New leader of economic council ready for challenges

HARLINGEN – When Matt Ruszczak came to the Rio Grande Valley he was 17, arriving as a high school foreign exchange student.

And, in his words, he just “stuck around.”

A native of Poland, he was living in Germany when he came to the Valley the first time, and since then has carved out an education with an MBA from the University of Texas-Pan American and worked at various roles in tech, public opinion research, real estate, small business development and public administration.

Ruszczak, whose last position was with the Texas Restaurant Association in Austin, assumed his newest duties this month as executive director of the Rio South Texas Economic Council.

“I really learned to appreciate the Valley more than I did when I lived here,” Ruszczak said this week.

RSTEC is a key regional player in economic development, and it has been without a director since Alma Puente Colleli resigned last fall.

In the hierarchy of economic development agencies in the Valley, RSTEC is the contact point for site selectors, commercial builders and major developers seeking to locate a plant or major project in Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron or Willacy counties.

Other entities like the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, a regional Chamber of Commerce group, and municipal economic development corporations tend to deal with businesses on a smaller scale than RSTEC.

Critically, RSTEC serves as a rallying point for these other economic development agencies, and works to ensure all competing Valley interests are aligned and pulling in the same direction.

“The idea of RSTEC primarily is that all these communities get together and collaborate to compete,” Ruszczak said in a telephone interview from his offices in Weslaco. “The underlying understanding is that we’ll all work together to attract this investment to the Valley.

“We will all benefit … much more so than if the business goes to Dallas or to San Francisco,” he added.

Ruszczak, 35, acknowledges the competing entities in the Valley, county versus county, and city against city, have not always been team players when it comes to regional agreement on anything.

“It will take a lot of collaboration on my part,” he said, “building bridges, essentially, as well as sending a strong message when we go out and promote the region.”

Ruszczak says his previous job with the restaurant association gave him a statewide perspective, and thinks it will help him navigate the regional nature of his new job.

“I have a very deep local insight, and I can bring some statewide perspective and some global perspective coming out of Europe,” said Ruszczak, who also speaks Spanish, Polish and German.

Ruszczak will be familiar to many in the Valley, having served with both the McAllen and Mission chambers of commerce, as well as working as city manager for Rio Grande City.

“Number one is to promote our region and our members outside the Valley,” he said. “And that consists of building coalitions internally as well as externally, and across the state, the nation and internationally.”

“Once again the underlying concept is say a $10 million investment in Harlingen,” Ruszczak said. “That will benefit Brownsville and McAllen more than if it’s invested somewhere in Colorado.”