HARLINGEN — One of the best kept secrets in the Rio Grande Valley sits quietly around the bend on Rio Hondo Road not far from Valley International Airport.
“I am actually surprised that we have been able to stay underneath the radar as well as we have,” said Tim Piller, site leader and production manager of an inconspicuous aerospace facility in Harlingen.
“We build rockets,” said Piller of United Launch Alliance, the firm he works for.
The aerospace industry has had a strong presence in the Rio Grande Valley for more than 20 years.
ULA this year is marking its 25th anniversary in the community.
It started in 1987 when General Dynamics established a space systems division plant here. Martin Marietta Corp. purchased General Dynamics in 1993. Martin Marietta then merged with Lockheed Corp. in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin Corp., and six years ago this month, the defense contractors Lockheed Martin Corp. and The Boeing Company formed the Denver, Colo.-based ULA venture, now under the leadership of President and CEO Michael C. Gass.
Components for rockets to launch interplanetary exploration missions to Jupiter, Mars and Pluto and satellites in support of national defense, telecommunications, and weather have been manufactured by ULA at the facility here, and other locations in Decatur, Ala., and San Diego, Calif., while launches take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Piller, who hails from Wisconsin and has been in Harlingen for 12 years — 29 years with Martin Marietta — said that ULA’s primary launch customers are the Department of Defense, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which, it notes, is the government agency charged with designing, building, launching and maintaining intelligence satellites.
When a rocket with components manufactured in Harlingen is launched, Piller said he feels nervous; with “butterflies in my stomach.”
“Sometimes I tear up,” Piller said, noting that it is very emotional to know that the Harlingen team is, “doing work every day that saves warfighters’ lives.”
“I can’t think of very many more noble ventures than what we do every day.”
He, however, doesn’t envision himself on a trip to space in the future as the industry continues to evolve: “I think I am pleasantly happy to continue building rockets.”
ULA is housed in a 300,000-plus square-feet building leased from the airport. It houses 190 employees. The majority of the employees are from Harlingen. Other employees are from other parts of the Valley including La Joya, Raymondville, Brownsville and Edcouch-Elsa. The operations also are estimated to generate 780 supplier support jobs in the state.
At one time in the early 90s, there were as many as 500 employees. Since Piller has been here, the number of employees has been just under or over 200; all in all, “pretty stable for the bulk of those years,” Piller said.
ULA works with 120 contractors in the state of Texas, and of these, 30 are local. ULA’s contribution to the Texas economy is estimated at $55 million a year.
Piller said that about 95 of the employees have more than 20 years of service; two employees have been with the firm since General Dynamics established the plant, and the third generation of a family is now employed.
Piller also noted that the city, the Harlingen Economic Development Corp., Cameron County and local business community have always supported and assisted ULA.
“This is really a success story relative to the whole community. This doesn’t happen without everyone’s involvement. It’s a team event,” he said.
Harlingen Economic Development Corp. CEO Raudel Garza said that Harlingen is proud to have ULA in the community.
“For 25 years, ULA has provided high-tech, high-paying careers to our community. In return, our dedicated workforce continues to perform and exceed employer expectations in productivity,” Garza said.
Pointing out that aerospace is one of the region’s targeted industries, Garza said ULA has shown that these companies can be successful in Harlingen.
“Our location, accessibility to markets, our people, and our business-friendly environment are a few of the reasons companies such as United Launch Alliance chose Harlingen as their home. We thank ULA for being a great corporate citizen, and look forward to maintaining a great relationship with ULA,” he added.
ULA among Harlingen’s top taxpayers and employers
Depending on the inventory at hand, ULA is either the top taxpayer in Harlingen, or the second largest.
The value of the company’s personal property ranges from $25 million to $38 million, city and Cameron Appraisal District records reflect. Records also show that the property taxes are estimated at just under $600,000 a year.
The firm also frequently appears within the top 10 largest taxpayers in Cameron County.
Mayor Chris Boswell noted that ULA has been one of the great economic development success stories of the city of Harlingen. “They are literally a huge part of the city’s economy as taxpayers, renters and employers,” Boswell said.
ULA is also among the top 20 employers in the city.
“What they do in Harlingen is ‘rocket science.’ I’m very proud that Harlingen is home to an aerospace manufacturer. I sometimes say that ULA is to Harlingen what Dell is to Austin. It says a great deal to other companies looking to locate in Harlingen about the quality of the workforce and cost of doing business here that such a company could be operating at such a high level for 25 years,” Boswell said.
Boswell noted that, “ULA is a tremendous success story and I wish everyone could walk through the plant and marvel at what they do. They would be amazed.”
Partnerships with institutions
Irv Downing, vice president of economic development and institutional advancement at the University of Texas at Brownsville-Texas Southmost College, said that ULA works closely with regional post secondary education institutions to develop their current labor force and future generations of workers and management.
“They are strong community partners with education institutions and have also provided monetary support and guidance to enhance delivery of STEM programs throughout the region,” Downing said, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
Downing said that ULA’s success in Harlingen and the region are good evidence that this type of production activity can be competitive with other areas of the country.
“The economic development implications of the success and longevity are that firms in this field can succeed in our region and the local labor force can be developed and sustained as a globally competitive operation over a very long time. That can help attract other enterprises to our region,” Downing added.
ULA also works closely with the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, from where young engineers have been recruited, and with the Texas State Technical College in Harlingen where skilled people are located for employment.
“We look next door to supply the skills,” Piller said of the firm’s close relationship with TSTC.
Besides being active in STEM programs, the firm also is active in the high school Rocket Clubs, school tours, United Way, Relay for Life and the Family Crisis Center, while the firm’s employees have had some 800 hours of community involvement this year.
Piller said he is surprised that not everyone in the Rio Grande Valley is aware of the firm. “I am surprised because we have been active in the community and have had community involvement in the entire 25 years we’ve been here,” he said.
Elvia Villafranca started working at General Dynamics in January 1988, just shortly after the plant was established here. She was a computer programmer and systems analyst. She had graduated in 1986 with an Associates in Applied Science degree in Computer Science from Texas State Technical Institute, as TSTC was then known.
She is now known as Elvia Villafranca-Silva. Villafranca-Silva ultimately received a BA in Sociology with a Computer Science minor and a M.Ed. in Educational Technology from the University of Texas at Brownsville.
She worked at General Dynamics through June 1989, continued her studies, and she presently is a master instructor at TSTC and chairs the Business Management Technology Program.
“We were involved in the space systems division and that tied in with launching of the space shuttle. We were working with some part of the shuttle. I was in the computer department,” Villafranca-Silva recalled of her employment with General Dynamics.
“I am excited for them even though I am no longer there. They have been around for such a long time. I am very proud to have been a part of that,” Villafranca-Silva said of the firm’s 25th anniversary.
“I’m just excited to hear that it has been doing so well, and that we have been a part of it in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said.