Valley International Airport may soon see an expansion that would further solidify its ranking as the Rio Grande Valley’s air cargo leader. FedEx, which maintains two cargo jets at the Harlingen airport that fly nightly round-trips to its sorting facility in Memphis, Tenn., is in the final stages of making a decision to expand service.
“Right now air cargo is amazing for us the way it’s going,” VIA Aviation Director Marvin Esterly said. “We are now ranked by the FAA as the 81st busiest air cargo airport in the country, up from 83rd a year ago. Hopefully we will get into the 70s in a year or so. FedEx is looking at expanding and we are working with them on that.”
In a bigger picture view, a FedEx expansion represents another piece in a puzzle to make VIA a major regional economic force. Known as the Harlingen Aerotropolis, the concept is to diversify the airport to meet the demands of the future, including the growing aerospace industry in South Texas.
In today’s world, airports need to be more than just airports. “All airports are trying to reinvent themselves to diversify revenue streams,” Esterly said. “Our top priority is airline service and we want to make sure our rates are low for air carriers. The aerotropolis is really an answer to that.”
Working closely with the Harlingen Economic Development Corporation and community leaders, VIA is actively promoting the aerotropolis to create a diverse planned business community. Air-related businesses and aerospace companies that frequently ship and receive parts and goods by air are high-value targets for the aerotropolis, Esterly said.
Fields of cotton, grain sorghum and sugarcane to the east of VIA could one day give way to this diverse economic development complex. The airport owns 479 acres of that farmland and the basic infrastructure to make it “shovel-ready” for development is already in place.
In 2015 McCallum Sweeney Consulting certified the Harlingen Aerotropolis as an American Electric Power Quality Site, meaning that it’s ready for development. “The basics are there and it’s ready to go,” Esterly said. “All the utilities are there, everything they need to start so all they have to do is get a building permit.”
At the time of the certification, Lindsey Myers, senior consultant and director of site readiness programs for McCallum Sweeney, said that shovel-ready communities have an upper hand in attracting new business.
“Companies are not willing to wait for a community to find an appropriate site and determine its suitability for development. That due diligence needs to be completed in advance of a prospect visit,” she said. “The Harlingen Aerotropolis at Valley International Airport is the first certified site in the entire state of Texas using AEP’s Quality Site Program.”
With United Launch Alliance well-established at VIA manufacturing and assembling rocket components and the development of the SpaceX launch facility in Cameron County, the aerospace industry is a prime target for the Harlingen Aerotropolis.
Esterly described ULA as a “cornerstone business to attract related businesses” such as other component manufacturers and payload companies. “ULA gives us a lot of credence to the future of the aerospace industry in the Valley,” he said. “We have come close to a couple of companies in the aerospace industry. We are still working on another that’s depending on financing. We are open for business at the aerotropolis.”
VIA has partnered within the community to help plan and market the concept. The Harlingen EDC consults on marketing plans and produced a video for prospective tenants touting the project. Engineering students from Texas State Technical College, with its campus next door to the airport, have designed a 3-D computerized prototype of what the aerotropolis might look like and the types of buildings that could one day transform the farm fields.
At the north end of the airport stands an old concrete building that once served as a military jet engine testing facility before it was abandoned in the 1970s. The one-foot-thick steel reinforced concrete walls contain four testing rooms and two control rooms that are now sort of a laboratory for TSTC students to develop ideas on how to upgrade and re-purpose the building as a modern propulsion test center.
TSTC, with programs in avionics, aircraft powerplant and computer technologies, provides yet another selling tool for the Harlingen Aerotropolis. “A lot of ULA workers are already coming right out of TSTC,” Esterly said. “We can tell prospective tenants, ‘here’s where a lot of your employees will come from.’ That’s always a big question we get asked.”
The airport’s proximity to water ports in Harlingen and Brownsville, and easy access to major highways, railroads and international bridges combine to beef up the credentials of the aerotropolis. “We have to make sure we have all the feathers in our hat when we go visit companies,” Esterly said. “Right now it’s getting the name out, researching potential customers and making contacts. It’s a long process but if you don’t do anything you are always at square one.”