The Brownsville Public Library System is turning a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency into a state-of-the-art facility for science education.
The main library on Central Boulevard is one of three Brownsville sites approved for the construction of FEMA domes — large storm shelters made possible through federal assistance to the state stemming from devastation wrought by Hurricane Ike in September 2008.
In addition to its role as an emergency shelter, the library’s dome will be home to Brownsville’s first permanent planetarium.
The projector, equipment and software have been purchased and will be installed upstairs under the domed roof of the 2½-story structure, according to Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston, who worked closely with the city’s Office of Grant Management in securing the grants.
The library’s FEMA dome will occupy 10,000 square feet on the ground, though
the total interior space will be 25,000 square feet.
It will also house
an emergency operations center.
But it will be Texas lawmakers who determine if the plan — which would also incorporate a proposed medical school and tap into significant state financing sources that the two Valley universities are currently barred from accessing — is too good to be true.
The proposal requires the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. Such a hurdle can probably be cleared only with a strong, unified push from the Valley delegation, which has a tradition of bitter rivalries.
“The Valley has suffered a great deal from a nonregional mind-set,” García said. “The world has thought about us as one, but we’ve acted like Friday night football.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, conceded that such an attitude has been a hindrance in the past. “That exists. It’s a natural thing,” Lucio said. “This is a dream come true because it affords us an opportunity to come together as a delegation to work on a common cause.”
There have been early indications of a unified front. In December, Lucio and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, were in attendance when the UT System regents approved Cigarroa’s plan. But Hinojosa appears to be approaching the idea with more hesitancy.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” he said. “It feels like it’s being rushed. The idea and the vision is good, but there are unanswered questions. What is the structure? What does it look like?”
Details are sketchy, but UT System officials say the potential payoff is significant. They predict that the new university would have about 28,000 undergraduate students (there are currently about 8,600 at Brownsville and about 19,000 at Pan Am), research expenditures exceeding $11 million and an endowment of more than $70 million. They forecast that the new endeavor would create roughly 7,000 jobs.
It is expected that such a university would meet the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s criteria for classification as an “emerging research” institution, allowing it to compete for extra state incentive funds.
Perhaps most importantly, in the legislation creating the university, lawmakers can give it access to the Permanent University Fund, a major source of money that the Texas Constitution only allows some UT System and Texas A&M University System institutions to use.
Adding existing universities to the recipient list requires a constitutional amendment, which means a public vote, but a new university can be granted access by the Legislature at the time of its creation.
The only UT schools that do not receive money from the fund are UTB and UTPA, which García compared to “running a race barefoot while everyone else is wearing tennies.”
The hardship of operating without access to the fund has been made more acute since the unraveling of UTB’s partnership with Texas Southmost College in 2010. The institutions had operated as one for 20 years, and their split created a need for a new UT campus in the area, but there are few resources.
While examining options for moving forward in Brownsville, Cigarroa has been striving to piece together another expensive proposition: converting the system’s Regional Academic Health Center based in Harlingen, currently a branch campus of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, into a full-fledged medical school.
He said that the students might benefit from a more regional mind-set.
“Having three separate universities that are not adequately aligned and are sometimes competing with each other does not foster the synergy we want to provide for students,” Cigarroa said. “That’s the simple thing to do, but that’s not what’s going to transform South Texas.”
But a single, regional university with the research capacity to support its own medical school could solve many problems and would be strategically well positioned at the intersection of two continents. “This is an opportunity to think out of the box and do it right,” he said.
The merging of UTB and UTPA and the establishment of the medical school will move through the legislative process separately. The former will not require any extra financing, increasing its chances of success, but the UT System is asking lawmakers for $20 million for the medical school.
Nelsen is confident that both proposals will pass and has encouraged people to picture them as a single initiative because, he said, one without the other “wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”
“It needs to work together as a whole unit,” he said. Without the medical school, “we wouldn’t be able to do the research we need to do.”
As for who would lead the new university, he said that will not be decided until after the bill is passed. “I stay up at night wondering how it’s all going to work,” he said. “I think all of us do. But mostly, I smile.”
The initiative has rocketed to the top of the UT System’s legislative agenda, in part because the system’s chancellor and board chairman are both South Texas natives. It has initial support from key lawmakers from other regions, as well.
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the House Higher Education Committee chairman, said: “It sounds like an opportunity to take lemons from the UT-Brownsville situation and turn it into lemonade for the whole Valley. But it’s early, so I will keep an open mind.”
Outgoing Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, said the issue would be a major test for the region’s nascent unity.
“Quite frankly, if politicians don’t put aside their differences and make this happen, there will be an accounting,” Peña said. “The Valley wants this, needs it, and it is too big an opportunity to fall by the wayside. It would be a monument to our inadequacy if it failed.”