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An eight-story, 254,000 square foot new courthouse, featured here in this preliminary draft rendition by ERO Architects of McAllen, could become a major county and city landmark in downtown Edinburg. Prompted by serious overcrowding issues facing the existing Hidalgo County Courthouse, a 30-member advisory committee, appointed several months ago by the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, has been charged with contributing their vision for an ideal courthouse facility that would encompass the current needs and projected growth anticipated in the next 10 years, as well as take into consideration all fundamental and desired elements of design, structure and function. ERO Architects is preparing a comprehensive review and analysis of what to do with the existing, almost 60-year-old Hidalgo County Courthouse, which would remain in use. The Hidalgo County Courthouse Master Plan Committee is scheduled to hold its next public meeting on Wednesday, January 18, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the International Trade and Technology Building at the University of Texas-Pan American. The work of the committee, including historical background, general project documents, and photographs, is available free and online to the public by logging on at: https://sites.google.com/site/hcchmasterplan/

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Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, featured front row, fourth from right, on Wednesday, December 21, was joined by area elected leaders and other constituents from his House District 36 for the official grand opening of his legislative district office, located at 121 E. Tom Landry in Mission. The ribbon-cutting ceremony doubled as an open house for the office, which has been open to the public since mid-January 2011. Among the dignitaries joining Muñoz were, to his right: Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas; and to his left: Mission Mayor Pro Tem Leo Olivarez, Sr.; Mission Councilman Rubén Plata; and Mission Councilwoman Norie González Garza. Muñoz believes the next legislative session, which begins in January 2013, should have a balanced approach to tackle key issues related to jobs, education and health care, and work together to provide a better future for communities and families. More information on Muñoz is available on his legislative website: http://www.house.state.tx.us/members/member-page/?district=36

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South Texas College has partnered with two Mid-Valley manufacturing companies to provide job training using a $234,629 Skills Development Fund Grant from the Texas Workforce Commission. The business partners include Rio Grande Container Inc. and Wood Crafters Home Products, L.L.C. “This is a great day for Weslaco and STC. The college is committed to creating jobs, economic development, and one of the strategic directions of the college is to serve as the catalyst for regional economic prosperity and social mobility,” STC President Shirley A. Reed said. “That means bringing jobs to the Mid-Valley and helping you be prepared to take advantage of those jobs so that you can really earn a good living for you and your family. That’s really what South Texas College is all about.” Featured at the check presentation, first row, from left: Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Ronald Congleton, TWC Commissioner Representing Labor; Weslaco Mayor Miguel Wise; STC President Shirley A. Reed; and Samuel Lugo, WoodCrafters Executive Vice President of Finance. Back row, from left: Wanda F. Garza, Executive Officer for North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative (NAAMREI); Jesse Villarreal, Member, South Texas College Board of Trustees; Monte Churchill, Campus Coordinator, STC Mid-Valley Campus in Weslaco; Teresa Rodríguez, WoodCrafters Corporate Social Responsibility Manager; and Gary Gurwitz, President, Board of Trustees, South Texas College. See story later in this posting.

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Valley veterans on Thursday, December 22, met in Harlingen with Lawrence A. Biro, Network Director of the Heart of Texas Health Care Network, and Danna Malone, Interim Director of the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, for updates on federal legislation designed to secure funding for an inpatient VA Hospital for deep South Texas. “Many South Texas veterans were hoping for good news on the Veterans Administration Hospital issue. No luck,” reported Arturo “Treto” Garza, one of the veterans who participated in the gathering. “However, we did get straight talk from Biro.” Biro, as network director of the VA Heart of Texas Health Services, manages the local VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health System Services (VATVCBHS). As such, he is overseeing the expansion of the surgical center in Harlingen. Featured, from left: Lawrence A. Biro; Danna Malone; Arturo “Treto” Garza; Joe Ibarra; Pete Prax Garza; and Rubén Cantú. Garza, a columnist for http://www.Rio Grande Guardian.com, offers more details on the December 22 session later in this posting.

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Leti Nava, featured second from left, recently collected a $16,000 check in lieu of a 2011 vehicle as her grand prize during a recent raffle sponsored by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In addition, the Edinburg Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Vannie Cook Cancer center each received a $1,000 donation from proceeds from the local chamber’s Fall Raffle. Profits generated from the event will help with the new Program of Work that the RGVHCC has planned for 2012. More workshops to assist small and women-owned businesses are scheduled as well as health, education and cultural events. Additional information on the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce may be obtained by calling their office at 956/928-0060 or by visiting their website at http://www.rgvhcc.com. Present for the check presentation are, from left:  Ronnie Bernal, RGVHCC Vice Chair of Small Business and Economic Development and chairman of the Fall Raffle; Leti Nava, Fall Raffle grand prize winner; Ray Cantú, accepting for Vannie Cook Cancer Center; Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, president and chief executive officer, RGVHCC; and Iván Quiñonez, accepting for Edinburg Children’s Hospital Foundation.

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Regal Beloit Corporation (Regal Beloit) of McAllen recently received the Employer Award of Excellence for the Texas Workforce Solutions (TWS), Lower Rio area, which includes Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties, during the Texas Workforce Commission’s 15th Annual Texas Workforce Conference. The Employer Award of Excellence honors employers that are actively involved with their local workforce board and have made a positive impact on employers, workers and the community. Regal Beloit is a global manufacturing company with an advanced manufacturing facility that specializes in die casting and metal stamping of rotors and stators for electric motors. Featured, front row, from left: Mike Willis, Executive Director, South Texas Manufacturers Association; Yvonne “Bonnie” González, Chief Executive Officer, TWS; Lupita Almasri, Human Resources Manager, Regal Beloit; Elsa de Alba, Plant Manager, Regal Beloit; and Dalinda Guillen, Chair, Board of Directors, TWS. Back row, from left: Edna Posada, Member Representing the Private Sector, TWS; Noel Benavides; Board Member Representing Adult Basic Education, TWS; Dr. Ida H. Acuña-Garza, Board Member Representing Adult Basic Education, TWS; Aurelio “Keter” Guerra, Board Member Representing Public Assistance, TWS; and Irma Hulen, Board Member Representing the Private Sector, TWS. Texas Workforce Solutions (TWS) comprises the Texas Workforce Commission, a statewide network of 28 Workforce Development Boards for regional planning and service delivery, their contracted service providers and community partners, and the Texas Workforce Commission unemployment benefits tele-centers. This network gives customers local access to workforce solutions and statewide services at numerous TWS offices and six tele-centers. See story later in this posting.

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Some of the latest works of area artist Paul Valadez from his In the Age of Mascots efforts will be on display in Edinburg on Friday, January 13, as part of January’s Jardín del Arte, sponsored by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation – the jobs creation arm of the Edinburg City Council – and The City of Edinburg’s Cultural Activities Board. Valadez, who is a full-time lecturer in the Art Department at the University of Texas-Pan American, will be joined by Kim Snyder of Keytar Dreamz, plus a dance performance by Dancer’s Creative Motion, an organization at UTPA. The January 13 gathering, which is free and open to the public, will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the City Hall Courtyard, 415 W. University.  Food and beverages will be sold by participating Edinburg restaurants such as El Jinete, Corina’s Tea Room, La Pesca, and La Cocinita. They will feature tamales and hot chocolate, fajita tacos, shrimp cocktails, and much more. See story later in this posting.

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Douglas A. Matney, group president for South Texas Health System based in Edinburg, has been re-elected to the Texas Hospital Association’?s Board of Trustees, effective Sunday, January 1. This will be his second three-year term. Matney, who has more than three decades of health care experience, has been in his current position since 2007. He previously served as chief executive officer of Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso. In addition to previously serving on the THA Board of Trustees, Matney served on THA?’s Council on Policy Development. A member of the American College of Healthcare Executives, he received the Senior Level Healthcare Executive Regent?s Award in 2004. Matney earned a bachelor?s degree in health systems from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He also attended the University of Florida in

Gainesville where he earned a master?s degree in health science and a master?s degree in business administration.

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Nelda T. Ramírez, an 11-year-veteran with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, on Thursday, December 15, was unanimously selected by the EEDC’s governing board to serve as its Executive Director, which will allow her to continue leading that key entity for the next three years. The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. Ramírez is featured here following the EEDC board action with Mayor Richard García (left) and Jaime A. Rodríguez, the newest member of the EEDC Board of Directors. She pledged that her performance would continue at the highest levels. “We will continue the momentum with all the projects we have on the table right now,” Ramírez said. “We are hoping to see a lot more announcements in the next year to come, and a lot of big projects that will not only benefit the city, both economically and strategically, but continue to feature Edinburg on the map.” Her selection was unanimously approved by the EEDC governing board, which in addition to the mayor – who serves as president of the EEDC Board of Directors – and Rodríguez, includes Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, and Felipe García, Member.

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Nelda T. Ramírez, a proven leader, accepts three-year contract to continue leading Edinburg Economic Development Corporation

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Nelda T. Ramírez, an 11-year-veteran with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, on Thursday, December 15, was unanimously selected by the EEDC’s governing board to serve as its Executive Director, which will allow her to continue leading that key entity for the next three years.

Ramírez had been serving as Interim Executive Director for the EEDC since August 3, following the departure of Pedro Salazar, who left for a position with Lone Star National Bank in McAllen.

Prior to the August 3 appointment, Ramírez had held key positions with the EEDC, including serving as Assistant Executive Director for about seven years, and Business Manager for the previous four years.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

Since the creation of the EEDC in the early 1990s, the role of EEDC Executive Director has been one of prestige and influence, as well as administrative authority.

Among its many duties, the EEDC is responsible for collecting and administrating a one-half economic development sales tax that is generated from eligible retail purchases within the city limits. The EEDC is designed to play a key role in assisting companies to expand, while helping to attract new business and industry to Edinburg.

Ramírez accepted the offer, which is being finalized by EEDC attorney Cynthia Contreras Gutiérrez, as per the direction of the EEDC Board of Directors.

Ramírez was praised by Mayor Richard García, who serves as president of the five-member EEDC Board of Directors.

“Nelda’s done an excellent job for us,” the mayor said. “We are very happy. She is a good choice for us.”

Asked if the EEDC Board of Directors had considered formally seeking other applicants to submit their respective qualifications for Executive Director, the mayor suggested that Ramírez always was the best candidate.

“We really didn’t need a probationary period, but if there was, so to speak, she has shown that every good thing she has done in the past, she is doing as Interim Executive Director,” García said. “While we could have gone out and looked around, I don’t think we could have done better. She has experience. She is educated, she is knowledgeable, fair, and well-connected.”

First woman to lead EEDC

Ramírez also becomes the first woman to serve as EEDC Executive Director.

The mayor said she was selected based on her qualifications, but also noted the historical importance of her selection.

“Sometimes we get so clinical about not considering gender, race, etc. in making our choices, we had not even thought about that,” said García. “She should be very proud of that. As a city, we should be proud that there are considerations only for a person’s capabilities, and not gender-related.”

Jaime A. Rodríguez, who on November 1 was appointed by the Edinburg City Council to serve on the EEDC Board of Directors, said he, too, was impressed with her professional skills and achievements.

He pointed out her “commitment to the community and to the EEDC – she is very knowledgeable.”

“I recently had a meeting with group of investors from Houston and they complemented her for her attentiveness and knowledge of the EEDC,” Rodríguez said. “She has many good attributes.”

Ramírez expressed her appreciation to the EEDC governing board for their confidence in her and predicted continuing economic gains for Edinburg.

“It is always a positive note to say you work for someone for so long, and you know their track record,” she reflected on the importance of her tenure. “I am very happy they have put their trust in me, knowing that I will get the job done.”

Her willingness to serve the EEDC in whatever capacity that best helped Edinburg also was a testament to her loyalty as a valued public servant.

“I was open to working with anyone who was willing to come in and have the same type of goals,” she said.

More major projects on the way

Ramírez pledged that her performance would continue at the highest levels.

“We will continue the momentum with all the projects we have on the table right now,” she said. “We are hoping to see a lot more announcements in the next year to come, and a lot of big projects that will not only benefit the city, both economically and strategically, but continue to feature Edinburg on the map.”

The mayor shared her outlook for big economic news for the three-time All-America City.

“We are now going to look closer at game plans for being a little more pro-active and aggressive, going after more big-box stores,” García said, referring to large retail establishments and national chain centers.

“We are going to continue to look at these type of companies and see what is good for us, and see if we can provide incentives that are good for them,” the mayor said.

He noted that the city’s continuing population growth and it’s quality-of-life – Edinburg is a major center of government, medical care, higher and public education, and retail activities in deep South Texas – help the EEDC and Edinburg City Council in their efforts to create jobs and prosperity for their constituents.

“Our bigger incentive in our city is the type of growth pattern we have,”  he said. “That should be a bigger reason for businesses to relocate or expand in Edinburg besides what EEDC does and other types of financial offers.”

Other services provided by the EEDC include, but are not limited to:

  • Site selection assistance;
  • Real estate database of properties and buildings;
  • Business seminars;
  • Job training assistance;
  • Data Information Center;
  • Coordination of state and local assistance; and
  • Access to business start-up resources.

In addition, the EEDC can arrange custom tours, schedule meetings with community leaders, arrange introductions to necessary business contacts, and serve as an advocate with state and local governmental entities.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on to http://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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Sen. Hinojosa appointed co-chair of Joint Interim Committee to Study the Development of a Cruise Industry

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS

Recognizing the opportunity to maximize Texas’ strategic advantages, especially in the current economic climate, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, in the spring of 2011 sponsored a bill to study further development of the cruise ship industry in Texas.

The bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 5, was approved by the Texas Legislature, creating an interim committee to look into expanding Texas’ cruise ship business.

As a result, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in mid-November appointed Hinojosa as co-chair of the legislative panel, known as the Joint Interim Committee to Study the Development of a Cruise Industry.

That committee will research the potential economic impacts expanded cruise ship operating could yield for the Texas economy.

Hinojosa referred to promising data that led to his push for the creation of this committee.

“Since 1990, the cruise ship industry has experienced growth of 7.2 percent in passenger rates. In 2010, an estimated 14 million people booked passage on a cruise ship. The redevelopment of the naval station in Ingleside and the port infrastructure already in place along the Southern Coastal Bend gives Texas a head-start,” Hinojosa said. “The committee’s research will help private industry identify new cruise ship hosting opportunities from Calhoun to Cameron Counties. The access points are there. We need to fully investigate how we attract new business in the current tourism climate.”

The interim committee’s economic impact study will help determine how the legislature can aid increased investment in cruise industry development. Cruise ship operators will also benefit from the analysis produced by the committee.

“The prevailing theme in today’s marketplace is job creation and investment. This study is an investment in time and research,” the McAllen Democrat said. “The resources – coastal access, workforce – are in place. A thorough study provides private industry the basis for bringing their business to Texas.”

The interim committee expects to begin its work in early 2012. The committee’s report will be submitted to the 83rd Legislature.

In early December, Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, announced Texas House appointees to that committee, which include Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.

“Texas is the best state in the country for business,” said Straus. “This committee will help make the state more competitive in the tourism industry by finding ways to enhance the cruise industry for economic development in communities along the Texas coast.”

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Edinburg’s Jardín del Arte to feature Paul Valadez, Kim Snyder and more on January 13

By EVANA VLECK

The City of Edinburg’s Cultural Activities Board and the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation have announced the line-up or artists, performers, and restaurants for the monthly   Jardín del Arte, set for Friday, January 13, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the City Hall Courtyard, 415 W. University.

The event is free and open to the public.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

The mission of Edinburg’s Cultural Activities Board (CAB) is to preserve, promote, develop, and encourage the community’s cultural expression and enhance the quality of life in the City of Edinburg. This organization promotes a nurturing environment to advance the knowledge, discovery, and engagement in visual/performing arts, creative writing, music, dance, and other forms of self-expression.

The January 13 gathering, which is free and open to the public, will feature new works titled In the Age of Mascots by January’s featured artist, Paul Valadez, who is a full-time lecturer in the Art Department at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Valadez describes himself as “a figurative painter working with mixed media, acrylics, metal and text.”

January’s Jardín del Arte will also feature the music of Kim Snyder of Keytar Dreamz, plus a dance performance by Dancer’s Creative Motion, an organization at UTPA.

Food and beverages will be sold by participating Edinburg restaurants such as El Jinete, Corina’s Tea Room, La Pesca, and La Cocinita. They will feature tamales and hot chocolate, fajita tacos, shrimp cocktails, and much more.

Valadez, who was born in San Francisco and raised in the Central Valley of California, said his paintings “subtly deal with race, culture and history through a concept of ‘old signage’.

“My work represents my experiences growing up in a bi-cultural (Mexican American and Anglo) household and of my childhood memories of life in the Central Valley of California, I often create paintings using acrylics on recycled materials,” he continued. “I then work the surfaces to appear old and distressed giving my audience a sense of nostalgia and history.”

He is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Art, and he earned a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Valadez has recently shown in the 2009 Texas Biennial in Austin, the 2009 Texas National at Stephen F. Austin State University, the Chicana/o Biennial of 2007 and 2011 at MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San José, California, and in three The Third Coast nationals in Corpus Christi.

“I have artwork in the permanent collections of various museums around the country including the El Paso Museum of Art in El Paso, The Mexi-Arte Museum in Austin, El Mueso del Bario in New York City, The Ackland Museum at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and in the  Fisher Museum at the University of Southern California in Los Ángeles.

For more information and updates on Jardin del Arte and future art and cultural events in Edinburg, please visit http://www.edinburgarts.com  and the Edinburg Arts community page on Facebook.

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Valley veterans hear from VA leader Lawrence A. Biro on status of VA Hospital campaign

By ARTURO “TRETO” GARZA

Many South Texas veterans were hoping for good news on the Veterans Administration Hospital issue. No luck. However, we did get straight talk from the VA’s Lawrence A. Biro.

Biro is network director of the VA Heart of Texas Health Services, which manages our local VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health System Services (VATVCBHS). As such he is overseeing the expansion of the surgical center in Harlingen. In a meeting with veterans’ leaders on Thursday, December 22, he informed us that any decision on expansion of the Harlingen super clinic into a VA Hospital would have to come directly from the office of the Secretary Veterans Affairs.

Veterans met with him to discuss the newly passed Military and Veterans Affairs Construction and other Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The bill was passed by Congress on December 17. Veterans wanted clarification as to what Congressman Henry Cuellar’s (D-Laredo/McAllen) amendment to the bill would do.

Here is the language authored by Cuellar that was successfully added as an amendment:

“Recognizing the lack of accessible VA services in many regions of the country, the Committee urges the Secretary to include in the VA Strategic Capital Improvement Plan the expansion of existing VA health care centers to include inpatient accommodations, urgent care services, and the full range of services required by women veterans when the absence of such services locally requires veterans to make round trips of more than five hours to access such services at a VA facility.”

Biro stated that the Department of Veterans Affairs reads and studies all committee reports. In this case, Cuellar’s amendment was only part of the House Committee Report and not part of the legislation. He further added that the VA respects the wishes of Congress and that they follow protocol.

So, in essence, it is now up to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to act on the requested expansion. Biro stated that competition was heavy because there were a lot of areas where veterans were asking for expansion of VA clinics and VA hospitals in their respective areas.

Joe Ibarra (U.S. Army Ret.) asked Biro if part of the criteria would be where there is most need and especially from our area which has been asking for a full service medical center. Biro again repeated that the decision would have to come from Washington. However, without committing himself, he stated that veterans should keep pushing and make sure that our voices continue to be heard in Washington.

Biro’s main concern at the present is that he has to make sure all expansions of the four VA clinics in the VATVCBHS region move forward. He brought those present up to date on all four projects. At present there are no plans to work on the expansion issue. Veterans had been told that a proposal would be submitted by February 2012. This is not the case as we understand it. There is no proposal being prepared.

Danna Malone, interim director of the local VA, assured the veterans that the VA would continue providing quarterly reports as before. Of utmost importance is the Average Daily Census (ADC) of veterans referred to the contract hospitals (McAllen Medical and Valley Baptist). These statistics are important because, local veterans believe, they will justify the need for expansion of the Harlingen super clinic into a fully-fledged VA hospital, complete with ER and inpatient beds. The ADC also shows the cost differences between in-house services and those referred to the private sector. These statistics update the position paper being pushed by local veterans’ groups on the need and costs of an expansion of the Harlingen facility to a full service medical center.

Malone noted that right now Biro was working on trying to get more vouchers approved for cases being referred out. Biro told us that a MAC meeting would be called for early next year to bring veterans from South Texas up to date on activities.

Biro also heard from veterans that health care services were improving locally, but that there are some problems, such as walk-in patients, the voucher system, trying to reach someone on the phone, etc. Both Biro and Malone told veterans’ leaders that their input was needed so that they are made aware of problems and how things are going. The search for permanent director to replace Jeff Milligan has been initiated, veterans were told.

So what now? Well, veterans still have three bills in Congress that are still active. Even though Cuellar’s bill (House Bill 1318) was attached to HB 2055, his bill still remains active in the House Veterans Affairs Committee, as well as Congressman Rubén Hinojosa’s (D-Mercedes) HB 837.

And then there is Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) sister bill to Hinojosa’s.

This past summer, Cornyn’s bill (S 396) came before the Senate Veterans Committee but was not placed on the markup agenda. The VA made it known that they opposed the bill by written testimony. Then, Cornyn attempted to attach his bill to the National Defense Bill but was not allowed because, according to our contacts in D.C., the VA is in total opposition. Cornyn’s bill remains active in the Veterans Affair Committee. It specifically calls for an expansion by the VA of the Harlingen surgical center into a Full Service Medical Center to serve South Texas veterans. It is direct and to the point.

As mentioned above, all three bills are still active in their respective Veterans Affairs committees and will remain there until December 31, 2012. If no action is taken by then the bill will die in committee. The next legislative session will start in 2013 and new legislation must be introduced.

Veterans, this is not something to be cheerful about as we celebrate the festivities of Christmas and the New Year. But, it is what is before us. Do we bow out of this battle and leave it up to the Veterans Affairs to solve our needs?

What will the New Year bring us?

Happy Holidays!

Arturo “Treto” Garza served as a Marine in the Vietnam War. His Veteran’s Voice column appears exclusively in the Rio Grande Guardian. He lives in Harlingen.

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Congressman Hinojosa announces plans for new $20 million outpatient health clinic in McAllen for Valley veterans

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Friday, December 16, announced the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is moving forward with plans to build a new outpatient clinic at the intersection of North McColl Road and East Hackberry Avenue in McAllen.

“Our veterans deserve the very best in health care services,” said Hinojosa. “While this new outpatient clinic will provide veterans in South Texas with state-of-the-art medical care, I continue to do all I can to bring a full service Veterans Hospital to deep South Texas.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the estimated cost to build the clinic is $20 million. This project will create 217 construction jobs. Construction is scheduled to be completed in summer 2013.

The contract calls for construction of a one-story building that includes 51,675 square feet of space for specialty services for veterans, including primary care, mental health, specialty care and diagnostic services. More than 400 parking spaces will be constructed.

The facility will replace the existing 27,000 square feet outpatient clinic that has been in existence since August 1991. The VA will lease the facility from the developer for a 20-year term once construction is complete.

The clinic will house outpatient services for more than 77,000 veterans annually in Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Starr and Zapata counties. The facility will be located near the Department of Homeland Security building and the McAllen Medical Center and the McAllen Heart Hospital.

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Postal Service to delay closing of any post office until May 2012, says Congressman Cuellar

By MARÍA R. GONZÁLEZ

In late 2011, approximately 3,700 post offices were targeted for closure by the United States Postal Service due to financial struggles, including mail volume declining and changing customer habits.

The USPS planned to conduct studies on certain post offices to determine which facilities are subject to closure.

“Over 200 Texas post offices were being considered for closure, including 11 in my congressional district, which is made up largely of rural communities. I understand the importance of ensuring accessible mail delivery and access for those who rely on USPS services,” said Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen. “I, along with other lawmakers, sent a letter to the chairwoman of the Postal Regulator Commission to oppose post office closures and support a more thoughtful reform that fixes errors of the past.”

Cuellar signed onto a letter dated September 15, 2011 sent to Honorable Ruth Goldway, Chairwoman of the Postal Regulator Commission, that stated a possible 3,653 post office closures are the wrong way to handle fiscal problems within the USPS. Instead, the letter asks that reform be made to the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

“The announcement from USPS of the closure delays is a first step toward uninterrupted mail delivery services to millions,” Cuellar said. “I look forward to working toward responsible solutions to support the sustainability of thousands of post offices.”

Cuellar is a member of the U.S. House Homeland Security and Agriculture Committees. Job creation, accessibility to constituents, education, economic development, and national security are his priorities. Congressman Cuellar is also a Vice Chairman of the Steering and Policy Committee, Senior Whip, and member of the Blue Dog Coalition.

According to the U.S. Postal Service:

In response to a request made by multiple U.S. senators, in December agreed to delay the closing or consolidation of any Post Office or mail processing facility until May 15, 2012. The Postal Service will continue all necessary steps required for the review of these facilities during the interim period, including public input meetings.

The Postal Service hopes this period will help facilitate the enactment of comprehensive postal legislation. Given the Postal Service’s financial situation and the loss of mail volume, the Postal Service must continue to take all steps necessary to reduce costs and increase revenue.

The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.

A self-supporting government enterprise, the U.S. Postal Service is the only delivery service that reaches every address in the nation, 150 million residences, businesses and Post Office Boxes. The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses, and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.

With 32,000 retail locations and the most frequently visited website in the federal government, usps.com, the Postal Service has annual revenue of more than $67 billion and delivers nearly 40 percent of the world’s mail.

If it were a private sector company, the U.S. Postal Service would rank 29th in the 2010 Fortune 500. Black Enterprise and Hispanic Business magazines ranked the Postal Service as a leader in workforce diversity. The Postal Service has been named the Most Trusted Government Agency six consecutive years and the sixth Most Trusted Business in the nation by the Ponemon Institute.

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Valley and national health leaders craft plan to deal with diabetes, which affects more than 70,000 adults in deep South Texas

For the first time, the nation has a clear picture of diabetes prevalence, costs and control in the Rio Grande Valley/South Texas (RGV), where more than 70,000 adults have diabetes.

With the help of a newly launched data resource developed by the Diabetes Care Project (DCP) specifically for the Rio Grande Valley, local leaders now have improved access to comprehensive cost and prevalence data in one centralized resource, which will help to supplement their strategy to get diabetes in the region under control, improve diabetes care and reduce health care costs.

This region, particularly McAllen, has been widely criticized in the media for its alleged high health costs. The new data resource reveals these costs have been primarily driven by a high rate of uncontrolled diabetes in the region (as defined by hemoglobin A1C levels greater than 8).

The customized, first-of-its-kind, free resource for the community, known as the U.S. Diabetes Index South Texas Edition, was launched Dec. 9 by the DCP in collaboration with the South Texas Diabetes Initiative (STDI), a local network of health care professionals, business leaders, government officials and patients who are dedicated to finding solutions for today’s complex diabetes problems in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties. In these counties, this data resource reveals:

  • The prevalence of diabetes is 20 percent greater than the national average and the state of Texas (10.88 percent vs. 8.95 percent vs. 8.81 percent, respectively).
  • 25.1 percent of the diabetic population have uncontrolled diabetes, compared to the national average of 23.1 percent.
  • Individuals in the Rio Grande Valley are uninsured at a rate more than double the national average (25.3 percent vs. 11.44 percent, respectively).
  • 59.7 percent of adult diabetics visit the emergency room or hospital, which is greater than the national average of 54.6 percent.

“This new informational tool, designed specifically for the Rio Grande Valley, helps pinpoint the changes that we believe will make the greatest impact in this community,” said Gary Puckrein, Ph.D., founding partner of the DCP and CEO and President of the National Minority Quality Forum. “Previous analyses of South Texas were incomplete, which painted an inaccurate picture of the area’s diabetes landscape. We are excited to unveil this new data resource, and with it the complete story that can be used to implement meaningful change.”

The DCP and the STDI are now assembling a broad group of local stakeholders that are cooperatively using this new data to develop a plan for change.

The plan will address cultural considerations that influence the adoption of appropriate diabetes care; include community-based interventions that have been evaluated and proven successful in other markets; help physicians and other health care providers make necessary changes to their practice that will better facilitate diabetes care and increase patient adherence to care programs; and help increase overall awareness of appropriate diabetes care among patients in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The South Texas Diabetes Initiative is built upon community involvement and the commitment of all stakeholders to take action and make a difference,” said Cynthia J. Brown, Ph.D., vice provost for Graduate Studies, Academic Centers and Continuing Education at The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), an STDI partner. “We are excited to embark on what we know will be a revolutionary project for our community and hopefully become a model for other communities nationwide.”

Diabetes prevalence rates are on the increase nationwide. The U.S. Diabetes Index South Texas Edition, available for free after a brief registration, provides a clear picture of how the prevalence of diabetes and the necessary care are directly tied to health care costs. This data comes from several different sources, including data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the U.S. Census Bureau. The Index can be accessed by visiting http://www.diabetescareproject.org/national-action.html.

“The South Texas edition of the U.S. Diabetes Index will provide health care practitioners with a new localized data resource, which is central to helping us establish programs that will empower our community with the ability to combat diabetes and turn victims into survivors. This data will allow us to formulate key benchmarks to measure the overall success of the South Texas Diabetes Initiative, which is critical for lasting change,” said Israel Rocha, government affairs officer at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR) in Edinburg, an STDI partner.

As the next step in these efforts, UTPA and DHR will convene a STDI stakeholders meeting on January 11 to identify community-based diabetes interventions that will be implemented across the region.

Local community members interested in joining the effort can visit http://www.diabetescareproject.org/national-action.html to learn how to get involved. South Texas will serve as a pilot initiative for the DCP, with the goal of identifying scalable solutions and replicating successes achieved in other communities.

The Diabetes Care Project (DCP) is a coalition of patient advocates and health partners whose goal is to educate patients, health care providers, and policy makers about the value of developing personalized management plans for diabetes patients in an effort to improve each patient’s health outcomes and lower costs for the entire health system.

Roche Diagnostics and the National Minority Quality Forum are founding partners of the DCP. All partners of the DCP are committed to improving patient outcomes and advancing diabetes care and management. For more information, please visit http://www.diabetescareproject.org.

The South Texas Diabetes Initiative (STDI) is a community-driven effort to improve patient health outcomes and lower costs for the entire health system through appropriate diabetes management in South Texas (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties).

The University of Texas-Pan American and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance are founding partners of the South Texas Diabetes Initiative (STDI). Joined by local community advocates, physicians and allied health providers, STDI seeks to empower South Texans with better access to care, better health care programs and better management tools to combat the prevalence of diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley.

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Brownsville man among four men charged in alleged scheme involving stem cells and stem cell procedures as “cures” for major diseases

By ANGELA DODGE

Three men have been arrested for their participation in a scheme to manufacture, distribute and sell stem cells and stem cell procedures to the public stem cells that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced on Wednesday, December 28.

A fourth man is considered a fugitive in this case.

Joining Magidson in the announcement were Assistant Attorney General Tony West of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA – Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) and Special Agent in Charge Cory B. Nelson of the FBI.

Francisco Morales, 52, of Brownsville, was arrested by Customs and Border Protection agents pursuant to an arrest warrant late Thursday, December 22. He made his initial appearance the following morning at which time he was ordered held without bond.

Alberto Ramón, 48, of Del Rio, and Vincent Dammai, 40, of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, were arrested on Tuesday, December 27. Ramón was arrested as he was about to enter his clinic and has already made his initial appearance in Del Rio, while Dammai was arrested in Florence, South Carolina., and was scheduled to make his initial appearance in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, December 28.

Also on Wednesday morning, December 28, Lawrence Stowe, 58, of Dallas, was charged in relation to this case, is considered a fugitive and a warrant remains outstanding for his arrest. The two indictments in this matter, returned November 9 and 10, have been unsealed by order of the court.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.

A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.

“Protecting the public from unproven and potentially dangerous drug and medical procedures is very important,” said Magidson. “This office will continue to prosecute violations involving threats to the public health.”

“This investigation identified a scheme whereby the suffering and hopes of victims in extreme medical need were used and manipulated for personal profit,” said Nelson. “The predatory and opportunistic nature of the crimes alleged in this indictment mirrors images from science fiction.”

The defendants allegedly conspired to commit mail fraud and unlawfully distributed stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. According to the indictment, Morales and the others manufactured, distributed and used stems cells produced from umbilical cord blood to perform procedures not approved by the FDA to treat persons suffering from cancer, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS) and other autoimmune diseases. FDA approval is required before stem cells can be marketed to the public and used to treat incurable diseases and the FDA has not determined that stem cells are safe and effective in treating these diseases.

“This indictment demonstrates the commitment of the FDA to protect the American public from the harms inherent in being exposed to unapproved new drugs,” said Holland. “The FDA will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators of such acts and ensure that they are punished to the full extent of the law.”

Beginning in March 2007 and continuing through 2010, the indictment alleges Morales falsely represented to the public that he was a physician licensed to practice medicine in the United States and provided medical advice to individuals regarding the benefits of stem cell treatments.

Morales also allegedly falsely represented that he operated a medical clinic named Rio Valley Medical Clinic in Brownsville in order to convince the public that he specialized in using stem cells to treat incurable diseases. After meeting patients in the United States, Morales would allegedly travel to Mexico to perform the stem cell procedures.

The indictment further alleges that Stowe marketed, promoted and sold stem cells along with other drug and biological products for the treatment of cancer, ALS, MS and Parkinson’s Disease that had not been reviewed or approved by the FDA. Stowe operated several entities, including The Stowe Foundation and Stowe Biotherapy Inc., through which he allegedly marketed and sold these products.

The stem cells referenced in the indictment were created and manufactured from umbilical cord blood obtained from birth mothers who were patients of Ramón – a licensed midwife who operated The Maternity Care Clinic in Del Rio. Ramón allegedly sold the cord blood to a company called Global Laboratories located in Scottsdale, Arizona.

After obtaining the cord blood from Ramón, the indictment alleges Global Laboratories would send the tissue to Dammai – a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in Charleston, South Carolina. Dammai, without obtaining approval from FDA or university authorities, allegedly used university facilities to create stem cells that were later sold by Global Laboratories. As a result of this fraudulent scheme, the public was misled into believing that stem cells and other drug and biological products sold by defendants had been approved by the FDA to treat cancer, ALS, MS and Parkinson’s Disease.

The defendants allegedly received more than $1.5 million from patients suffering from incurable diseases.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Samuel Louis and Cedric Joubert with the assistance of Carol Wallack with the Consumer Protection Branch in the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. The case was investigated by the FDA-OCI, FBI and Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations.

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South Texas College partners with Wood Crafters and Rio Grande Container of Weslaco to implement $234,000 state job training grant

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

South Texas College has partnered with two Mid-Valley manufacturing companies to provide job training using a $234,629 Skills Development Fund Grant from the Texas Workforce Commission. The business partners include Rio Grande Container Inc. and Wood Crafters Home Products, L.L.C.

The Texas Workforce Commission is a state agency dedicated to helping Texas employers, workers and communities prosper economically. For details on TWC and the services it offers in coordination with its network of local workforce development boards, call 512/463-8556 or visit http://www.texasworkforce.org.

“This is a great day for Weslaco and STC. The college is committed to creating jobs, economic development, and one of the strategic directions of the college is to serve as the catalyst for regional economic prosperity and social mobility,” STC President Shirley A. Reed said. “That means bringing jobs to the Mid-Valley and helping you be prepared to take advantage of those jobs so that you can really earn a good living for you and your family. That’s really what South Texas College is all about.

“We are pulling together all the colleges, universities, public schools, employers, communities and corporations so that this region will lead the entire nation in advanced manufacturing’” she added. “That’s our mission, that’s our commitment, and that’s where the jobs are.”

On Thursday, November 10, Ronald G. Congleton, the TWC Commissioner Representing Labor, presented a check to Reed and representatives from the partnering companies at a special ceremony at the college’s Mid-Valley Campus in Weslaco.

“This is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, but it also has an unemployment problem,” said Congleton. “We’re very proud of what you’re doing down here. This grant will help in upgrading 156 current workers and lead to the creation of 56 new jobs. Now that may not sound like a lot, but to those 56 people, that means a world of difference. Having a job means self-respect and dignity. Not having one brings depression and despair. This is the reason that having a job is so important.”

Several regional dignitaries were in attendance to help celebrate the occasion, which shed the light on the all the positive work taking place in the Rio South Texas Region.

“These representatives of both public and private sectors have come together today for an exciting capital investment in our most valuable resource, our human capital, our local residents and citizens,” said Weslaco Mayor Miguel D. Wise. “More important, the investment will provide 212 workers with valuable skills and empower them to make them more productive and competitive.”

“Leadership is not the ability to tell people what to do, it’s the ability to make people want to do the right thing through example. It’s how you lead your life,” said Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. “South Texas College is not only one of the top community colleges in Texas, but one of the very best in the country. This (grant) will be able to help a couple hundred people reach their goals and address their needs. We have an incredible community in the Valley, here in Weslaco, with people who really do care. The grant will go a long way to help us continue to grow.”

The grant will be used to custom train approximately 212 new and incumbent workers in methodologies aimed at increasing workers technical skills in advanced manufacturing. Those trained will include production crew members, leaders and machine operators.

“If you look at Wood Crafters’ vision statement, it begins with four words that says, ‘development of our people,’” said Rick Barr, executive vice president of human capital for Wood Crafters. “I think that focus is consistent, and it seems that this program aligns with what our vision is for the company, and that’s to see our people develop, see their families be blessed and prosper, and as a result of that we will see Weslaco and the Rio Grande Valley be a benefactor of that also.”

Upon completion of the training, participants will earn an average hourly wage of approximately $11.75 an hour.

“What we need here is jobs, and that’s no surprise. We’re working everyday to improve and help people. It’s tough, but we’ve got good people,” said Harold Jones, president and owner of Rio Grande Container. “I love Weslaco and we need to work together to help improve it. We went through World War II, and we made it. We’ve gone through a few more wars, and we made it. And we’re going through an economy that kills everybody, but we’ll make it with talent and hard work.”

The Skill Development Grant training is coordinated and provided by STC’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, a NAAMREI affiliate. STC’s IAM is tasked with identifying employer needs for workforce talent development and helping find solutions that keep the regional advanced, manufacturing industry growing. Currently, the Rio South Texas Region in the world leader in advanced, rapid response manufacturing.

For additional information about STC’s IAM and similar grant-funded or customized training call 956-872-6197 or visit:

http://manufacturing.southtexascollege.edu/iam.

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Regal Beloit Corporation of McAllen honored at Texas Workforce Conference in Houston

By VÍCTOR M. DE LEÓN

Regal Beloit Corporation (Regal Beloit) of McAllen recently received the Employer Award of Excellence for the Workforce Solutions (WFS) Lower Rio area, which includes Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy County, at the Texas Workforce Commission’s 15th Annual Texas Workforce Conference.

The event was held November 30 through December 2 in Houston.

The Employer Award of Excellence honors employers that are actively involved with their local workforce board and have made a positive impact on employers, workers, and the community.

Regal Beloit is a global manufacturing company with an advanced manufacturing facility that specializes in die casting and metal stamping of rotors and stators for electric motors. WFS provided Regal Beloit with labor market information and human resource consulting services, along with assistance in identifying candidates for initial management and engineering positions.

On April 13, 2011, Regal Beloit Corporation held the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new 125,000-square-foot facility. The McAllen plant joined 54 other international manufacturing and service/distribution operations throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia and Mexico. The purchase of the newly renovated facility producing metal components for rotors and stators will create 150 jobs.

To date, Regal Beloit has hired 23 people through WFS’ services, including 15 Texas Back to Work participants. Furthermore, Regal Beloit partnered with South Texas College to identify and develop training programs for its employees, and it has proven to be a valuable partner to WFS and the community.

WFS is one of 28 local workforce boards located throughout the state. The primary goal of WFS is to respond to needs of employers, workers, and job seekers through locally designed market-driven workforce development initiatives and services. All eligible employers, workers, and job seekers are encouraged to take advantage of these services.

Workforce Solutions is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the delivery of employment and publicly-funded training services, and helping communities prosper economically. For details on Workforce Solutions and the programs and services it offers, please call (956) 928-5000 or visit http://www.wfsolutions.org. Workforce Solutions is an Equal Opportunity Employer/Program.

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