As U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto talked about fostering economic partnerships between the two nations this week, at least one group in Brownsville took careful notice.
Working under the umbrella of United Brownsville and Imagina Matamoros, a group of education and business leaders from both communities have been working on a plan to help the two border cities work economically as one within the framework of a Binational Economic Development Zone (BiNED).
“One thing that stood out (in the presidents’ joint statement) was that they would recognize the effort of local communities to bring together our two countries,” said Alan Artibise, provost of the University of Texas at Brownsville. “That’s really what we’re trying to do with our Binational Economic Development Zone.”
The goal of a BiNED zone is to establish the groundwork for an international partnership that focuses on the border region here as an integrated zone that simultaneously advances the economies in Brownsville and Matamoros.
On Friday, United Brownsville and Imagina Matamoros members gathered — along with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, and economic experts from Washington, D.C. — at UTB to discuss an analysis of the legal framework for such a zone. They also reviewed a document summarizing their recommendations for the implementation and goals of a BiNED zone.
“Our choice is clear,” Artibise said. “We need to promote integrated binational economic and community development on the border.”
Brownsville and Matamoros are two parts of one economic community, according to the analysis being drafted by United Brownsville. “The border that divides them is, in many ways, completely artificial,” the document stated.
The opportunity is obvious. Mexico is emerging as an “Aztec Tiger,” an economic trading partner that averaged almost $1.4 billion in trade with the United States each day last year, according to Artibise and the group’s draft report.
But Mexico’s economic improvement raises a key question: Can Mexico’s growth create prosperity at the border or will this region will be left behind economically in the coming years?
The BiNED group of planners faces another problem: All the rules of economic growth appear to be in flux — creating both risk and opportunity for Brownsville and Matamoros, which would have to develop a plan for international cooperation despite increased calls at the federal level for tighter border security.
“Business as usual will not yield the same results,” said Robin McCaffrey, of MESA Design Associates, who represents one of dozens of interests in the BiNED planning group.
The plan lists the following goals:
>>Change the nature of the U.S.-Mexico border from a boundary to a zone of mutual cooperation.
>>Create an economic competitive advantage in the Brownsville-Matamoros Metroplex.
>>Promote competitive advantages in existing economic clusters in both Matamoros and Brownsville by reducing the negative effects of federal political boundaries.
>>Reduce the cost and delays in movement of goods and services through the border.
>>Target funding mechanisms available to border area investment.
>>Allow capital improvements to span the border that establish a more integrated competitive advantage.
>>Provide a balanced and comprehensive approach to border security by encouraging border economic prosperity.
“Everything is changing,” said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank with expertise in economic, environmental, immigration and border issues. “Therefore, things that were the way they were before are not going to be the same in the future — by the nature of the way the world and the region are changing. Who could have anticipated that Mexico would have grown the way that it’s grown or that the cartels could become so violent?
“Both things are happening amazingly, simultaneously because we have a security situation with the border at the same time that the Mexican economy is booming. The world is changing.”
Rosenberg attended Friday’s planning session at the invitation of Filemon Vela.
On Monday, prior to Obama’s trip to Mexico, the president and Vice President Joe Biden met for an hour with Rosenberg, who said he spoke to the president about the need for infrastructure investment and the need to create economic development in the border region.
In that meeting, Rosenberg said, Obama was already aware of Brownsville and Matamoros’ West Rail Bridge project, which Rosenberg said was the first international rail bridge to be constructed across the U.S-Mexico border in 105 years.
“At that meeting Monday, the president’s closing comments to us was about the need to come up with more innovative financing mechanisms for border infrastructure investments to help realize the amount of trade between the U.S. and Mexico that’s going on,” Rosenberg said. “He sounded like he could’ve been sitting at this table (Friday at UTB in Brownsville).”