A Dallas-based urban planner, a Denver-based partner with an international law firm, and the Washington D.C.-based deputy U.S. trade representative ambassador were among several speakers at Friday’s BiNED 2013 Fall Summit, held in the Gran Salon at the University of Texas at Brownsville Student Union.
BiNED stands for Bi-National Economic Development. The daylong summit, which attracted a number of government, economic development and academic officials, was the latest step in a fledgling effort to unite the Brownsville and Matamoros region as a single, coordinated economic machine driving prosperity on both sides of the border.
Establishing a BiNED zone is a key initiative of United Brownsville. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who introduced the day’s speakers, has thrown his backing behind the ambitious effort for its potential to bring down the unemployment rate in the Rio Grande Valley.
Comparing the Valley’s unemployment to elsewhere around the nation, Vela said he was hit hard by the realization that “we’ve got a lot of work to do.” The summit, he said, was a first step in normalizing employment levels on both sides of the border.
Friday’s event grew out of a workshop held in May to explore the viability of moving forward with the initiative.
Robin McCaffrey, an urban planner and principal emeritus with MESA Design Group, said physical infrastructure — roads, rail, the port — is a big part of BiNED, which is about nurturing clusters of industry and repositioning Brownsville and Matamoros to capitalize on changes in the world economy.
For instance, manufacturing is moving away from Asia into Mexico. The idea is that by combining cross-border logistics with inexpensive U.S. energy and cheap Mexican labor, the Brownsville-Matamoros border region can make itself attractive to manufacturing investment and thus capturing a portion of the “pass-through” economy — goods or raw materials that pass through here on their way to somewhere else.
Basically, it means making stuff here.
“All cities have been built this way,” McCaffrey said.
Investment in manufacturing locally would, in turn, support improvements to transportation infrastructure, drive technology innovation, lead to even more industry clusters and attract investment from around the world.
European countries have been following the model since 1957 — long before creation of the European Union, McCaffrey said. Matamoros and Brownsville should be doing it too, he said.
“It becomes a more organic economy,” McCaffrey said. “A bi-national city in many ways emerges.”
Carolyn McIntosh of the law firm Patton Boggs, discussing the legal framework on which a BiNED zone might be built, said that unfortunately “there is no legal structure that authorizes a BiNED zone.”
The good news is that neither is there any legal structure precluding a BiNED zone, nor is it inconsistent with U.S. or Mexican law, she said. The concept is also in keeping with the goals of NAFTA, McIntosh said.
Brownsville-Matamoros is better suited than anywhere else on the U.S.-Mexico border for a BiNED zone, thanks to other transportation infrastructure, she said.
There are hurdles, such as a Mexican customs law that requires import and export tax exemptions to be codified. McIntosh said a phased approach will be necessary. The next step should be to identify a cross-border pilot project or projects and possible investment sources, she said.
A cross-border infrastructure project would fit the bill, McIntosh said.
“Legally the framework is there,” she said. “We just have to act on it.”
McIntosh recommended a grassroots effort toward creating a BiNED zone as opposed to “working from NAFTA down.” She said the presence of officials from both sides of the border reflected grassroots support for the idea.
“Working from the bottom up is going to be more productive for you,” McIntosh said.
Ambassador Miriam Sapiro said President Barack Obama’s administration is very interested in developing more business opportunities with Mexico. Last May, Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced formation of the High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) to advance commercial priorities key to promoting economic growth, job creation and global competitiveness.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” Sapiro said. “We cannot do enough here.”
She said HLED reflects the administration’s belief that the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship has plenty of room to grow. Sapiro encouraged those at the summit to submit their ideas as part of the process — including the idea for BiNED.
“Your input to HLED is vital for its success,” she said.