Standing on the Brink of Boom

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Standing on the Brink of Boom

Cargo coming into the Port of Brownsville feeds the Valley economy, such as this load of windmill components for the expanding wind farm industry. (Port of Brownsville)
Cargo coming into the Port of Brownsville feeds the Valley economy, such as this load of windmill components for the expanding wind farm industry. (Port of Brownsville)

Big economic news is expected to break in April with an announcement that will mark the latest industrial success story for Cameron County, further setting the stage for an unprecedented economic boom for this southernmost county in Texas.  

“We are on the cusp of some great things,” said Gilbert Salinas, director of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp. “And it’s no accident. This has been a 10-year body of work to get to this point. And sure enough here we are.”

The April announcement is the culmination of two years of negotiations to bring what Salinas described as a manufacturer of large transportation equipment. “It’s a very well-known company that’s looking to service not only the United States but Latin America. They will be furnishing large transportation equipment in a 70,000- to 80,000-square-foot facility here in the Brownsville area. They are already putting some feelers out there for metal fabricators and painters in the automotive sector.”  Some 150 jobs are expected to be created in the first two to three years of operation.

After being out of service for seven years, West Plains LLC invested more than $7 million to restore and start up operations at the port grain elevator with capacity to store three million bushels of grain. (VBR)
After being out of service for seven years, West Plains LLC invested more than $7 million to restore and start up operations at the port grain elevator with capacity to store three million bushels of grain. (VBR)

As the economy has rebounded from the Great Recession, Salinas said projects the GBIC and other economic development organizations are working on are getting bigger and better. “Before the economy tanked we used to work on projects in the millions of dollars,” he said. “But the projects we are seeing now are in the billions of dollars.”

Three liquefied natural gas plants are moving through the regulatory process with plans to locate at the Port of Brownsville. If all three proposed facilities move forward, the initial investment to construct the plants will most likely top $25 billion and create thousands of construction jobs.

Another major development possibly on the horizon for the Port of Brownsville is a $1.5 billion Big River Steel plant, the Arkansas-based company’s second U.S. steel mill. The port is one of two locations under consideration.

The Brownsville & Rio Grande Railroad connects shippers and the port to major rail lines Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Kansas City Southern de Mexico. (Port of Brownsville)
The Brownsville & Rio Grande Railroad connects shippers and the port to major rail lines Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Kansas City Southern de Mexico. (Port of Brownsville)

At the annual State of the Port event in March, Brownsville Navigation District Vice Chairman John Reed said 2018 could be a pivotal year for the port and the region. “With the possibility of three LNG liquefaction export facilities approaching their final investment decisions, and with Big River Steel nearing an expansion decision to add a new facility at the port; together, these opportunities represent pivotal changes in the Valley’s fortune with potentially explosive job and wage earning growth to help create career opportunities,” he said.

BND Chairman John Wood, who was unable to attend the State of the Port, echoed the optimism about future growth at the port and throughout Cameron County. “The county is going to see lots of activity,” he said. “And we are talking to some other (companies) that might be interested in a port location.”

Wood said he did not know when Big River Steel would make a decision on whether to locate in South Texas, but that representatives made another visit to the port in March. “My understanding is they have another board meeting coming up at the end of April. I imagine this will be part of that discussion.”

Keppel-AmFELS at the Port of Brownsville will for the first time begin building ships under a $400 million contract to construct two container vessels. (VBR)
Keppel-AmFELS at the Port of Brownsville will for the first time begin building ships under a $400 million contract to construct two container vessels. (VBR)

The port’s long list of 2017 achievements included record revenues of almost $24 million, almost double the amount the port reported for 2008; a 21-percent increase in the number of vessels calling on the port; a $400-million contract landed by Keppel-AmFELS to build two LNG-powered container ships, marking the company’s first foray into the shipbuilding industry; and the first grain shipments in more than seven years after West Plains LLC invested more than $7 million to restore a grain elevator with capacity to store three million bushels of grain.

The $1.5 billion Valley Crossing Pipeline currently under construction would provide yet another asset to spur economic growth. The 168-mile pipeline travels from Agua Dulce near Corpus Christi to the Port of Brownsville. From there it will extend into the Gulf of Mexico to connect with another pipeline that will feed natural gas to Mexico. Valley Crossing is also in discussion with potential U.S. end users to install delivery points along the pipeline.

“As the Valley Crossing Pipeline makes its way through Cameron County, it will be a magnet for economic development, providing new industry reliable and affordable energy options not previously available here,” Reed said. “And because the project is on time and on budget, other projects are observing the success of Valley Crossing Pipeline, which may mean more future revenue for the region and even more jobs for the Valley.”

Two vertical tracking antennas have been installed at the SpaceX launch site near Boca Chica Beach. (VBR)
Two vertical tracking antennas have been installed at the SpaceX launch site near Boca Chica Beach. (VBR)

One of the first big post-recession developments on the industrial/commercial landscape in Cameron County was the 2014 announcement by SpaceX that it planned to build the world’s first commercial rocket launch site near Boca Chica Beach. While the project has moved slower than SpaceX owner Elon Musk initially predicted, there is speculation the first rocket could blast off by the end of 2018. Two tracking antennas were put up near the launch site last year and hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of soil were brought in to stabilize the site to support future structures.

Adjacent to the launch site, a two-story building is under construction that will house STARGATE, a public-private partnership between the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SpaceX. The commercial space company’s facilities will be used by UTRGV students and faculty for training, research and technology development.

A two-story building under construction next to the SpaceX launch site that will be a research facility in a public-private partnership between the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SpaceX. (VBR)
A two-story building under construction next to the SpaceX launch site that will be a research facility in a public-private partnership between the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SpaceX. (VBR)

Elsewhere in Cameron County, Harlingen recently landed its biggest industrial deal ever when CARDONE Industries announced plans to invest $50 million to construct a 950,000-square-foot distribution center in the Harlingen Industrial Park, adding to the company’s existing facilities in Harlingen, Brownsville and Matamoros.

These and other industrial/commercial projects combine to make Cameron County a major player in the growth of South Texas, with all the economic spinoff that comes with it. “If our total income increases, spending increases,” Harlingen Economic Development Corp. Director Raudel Garza said. “So if that spending is increasing, we are buying more insurance, we are buying more cars. And so it all starts continuing to multiply and we are going to see a lot of that coming up.”

Salinas said Cameron County is in an enviable position to continue to attract industrial/commercial growth. “Between Brownsville and Harlingen, and you factor in Matamoros and the Port of Brownsville, two airports, South Padre Island, Cameron County has assets that 90 to 95 percent of other counties in Texas wish they had,” Salinas said. “We are in a great position. Just one of these companies coming in is great, but we don’t just have one. We have multiple projects coming in.”

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