Edinburg hires lobbyist to bring federal dollars to airport

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Jan. 25--Edinburg has plans for its airport's runway that is two miles long and 13 inches deep.

As part of its attempt to convert the quiet airport on the outskirts of town into a regional center for air cargo operations, the city wants to double the size of the existing track while reinforcing it with more than a foot of concrete.

The improvements would make it the longest and sturdiest runway in the Rio Grande Valley, fortifying it to allow the largest planes to easily land and drawing companies in to use the airport as a base for shipping operations.

But the city's grand plans for its airport will cost a lot of money.

The expansion to the runway alone is projected at $50 million. And that cost is only a fraction of the $234-million master plan for the airport that the city approved last year.

To raise funds for the airport and other projects, the city became one of the first in the Valley to retain the services of a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist.

The lobbyist will help the city navigate the fast-paced nature of the nation's capital where deadlines for grant applications seemingly close right after they open, said Edinburg mayor Richard Garcia. By hiring the lobbyist, the city joins other governmental entities in Washington that are fighting for a piece of the federal pie.

"If we're going to compete," the mayor said, "we've got to play the game."

LEGISLATIVE ASSISTANCE

Large sums of federal dollars are available each year. But the windows to take advantage of them are often small.

Keeping up with the myriad of funding opportunities from the federal government requires someone with experience in the arena, Garcia said. A lobbyist can act as the city's face in Washington while helping department heads and elected officials find ways to take advantage of federal programs.

For the task, the city selected the firm of Stinson Morrison Hecker out of several that responded to the city's request for legislative assistance.

The city will pay the firm $10,000 per month -- plus pre-approved business expenses -- over the one-year contract that began Jan. 1.

The contract calls for the firm to keep the city aware of pending bills that might impact it; advocate or oppose legislation on behalf of the city; and lobby on behalf of the city to state and federal agencies for the development and funding of its projects.

D.C.-based law and consulting firms regularly contract with governmental entities to assist in addressing issues that are pending before Congress and the executive branch, said H.R. Bert Pena, a Mission native who is a partner on Stinson Morrison Hecker's federal affairs team.

Pena, who is not related to state Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, has cobbled together 33 years of experience in Washington since he took a job offer in the capital from former U.S. Rep. Kika de la Garza.

In his first few weeks as Edinburg's representative, Pena has conducted teleconferences with city officials to learn about pending projects they know about and identify other areas where he can help the city in Washington.

Pena said he'll work closely with U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, whose district encompasses the city, and members of the Texas Congressional delegation to advocate for the city's interests.

"Each municipality, county and state is smart to keep an eye on (Washington D.C.)," he said. "You have to be observant of how Congress is dealing with certain key issues."

SKY HIGH

The city would like to secure grants for its downtown revitalization or its wastewater treatment plant. Legislation is regularly filed that would affect trade, transportation and other issues that the city has an interest in.

But a priority for Pena's firm is to identify ways the city can gain federal investments in South Texas International Airport at Edinburg, said City Manager Ramiro Garza.

Last year, the city spent $3.1 million of its own money on acquiring property around the airport for the proposed runway expansion and to finalize its master plan. The city also received a $2 million federal grant to rehabilitate pavement around the airport.

But those investments are minor compared to the $234 million the city proposes to spend over the next 20 years to improve the runways, construct new cargo and terminal facilities and add a fire station and other support services to the airport.

Strategically located next to U.S. 281 and the proposed county loop, the city sees an opportunity to convert its airport into a premier air cargo facility, Garza said. The airport's foreign trade zone designation and the ample space surrounding it would allow companies to establish international operations there to bring products in and out of the country.

Getting there will take time and money -- in the city's estimation, 20 years and $234 million.

The airport's main revenue source thus far is fuel sales and hangar rentals for the private and recreational pilots who take advantage of the cheap fuel available at the quiet airport. But there still weren't any takeoffs or landings scheduled at the airport this past Wednesday.

The airport won't try to compete with others in the Valley that already offer commercial flight service for residents, said Daniel Tijerina, the city's public works director who oversees the airport. But the facility can have a regional impact by attracting companies to do business there if the city first secures the needed investments to draw them in.

"Making these improvements at the airport will play a pivotal role in impacting economic development in this area," Tijerina said. "The plans are pretty big, but the city has a vision for them."

Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4424.

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