Monday, June 22, 2009

Consulants refine marketing approach

June 19, 2009 - 7:59 PM
Jared Janes

EDINBURG — The Rio Grande Valley's cities were sending mixed messages.

As much as they said they wanted to be considered one region, too many officials don't know what other cities really have to offer, said Don Schjeldahl, an economic development consultant hired in part to grade the Valley's new regional marketing efforts.

Schjeldahl, one of a team of consultants who spent two weeks touring the Valley for the Rio South Texas Economic Council, said the marketing efforts from the individual cities detracts from the regional effort.

"They're still not telling the story well of what this region has to offer," Schjeldahl said. "It doesn't fit into the big picture."

The big picture is what Schjeldahl, a vice president for Cleveland-based Austin Consulting, and two other consulting firms are working to frame.

The groups toured Valley sites that could be a fit for expanding industries - including an advanced manufacturer who is looking at the region as a potential site - as part of an overview of its economic development efforts.

The tours were one of the first events for the Rio South Texas Economic Council, an alliance of local governments in all four Valley counties that was formed last year with the intent of expanding economic development through a regional approach.

The consultants were hired to compile marketing strategies for the area, a list of business and industry targets on which the Valley should focus and an assessment of the area's image among target industries.

Schjeldahl, who said site consultants such as himself go to places looking for reasons to eliminate them, said they were asked to be brutally honest on the area's weaknesses.

They found their fair share of weaknesses. There is no master map of the Valley that shows potential sites, its transportation system is inadequate and its statistics and demographics change depending on whom you ask.

But Schjeldahl said the Valley is poised to pull in emerging industries such as manufacturing for medical products and renewable energy if it finds a right way to market itself.

Taken alone, the Valley's cities don't have clout to woo top companies, said Steve Alhenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. Taken together and with neighboring cities just across the border in Mexico, the region would be the 14th largest in the United States.

Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said finding a right way to sell a complex area as "one place with one voice" will help the Valley compete for economic development against others in the state, country and world.

"We're in a great position to compete if we can get our message together," Salinas said. "We need to get on the same page and market the area as a region."

Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4424.

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