Texas A&M International University's Texas Center for Border Economics and Enterprise Development is helping to chart the future course of hundreds of colonia residents by shining a spotlight on the plight of easily forgotten communities and helping update the financial books of a tiny city hall.
Under a $150,000 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, the Texas Center, joined by local non-profit agencies, is providing assistance to cities such as Rio Bravo, El Cenizo, and other colonias located along State Highway 359 and U.S. Highway 59, with programs designed to improve substandard living conditions by nurturing enterprise.
"The quality of life in colonia areas lags far behind the rest of the state of Texas. While past efforts have focused on improving infrastructure in the colonias, lack of attention to economic development issues has meant that colonia families continue to remain poor," explained Dr. Michael Patrick, Texas Center director and TAMIU professor of economics, "The Texas Center program focuses on increasing business enterprise, employment and income opportunities for colonia residents."
Dr. Patrick said the Colonia Development Program, under the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Assisting Communities Initiative, will enable the Texas Center to undertake activities such as performing a diagnostic assessment of current and potential business activity in the colonias, conducting performance reviews of existing businesses, offering business start up and expansion workshops, individual counseling and technical assistance, providing assistance in accessing business financing and in establishing business support organizations.
One of the newest additions to the program is the Biz Camp. Geared for middle school students, the offering aims at aiding economic development in colonias through entrepreneurial education in middle schools. The program is being offered for the first time this year to a small group of 6th to 8th grade students who reside in Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. Classes were offered daily at Salvador García Middle School this summer.
Patricia Canseco, Texas Center project coordinator and Biz Camp teacher, said the offering is appropriate because Center research shows that the majority of the local colonia population is young.
"The youth population ranges from eight to 22 years of age and as we have tried to work with adults who want to start a business, we've realized that we should also prepare young students for entrepreneurial training," Canseco said.
She said Biz Camp teaches students basics of personal finance, tools for managing money, characteristics and traits of entrepreneurs, recognition of needs to service markets and basic steps of starting a business. In addition, students learn that they are also part of the economy, Canseco said.
Canseco, along with Rosalía Guerrero, director of operations for Centro Aztlán, a local social service organization partnering with the Texas Center, also assists the recently incorporated City of El Cenizo by performing administrative duties such as bookkeeping, payroll, and file organization.
"The City of El Cenizo is in a difficult situation. There is no administrator in the city because there is no money to pay for a city manager," explained Guerrero. "The University is coming in as a city manager to provide hardware support, set up the city's accounting as well as policies and procedures and a system that will last them into the future."
Guerrero explained that since the City of El Cenizo has no tax base, it faces a unique challenge, including starting a new city from scratch.
"The challenges are that there is lack of resources, lack of support from other local and state agencies," Guerrero said, "No one tells you how to run a city."
Guerrero, however, said she feels confident that with expert help from the Texas Center and her agency, El Cenizo will be able to establish itself as a fully functional city.
"We speak honestly of the problems we see and I'm optimistic that problems can be remedied," Guerrero said.
The Texas Center program also provides counseling for colonia residents wishing to open businesses. Information provided ranges from how to find funding for businesses to writing a business plan.
"For instance, we had a business owner who was interested in getting the license to start selling money orders," Canseco said, "He will provide the service because there is no one in El Cenizo or Rio Bravo that does the same."
Canseco said soon she will start entrepreneurship training classes at the Larga Vista center community located on State Highway 359.
"These classes will be for future business owners and existing businesses who need information assistance," she said, "The course content will include whatever participants request."
Patrick said there is a great business potential in the colonias.
"A survey of 189 households randomly chosen from the colonias on Highway 359 estimated that in excess of $11 million is spent by colonia residents in the area annually on consumer goods and services," Patrick said, "Currently, 97 percent of the $11 million, or $10.7 million, is spent outside the colonia area."
Patrick added that the majority of households surveyed said they would prefer to shop in colonia-based businesses rather than incur the travel expenses and inconvenience of shopping outside.
"In a survey of 70 colonia residents in the Rio Bravo and El Cenizo communities, 68 percent, or 48 residents, indicated their long-term goal was to own and manage a business. Over half had prior experience in working in one or more small businesses," Patrick said.
The Texas Center, assisted by students in TAMIU's Social Work Program, is now surveying colonia residents on U.S. Highway 59 to assess what types of businesses and facilities they need, Patrick said.
"The program's goal is to facilitate the establishment and successful operation of colonia resident-owned and operated businesses, where they will become a source of income and employment for colonia residents and help spur economic development in general," Patrick said.
Canseco said the role of the Texas Center is crucial in uplifting living conditions in the colonias.
"I think there is a great need in our community and I think that if these communities are to prosper and develop, we have to do it through education and leadership," Canseco said.
For more information about the Texas Center or the Colonia Development Program, please contact Patrick at 326-2547 or Canseco at 326-2846. Their respective e-mails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com