Big investment in the Rio Grande Valley fuels big changes to the state’s southernmost cities.
In South Texas, two metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) along the Rio Grande Valley (commonly known as RGV or the Valley) stand out as growing economic engines as they collectively work to bring new resources and investment to the region. The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA and Brownsville-Harlingen MSA developed from sparse Mexican settlements into a fortified border zone and later became an agricultural hub. Brownsville’s settlement dates to the 18th century, when private land grants grew north of present-day Matamoros, Mexico. Mexican herders and farmers were scattered throughout the region until the Mexican War prompted the United States government to establish a military post, Fort Brown, and later to found the city of Brownsville.
McAllen functioned as a private ranch until the early 1900s, when Scottish landowner John McAllen donated land for construction of a new railroad and community. New irrigation canals in the region helped landowners shift away from a livestock economy, and they began producing cotton, alfalfa, and citrus fruits. From the 1910s through the 1950s, local scientists invested heavily in agricultural research and worked with farmers to improve irrigated farming. As a result, the Valley now contributes $1 billion to the Texas economy from crops, livestock, and other agriculture-related businesses. Because it is a binational region on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Valley has historically depended on cheap labor and tourism from Reynosa and Matamoros. The region’s population is over 1.3 million people scattered across a land area of approximately 3,500 square miles. Nearly 89 percent Hispanic, the population is expected to double by 2045.
Despite its strong economic past, the Valley is faced with a myriad of challenges today. Approximately 29 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, a statistic that is double the state’s average of 14.22 percent. This is undoubtedly due in part to the more than 900 colonias — unincorporated U.S. border colonies with inadequate housing that lack basic services — found in the region.
The RGV has been studied repeatedly for its lack of health services, its high rates of cervical cancer and obesity, and its low levels of educational accomplishment. To further complicate the picture, the immigration status of many RGV residents hinders their access to the most basic healthcare. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported, in 2017, that the Valley’s population is “relatively poorer and less educated than the Texas average [and this fact] may limit the area’s ability to attract high-paying industries.” Local leaders have long lamented the area’s experience of “brain drain,” as degree-seeking and degree-holding young professionals pursue education and careers in other parts of the state.
For decades, the state and federal governments have half-heartedly attempted to help the colonias, in particular. However, since 2017, the state has cut funding to several programs that supported low-cost healthcare checkups for residents, project coordination, and running water and sewer services. Federal funds for colonias are also dwindling, especially as the country continues to battle over border security. Nevertheless, Valley residents have banded together to develop this growing megaregion. Cities, towns, county governments, educational institutions, businesses, and area organizations once operated on a microscale with individual priorities. Now, these groups are coordinating as they develop plans to ensure economic growth in the region as a whole, in hopes that the current population boom will help lift impoverished citizens into a higher standard of living.
One pivotal moment for the region came in 2013, when the University of Texas Board of Regents and Texas Legislature approved the merger of UT–Pan American (Edinburg) and UT Brownsville, creating a new university: UT Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). In a June 2022 blog post about the region’s growth, urban planners at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University wrote that “the University’s founding represents a transformational accomplishment that will alter the health and economic well-being of the region for decades to come.”
The goals of the merger were to better serve the 89.2 percent majority Hispanic student body, to leverage the new institution for additional funding from the Permanent University Fund (PUF), and to set the foundation for a future medical school. (The UTRGV School of Medicine was established in 2015 and anticipates growing beyond its current 222 medical students, 249 residents and fellows, 166 faculty members, and 56 Ph.D. scientists.) The school has had an immediate impact on the area, due to its ability to provide a pathway for new medical professionals and to act as a community public health partner through nutrition education, HIV awareness, social awareness/outreach, and ongoing research on childhood depression/PTSD brought on by the increasing rate of deportation of family members.
The School of Medicine continues to plan for expanded public health research programs and is currently building a 144,000-sf cancer and surgery center in McAllen. Designed by HKS’ Dallas office, the $145.7 million research center was partially funded through $49.4 million in PUF funds and a $1 million donation from the city of McAllen. With 38 acres dedicated to the McAllen Academic Medical Campus, the university intends to continue building infrastructure for the next few decades. Other major recent UTRGV projects include the Brownsville Interdisciplinary Academic Building, Harlingen Institute of Neuroscience, Edinburg Science Building, and STARGATE Technology Center near Boca Chica Beach.
The arrival of new businesses is also driving change in the Valley. Economic development corporations and local governments have worked hard to ensure that businesses will relocate to the area for its professional talent pool. Concerned with a fleeing workforce and high levels of poverty, Hidalgo County created a Prosperity Task Force in 2020. The group has hosted forums for regional leaders to engage with one another and connect resources to shared goals, such as attracting new businesses and giving people reasons to stay. UTRGV’s growing enrollment of over 32,000 students across the region is a key part of stopping the area’s brain drain. With better and more affordable opportunities close to home, locals may now be more likely to attend UTRGV and start new businesses.
Keith Patridge, president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, touts the region’s very young labor force, which has an average age of 29. He notes that companies want to see a young, growing workforce, and he is consistently working with between 25 and 35 companies every month to bring new business to the area. In addition to the strong medical community as well as the manufacturing and aerospace industries, the Valley is now attracting international tech companies who have left Silicon Valley and Austin due to high operating costs and competitiveness. Software development company Zoho moved to a 90-acre campus in McAllen with plans to grow technology companies there. Similarly, TaskUs, a digital services and customer experience company for technology and e-commerce businesses, opened an office in 2021 at the Valle Vista Mall in Harlingen. Both companies see their move to the region as a long-term investment that allows them to hire top talent without having to relocate people to unaffordable cities.
But another reason the Valley continues to experience exponential change is because of the people who have chosen to stay — people like local leaders and business owners whose families have been in the area for generations, as well as newcomers like migrants and “winter Texans” that now call the area home. These people collectively work not only to better their own lives but to improve the lives of their neighbors. John Rendon and his siblings operate individual locations of New York Deli in Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen. The siblings grew up in their grandfather’s Brownsville deli shop, which opened in 1982. The family has opted to grow their roots throughout the Valley and capitalize on the area’s growth. Rendon says he’s noticed the arrival of new neighbors from out of state who have decided to stay because the weather is warmer and prices are cheaper. He remains dedicated to serving locals and has stayed in the Valley because “it’s not easy to move.” He explains: “You need a lot of money to go where rents are higher. The community likes the [restaurant] location. Students come after school. It’s critical to support your local businesses.”
Another well-known family business is the T-Ranch Pumpkin Patch in La Feria, a city of 7,300 found along Interstate 2. In September 2019, husband-and-wife duo Joe and Cristina Treviño, accompanied by their three daughters Samantha, Andrea, and Sarah and their son Christian, opened their 75-acre private family ranch as a new seasonal destination for the region. The pumpkin patch was a hit, and attendance has grown from 10,000 to nearly 45,000 visitors each season, with people coming from across the state. Sarah’s older sisters moved out of the Valley for their careers, but she decided to stay, saying: “We started this idea to open the pumpkin patch. This is my passion, and it brings me joy. I love to see all the families every year. I wanted to be here and work for my family. I’ve always loved the Valley.”
Natural population growth, along with new migration to the region, has raised concerns among locals regarding urban sprawl, increased vehicular traffic, and growing environmental pressures on natural resources and ecosystems. To mitigate this, McAllen has invested heavily in water reclamation for years. Recently, the city became the first in the region to create a residential reclaimed water irrigation program as a means to conserve potable water within a 5,000-home master-planned community led by developer Tres Lagos. “There is a delicate balance between development and the environment,” says Keith Patridge. “You don’t stop growth, but you also understand [the impacts of development] to make sure we don’t disrupt ecosystems. You need the [development] revenue to preserve the environment.”
Patridge stresses that urban sprawl should be tackled by looking long-term at a mass transit system. He notes that “the railroad built the Rio Grande Valley,” and if you push freight rail out of cities along the existing railroad, you could build passenger rail from Rio Grande City to McAllen, and even to Mexico. The “Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study Corridor, South Texas to Oklahoma City” Environmental Impact Statement, published in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration, states that “future passenger rail service using these railroad lines would need to preserve the freight rail service and allow for future growth in freight rail.”
Is passenger rail in the RGV really a possibility? The Lone Star Rail District, a proposed rail line from Austin to San Antonio spent $25 million in studies before being abandoned in 2016. The Texas Central railway, a proposed rail line from DFW to Houston, is under scrutiny by the State Legislature due to lack of transparency and landowner rights. Texas’ most successful rail projects have mostly occurred in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. RGV transportation agencies boast strong collaboration after merging into the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2019. In 2023, Valley mayors also joined with San Antonio to create the South Texas Alliance of Cities, which hopes to collaborate to advance regional goals. These groups, along with state legislators, will be key to finding federal, state, and local funding for regional transportation projects as well as many other initiatives. Passenger rail in the RGV may seem premature, but the region might be able to learn from the inaction and mistakes of its larger urban neighbors to the north.
It is evident that RGV’s economic growth is impacting the community in a number of ways. UTRGV has been instrumental in helping to improve the lives of Valley residents by providing better access to higher education and healthcare, and local businesses are now competing with national and international companies for employees and customers. Brian Godinez, principal and partner of ERO Architects, a 100 percent Hispanic-owned firm, shares that the region’s growth, which he attributes to aggressive development, has created a highly competitive market over the last five years or more. He highlights the paradox that growth is “great for local architects, [but] more regional and national architects are coming” to the area. “It’s important that our local AEC industry maintains a strong share of the work,” he says. Transitioning the practice to remote work following the COVID-19 pandemic has helped Godinez with growing staff, since previously some of the firm’s employee candidates were not interested in moving to the Valley. (It should be noted that Texas Southmost College is the only school in the Valley offering a degree in architecture. The college offers an Associate of Science in Architecture, and the Texas A&M University Higher Education Center at McAllen offers degrees in construction science.) Godinez says the growth is not going to stop, and that migration of more people moving to the region means “more commercial development and private hospitals, as well as the need for more public service buildings and updating and adding K-12 and higher education facilities.” He credits the creation of UTRGV for the big changes that have occurred in the area. The university has spurred investment in the Valley and has helped to create “one region, one voice,” according to Godinez. While some communities are embracing new development, others are actively opposing large-scale projects that have rental units in their neighborhoods or projects that remove open parkland from public use. Regarding the possibility of new development encroaching on the family ranch, Sarah Treviño states that “people are realizing the Valley is a more affordable area to live in.” She says, “We don’t mind that at all — all the subdivisions coming.”
The impact of these new economic drivers on the built and natural environments is just now coming into focus. To combat the negative effects of a growing population, civic leaders will need to continue to band together to plan for the urbanization of what were, historically, private ranch lands and agricultural fields. The binational region also presents continued opportunities to coordinate growth without borders for Reynosa and Matamoros — one of the goals of the South Texas Alliance of Cities. The urban planners at Rice University were correct in their assertion that “it is time to recognize the Rio Grande Valley as a rising borderland metropolis.” In fact, the RGV is a rising metropolis no longer waiting for attention. It has the means to strategically leverage private and public partnerships to continue improving the quality of life for citizens. As more people, businesses, and leaders recognize this gem found along the Mexico border, migration patterns in the region will change again, as they always have.
JuanRaymon Rubio, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at Architexas in Austin, where he works on historic preservation projects across the state.