 77 was designated I-69East, U.S. 281 became I-69Central and U.S. 59 became I-69West. Plus, U.S. 83 from Brownsville to Mission is designated I-2. All the players in this game worked as a team and scored for the region.
Higher Education: Touchdown RGV
The Roaring 1920s heralded the advent of higher education in the Valley with the establishment of Texas Southmost College (TSC) in Brownsville (1926) and Edinburg College (1927). Game on. Harlingen and McAllen were sidelined for generations until Texas State Technical College (TSTC) initiated classes in these cities (1967 and 1983, respectively).
Brownsville and Edinburg would purse different models for providing higher education. In the 1950s, Edinburg transformed its community college into what is now the regional University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA). Edinburg’s community college conversion to a regional university lead to expanded higher educational offerings (ie, bachelors, masters), but lost vocational and technical certificates and associate degrees offered by a community college.
Alternatively, in 1973 Brownsville added upper-level programs through an agreement with UTPA, but kept operation of its community college, TSC. Unlike Edinburg, this university-community college partnership allowed Brownsville to offer prospective and existing employers both vocational training and bachelor programs.
Over the years, the Hidalgo and Starr counties had become the largest area in Texas without a community college. It wasn’t until 1993 when South Texas Community College (STCC) began providing a wide array of vocational degrees to Hidalgo and Starr counties. In fact, TSTC’s McAllen campus became STC’s main campus, and TSTC would offer the Valley classes from Harlingen only. Even Starr County would receive an upper-level UTPA campus in [year] following the UTB model.
The latest iteration of our Friday Night’s mentality is found with McAllen/Edinburg v Harlingen. In After a lengthy struggle during the first half, Harlingen takes the lead by securing the location of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC). However, during the second half, McAllen and Edinburg are victorious with the Medical School locating in Edinburg (2013).
But the spoiler is that UTPA and UTB are merged into what will become the Tier I research institution, University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Touchdown RGV.
Airports: Fighting for the Ball
Aviation took flight in the Rio Grande Valley in 1915 at Ft. Brown during military operations (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). In 1929, Brownsville Municipal Airport opened and capitalized quickly by luring Pan American Airways in 1932, Braniff Airways in 1934 and Eastern Airlines in 1939. Not to be outdone, McAllen opens Miller Airport in 1930 but only lands Trans Texas Airlines in 1952 and FAA designation as an international airport in 1956. However, Weslaco (yes, Weslaco) opened its airport in 1946 with commercial air service.
During the 1950s, Valleyites could catch a commercial flight from three airports. However, a regional airport could provide economies of scale, lure more airlines, and promote regional development. The larger commercial operations were in Brownsville, but it was at one end of the Valley. Weslaco’s central location made a better choice than McAllen.
The game changer was the closure of the large Military Air Base in Harlingen in 1967 and its conversion into Valley International Airport (VIA). Although Weslaco Mid-Valley Airport is the largest General Aviation facility south of San Antonio, it no longer offers commercial air service. Brownsville, once the Valley’s largest commercial airport (and strategic link to Mexico) now subsidizes commercial carriers to maintain service for its residents. Harlingen and McAllen have emerged as the major two players for commercial traffic.
Yet, what would the Valley be with a regional airport? Perhaps a regional airport could have created critical mass of air carriers, leading to a critical mass of hotels, car rentals, warehousing and logistic companies. And, greater visibility for the region.
In the Long-Run: Completion v Cooperation May not Matter Three models of development produced differing results. With the interstate, the region initially began by pitting Cameron against Hidalgo, but managed to work as a region to get both U.S. 77 and U.S.281 designated interstates. This is a clear case where regional cooperation yielded regional results.
With higher education, the Lower and Upper Valley’s game plan initially was competitive, but resulted in a regional system. It began with a healthy completion for community colleges in Cameron and Hidalgo; then developed a regional university with UTPA in Edinburg and Brownsville. The regional system devolved into independent universities (UTPA and UTB), before becoming a regional university again (UTRGV). Given this oscillation between competition and regionalism, it is difficult to gauge the efficacy of higher education’s impact on local economic development. However, communities that had either a community college or university used their schools as a tool for recruiting business prospects, at least for time.
At the other extreme is the Valley’s airport system(s). The two dominate players (Harlingen and McAllen) have carved niche markets, while Brownsville’s marginal sustainability has continued to defy the odds. The Valley may have missed opportunities that come with a regional airport. Perhaps. Over time these airports will continue to develop their niche markets and server the region like Dallas and Houston metro area airports.
In the end, as the region’s population continues to outshine the state and national average and as the Valley builds more commercial development, it may not matter if our communities compete or cooperate. The Rio Grande Valley scores.