El Paso’s Assets are Key to Region’s Economic Growth

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Some professors say if they mention something three times in class, students can expect to see it on a test. For members of The University of Texas at El Paso’s Opportunity Days team, a guest hammered his message home so hard that it would be on every test from now until UTEP’s Centennial Celebration.

“Measure what matters,” was the refrain by Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Institution Program. He wanted the 60 business, academic and nonprofit leaders who attended the Oct. 26 Opportunity Days II Discussion and Follow-up to focus on the region’s distinctive assets and build strategies around them that could be turned into tangible initiatives to promote economic growth.Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Institution Program, speaks via live videoconference to 60 business, academic and nonprofit leaders who attended the Oct. 26 Opportunity Days II Discussion and Follow-up. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Institution Program, speaks via live videoconference to 60 business, academic and nonprofit leaders who attended the Oct. 26 Opportunity Days II Discussion and Follow-up. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“Focus on the first phase of who you are,” he said during a teleconference from his New York office. He added that they should find initiatives that can be done quickly with public, private and civic capital. “If you nail that, then the strategies that build on it naturally tumble out.”

Katz and Michael Myers, senior policy officer and director of Centennial Programming for the Rockefeller Foundation, shared insights into how leaders throughout the Paso del Norte region can leverage the region’s resources and build its economy. The event was a sequel to the successful UTEP Opportunity Days summit conducted on campus in May where community leaders shared collaborative concepts that could produce a positive economic and social impact in West Texas, Southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico.

Myers, who traveled to El Paso for the event, said he admired the work done through Opportunity Days and advised the group to focus on the economies of the future that are built on invention, innovation, commercialization, and manufacturing. He said participants needed to be disciplined to select only four to six key aspects of the region’s strengths, such as its border location, education, energy, desalination technology, and the military – Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range.

Both guest speakers advised the local leaders to learn from other metropolitan efforts, but not to mimic them because each region has its own unique strengths.

“That’s the exciting aspect,” Myers said. “You’d be building an economy for this region that is the economy of this region that characterizes the people, the assets and the culture of the Paso del Norte region.”

While that task is daunting in itself, Myers said the most challenging aspect could be the creation of partnerships among the diverse entities. In fact, several participants suggested during breakout sessions that the plan needed to be a true regional effort based on trust and transparency.

“It’s hard to collaborate and cooperate, but those that do succeed,” he said.

Both Opportunity Days sessions were “pieces of a complex puzzle” that eventually would integrate the region’s “demand” and “supply” needs, said Woody L. Hunt, CEO and chairman of El Paso-based Hunt Companies Inc. He told the audience that the plan would be coordinated by the Council for Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, which would act as a hub to promote industry, nonprofits, K-12 and higher education, government partners and workforce development.

CREEED would work within the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, which UTEP President Diana Natalicio tasked with overseeing this three-year initiative. The UTEP-based collaborative is made up of leaders from area school districts, institutions of higher education, local businesses, community organizations, and government entities.

President Natalicio told the group she had a lot of interest, energy and commitment to this project. She recalled how several decades ago UTEP was in a similar position of trying to find its niche in academia.

She said the El Paso Collaborative founders were a similar group who asked the right questions about the institution and the students it served. The group came up with a simple, yet salient plan: “Let’s try to be the best possible UTEP we can be.” The result has generated accolades for UTEP's efforts in academics and research, in the value of a UTEP degree and in the social mobility of its graduates.

President Natalicio said she heard similar themes during the Opportunity Days follow up, but it was important not only to create the plan, but to stick with it.

“You’ve got to sustain the effort,” she said. “I think we’ve had a lot of starts in El Paso, but we haven’t had a lot of finishes. What I think UTEP has been able to do is to develop a vision and then pursue it relentlessly for a couple of decades. That tenacity to be the best UTEP has served us extremely well, and the national recognition that we sought rather hypothetically in the 1980s has come to us by being good at what we do in the place that we do it. I think there’s a lesson to be learned there.”

The next step is to digest the information from the past two Opportunity Days summits and use it to structure a plan based on data, teamwork and transparency, said Armando Aguirre, Ed.D., assistant provost and director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. He said the initiative’s success will be based on student accessibility to a marketable degree, assistance to help students finish their degrees, and creation of high-compensation jobs in El Paso.