BROWNSVILLE — The past year was marked by a number of positive economic developments, while the economy itself continued to shake off the effects of recession.
At the top of the list, however, is a story that made the news in 2012 but figured heavily in the efforts of economic development officials throughout 2013: The interest shown in Brownsville by a certain California-based commercial aerospace firm.
So says Gil Salinas, vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council. Among several bright spots for 2013, he said, was the arrival in June of Maximus, a Virginia-based firm that occupied the former T-Mobile call-center building, which had been empty for a year.
Some 475 employees lost their jobs when T-Mobile left, though Maximus put even more people to work — more than 600 — at higher wages, Salinas said.
“That to me means there’s 600-plus families that are having pretty good holidays right now because of that company, and they’re expecting to hit 750 soon,” he said.
In Los Fresnos, a hundred years after it was founded, the city got its first McDonald’s restaurant. The eatery opened earlier this year on East Ocean Boulevard. Developers behind the McDonald’s had been trying for about three years to get the restaurant built.
Los Fresnos residents were also greeted with news that a Wal-Mart store was slated to be built in their city.
More good news on the economic front was found at the Port of Brownsville, where All-Star Metals expanded its ship-recycling operations and Keppel AmFELS continued to enjoy an increase in offshore-rig orders and related hiring after a sustained lull in both areas.
Early this year Chicago-based industrial coatings company Tru-Tone Finishing Inc. brought 50 jobs to the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport Industrial Park, and is expected to have 100 plus jobs at its one-year mark.
CK Technologies, which launched operations in Brownsville in 2011, added about 40 jobs during 2013, Salinas said. Teleperformance, another call center, grew its number of employees from 200 to more than 400, he said.
A spike in sales tax revenue in 2013 was further cause for celebration, Salinas said.
“In the last few days it’s been hard to get into any stores,“ he said. “This is the busiest Christmas season that I’ve seen in some time. That’s a good indicator of how the economy is coming along.
Growing commercial activity was evidenced in 2013 by the arrival of several new restaurants, banks and strip centers, Salinas said..
“Because consumer confidence has increased over the last couple of years, spending has also increased,“ he said. “There’s more money to go around. Bank lending has allowed an increase in commercial activity. I think the economic downturn for the most part is behind us.“
But the cherry on top of the economic sundae is something that hasn’t happened yet but Salinas is optimistic will: Construction of a commercial rocket launch pad at Boca Chica beach by SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based space exploration firm and first private space firm to dock with the International Space Station.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk has identified Brownsville as the top contender for its new launch site. The company in 2013 continued to buy tracts of land in the area of the proposed launch site.
Salinas said the fact that SpaceX is buying land is a “good sign“ but doesn’t necessarily mean the rocket company will come. Much depends on the outcome of the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental impact study, he said.
Salinas said he hopes the study will be finished within the next month or two, though the FAA has given no indication of when it will be done.
“They don’t really say much,“ he said.
Whatever the EIS concludes, the effort on the local, county and state level to attract SpaceX has been exhaustive, at times requiring creativity to keep from losing the project, Salinas said.
“We’ve crossed all our T’s and dotted all our I’s,“ he said. “We’ve checked every box on our long list of items that needed to be checked off.“
Salinas said economic developers like himself can’t stand a wait-and-see situation, though that’s exactly what it is.
“We’ve done everything possible for the project,“ he said. “We’re optimistic and we’re hopeful. Until the final decision has been handed down from the FAA we won’t know whether we’ll be launching rockets or not.“
Salinas said SpaceX’s recent televised launch from Cape Canaveral featured the same type of Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon capsule assembly that would be used here.
Economically, the presence of SpaceX would be a major boon, not only creating jobs directly and providing opportunities for high school internships, but dragging along suppliers and logistics operations in its wake, he said.
“Big fish follow other big fish,“ Salinas said.
The mere fact that Brownsville is being mentioned in the same breath with SpaceX is already attracting attention from important quarters and changing perceptions of the city, he said. Fortune 500 companies, for instance, see that Brownsville is a place that can make major projects happen, Salinas said.
“We were in Dallas a couple of weeks ago meeting with some companies and some consultants,“ he said. “The first thing they asked is, ’What’s going on with SpaceX?’ When we can walk into a board room and start talking about SpaceX, it’s already made our job of pitching Brownsville that much easier and that much more exciting.“