Eighty years ago, the Rio Grande Valley was a rural, agriculturally based economy with little growth happening. Fast forward to 10 years ago, and the RGV was quickly becoming a thriving metropolitan area as development intensified. Today, the region has completely transformed economically. It has become an area developed by improving and increasing commercial, retail, industrial, entertainment, medical and higher education institutions.
In 2013, the transformation of the RGV’s education system began. Not only did the Valley see two universities merge, but there was the creation of a medical school. There was also the opening of another well-known state university in the RGV as well.
It all began when the Texas legislature voted to approve what we now know as UTRGV. As a result of that vote, UT Brownsville and UT Pan American merged into one school with additional off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Valley. This has allowed the UT system to expand not only the campuses themselves, but to also build on the programs available.
The first major addition to the curriculum was through the addition of the UTRGV School of Medicine. The program welcomed its charter class of 55 medical students in the summer of 2016. The school now has more than 200 medical students, and over 200 medical residents and fellows now serve in nine hospital-based training programs throughout the Valley.
The next major educational advancement was the expansion of Texas A&M University System. The Higher Education Center at McAllen opened its doors in fall 2018.
“The establishment of a Texas A&M campus in McAllen [provides] major … educational opportunities for our Valley students. Having the two largest Texas university systems here in the Valley is a statement of the recognition of the importance of our area to Texas,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.
As the RGV continues to grow and develop, transportation and infrastructure development had to become a priority. With the 2019 advancement of merging three local MPOs into one, this has created a huge shift in the region. This will boost the area to have opportunities to receive more federal and state funding for highways, bridges and all manners of transportation-related projects. This exciting change is just the most recent in a long list of developments over the last decade.
Interstate 69 making connections
In 2013, 21 years after Congress established Interstate 69 as a priority corridor across seven states as part of the National Highway System, officials from all areas of the state, as well as local business and community leaders, welcomed 67 miles of Rio Grande Valley roadways to the interstate system.
“Finally, the Rio Grande Valley is validated on federal transportation maps as being a region with tremendous economic potential that serves as a national and international hub for commerce, trade, retail and tourism,” said State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr.
Airport expansions take off
In addition to roadway developments, local airports saw expansions as well. McAllen International Airport and Valley International Airport have both worked to improve their facilities in order to attract more airlines and customers. These improvements come in the form of state-of-the-art facilities, technological advancements to processes, partnerships with more airlines (including Frontier and Sun Valley Aviation), providing more options for customers and more.
Port progress deepens
Transportation improvements don’t stop there. It also extends to our ports, specifically the Port of Brownsville.
Planning to deepen the ship channel from 42 feet began in 2007 with a project feasibility study. In 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the study, recommending deepening the channel to 52 feet. Expectations are for the BIH project to start in the first half of 2020 with completion in 2023. Brownsville Navigation District Chairman John Reed said, “When complete, the deeper channel will make us among the deepest ports on the Gulf of Mexico, enhancing our competitiveness by closely matching the design features of the expanded Panama Canal.” Once operating at full scale at the port, Rio Grande LNG is expected to contribute more than $500 million annually to U.S. GDP and create approximately 5,000 permanent jobs, the majority in Cameron County.
It has always been true that retail sales have been a huge part of the economy in the RGV. Annual retail sales exceed $5 billion. Additionally, McAllen was named by Forbes as the third best market for job growth (2014) and first by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012). To continue that trend and increase its growth, two major RGV malls underwent major transformation in the last few years.
La Plaza Mall grows
October 2017 saw the opening of the $50-million, 200,000-square-foot expansion at La Plaza Mall. The new addition premiered with specialty stores such as H&M, Kendra Scott and Reeds Jewelers. A dining plaza featuring Texas de Brazil, Yard House and Buddy V’s stands as the exterior anchor of the new addition. Additionally, Simon has been working to upgrade the interior and exterior of the existing mall as well as add two new parking decks to accommodate approximately 2,000 vehicles.
Pharr Town Center transforms
The second major renovation was that of the El Centro Mall to what is now known as Pharr Town Center. Rob Neagle, general manager of Main Event, said, “The City of Pharr has been a trendsetter in the way they’ve developed this area. The city has done a tremendous job for us.” The 470,000-square-foot shopping center is a unique retail and entertainment destination that is home to exclusive retailers such as Pappadeaux and Main Event. The first phase of the project saw full development and completion at the end of 2017. Phase II is now under way.
Although it has taken decades, the RGV has developed a thriving entertainment industry. The new developments span from a plush Cinemark Theatre at Pharr Town Center and a premier Performing Arts Center in McAllen to Topgolf in Pharr and Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg, to name a few.
McAllen Performing Arts Center brings in the acts
The McAllen Performing Arts Center opened its doors in November 2016. Since then, it has hosted over 450 world-class events, including a wide variety of arts and cultural experiences. This includes bringing back the popular Broadway in McAllen series. It brings touring Broadway shows, including Tony Award winning musicals, to audiences. The facility offers the most advanced performing arts center south of San Antonio. “This is a state-of-the-art venue and a very modern facility,” said patron Jesus Barrios.
Topgolf in full swing
In October 2017, Topgolf announced its 11th Texas location would be built in Pharr, and it was open to the public one year later. The 55,000-square-foot venue not only provides entertainment for the area, but it also created 350 full- and part-time jobs. “As a family friendly, fun and engaging venue, Topgolf is a trailblazing attraction that meets the entertainment needs of a broad demographic,” said Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez.
Bert Ogden Arena brings in big entertainment
Bert Ogden Arena also launched a new era in sports and entertainment facilities. President and CEO Marc Solis said, “We can attract artists that might have passed us by in the past, so we can now go after those entertainers and big family shows.” It is the largest indoor venue of its kind in deep south Texas. Every square foot of the $83-million facility wows guests. The arena provides seating for 9,000 on three levels and includes 12 private suites and six club suites. In addition, guests enjoy a unique dining experience through partnerships with high-end restaurants.
We have seen tremendous growth in the Valley throughout the last ten years, and it is completely reasonable to expect more. Local businessman Richard Walters said, “The amount of new construction being built is at a record high in the Valley. It just means more good things are coming our way.”