BY STEVE CLARK | STAFF WRITER Brownsville Herald
Steel will figure largely in the Port of Brownsville’s future, according to a master plan presentation by OmniTRAX, the company charged with business development at the port.
OmniTRAX, one of the biggest private railroad and transportation management companies in North America, signed a 30-year franchise agreement with Brownsville Navigation District commissioners that gives the company control over the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad, which serves the port, and the responsibility of bringing in new industry.
Specifically, the agreement requires OmniTRAX — an affiliate of Denver-based The Broe Group — to invest at least $8.5 million to develop an market a 1,200-acre, seven-parcel industrial park on port land. OmniTRAX had one year to come up with a master plan, and the company presented a draft of that plan at a port workshop on May 13.
Presenting were Alan Simon, OmniTRAX vice present of industrial development; Valerie Bordelon, OmniTRAX industrial development analyst; Josh Rowland, LAI Design Group principal; and Chuck Haynes, senior landscape architect with Jacobs Engineering Group.
Also speaking were Norma Torres, president and chief operating officer of the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad, OmniTRAX; and Oscar D. Garcia, Rio Grande Valley program manager for Jacobs Engineering.
The presentation mapped out parcels of the industrial park, which OmniTRAX has dubbed the “GEOTRAC Industrial Hub,” including first- and second-phase sites for the park’s business incubator.
Simon said in a May 21 phone interview that despite delays due to heavy rainfall last year, construction of phase one of the incubator is well underway.
“The rain, which we understand is a bit unusual for Brownsville, has slowed us down a bit but we are on track to complete the first part of phase one the beginning of July,” he said.
Phase one of the incubator is located within GeoTRAC North, which straddles the new S.H. 550 connector from S.H. 48 north and is bordered by Loma Alta Lake on the north and Old Port Isabel Road on the west.
GeoTRAC South consists of six lots on the south bank of the Brownsville Ship Channel and is the designated site for phase two of the incubator. Phase two will be sited there because of the benefits to some companies of being on the water, and also because the area contains much preexisting infrastructure in terms of rail and utilities, Simon said.
According to the master plan, a final version of which will be submitted at the next port commission meeting, at least half of GeoTRAC North will be devoted to steel milling and manufacturing.
“We’ve decided to really focus on what we’re calling a steel cluster,” Simon said. “We know historically a number of steel-related industries have come to Brownsville wanting to set up operations. In the past the limiting factor was lack of electricity.”
Two power projects, the Cross Valley Tie and Tenaska Brownsville Generating Station, will soon fill that need, removing an obstacle to heavy industry, he said. Simon added that OmniTRAX is in talks with “several reputable steel mill companies.”
He said OmniTRAX is also in the final stage of negotiations with a handful of companies that would be the first tenants of GeoTRAC North, and that the names could be revealed in 30 to 45 days.
One of the best opportunities for business development at the port is in manufacturing related to the automotive and aerospace industries in Mexico, in which components would be manufactured at the port then shipped south, Simon said.
Those parts would cross the border again — ideally at Brownsville — for distribution throughout the United States or worldwide, he said.
The energy industry, though not as robust as a year ago, is another area of opportunity, Simon said.
“Energy still is a great opportunity, but it’s slowed down due to the price of crude oil,” he said. “We still envision significant energy opportunities, but it may be two years or more before it really comes back to the point where we’ll see some actual benefit.”
The master plan also identifies challenges, among them the fact that much of port land is in a 100-year flood plain, Simon said. He insisted, however, that the flood plain issue “has not dissuaded us in any regard from being excited about this project.”
Another challenge is that, in trying to lure industry, the port will be competing with Mexico, Simon said. International companies, particularly, will evaluate Brownsville alongside Matamoros, Monterrey and other places in Mexico, he said.
“Where we have an advantage is less expensive energy,” Simon said. “Where Mexico has an advantage is labor costs are less.”
Security is also an issue in Mexico, he noted.
Simon said OmniTRAX is excited about what Brownsville has to offer, especially with the creation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the push for bi-national economic development, or BiNED, in which Brownsville, Matamoros and the larger border region coordinate efforts to attract high-tech manufacturing.
“I know Congressman (Filemon) Vela and other local people are working on BiNED,” he said. “If that comes to fruition, that will allow more cross-border activity.”
“We’re really excited that this is coming to fruition and that all our hard work and the port’s hard work is paying off,” said Bordelon, the OmniTRAX analyst. “It’s a very exciting time to be in Brownsville.”