There’s an art to skipping stones.
You have to find the perfect rock- thin, smooth, light. The water conditions have to be right, too. And then there’s the technique itself: the appropriate flex. The proper wrist turn. The release.
There’s a certain satisfaction as that stone strikes the surface of the water. Each touch– each skip– causes little ripples on the water. Those ripples grow, spreading their circles further and further out.
Arturo Marquez, Economic Development Director in Eagle Pass, has become a master stone skipper. He’s been launching stones left and right lately, causing quite the ripple effect in this Texas border town.
Within the city limits, Eagle Pass has a population of 30,000. “But if you look at us as a region,” Marquez explains, “rather than just within city limits, you’re probably talking more closely to 300,000 in population.”
“We have a blend of communities here,” Marquez continues. “We are a border town in Texas, so you definitely get that very American-Texas vibe while you still get a lot of influence from Mexico, whether it’s in the culture, the food, or the atmosphere. That’s what makes it a great place to live, work, and play– that blend.”
Honoring that cultural diversity is a priority for the folks in Eagle Pass. It’s evident throughout the city, thanks in large part to The Arts and Culture Center, which opened in January of 2020. The center provides a well-rounded arts program, featuring live music and various exhibits, along with music and art classes, allowing the city to both enjoy and participate in art. They host weekly art classes for kids, as well as a “Sip and Paint” for the adults. It’s a win-win, really: it brings people together and it celebrates the arts. The center is part of Eagle Pass’ 300 Block Art and Entertainment District, featuring restaurants, shops, venues, and museums.
And of course there’s the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino, located on the Kickapoo Indian Reservation. It’s one of only two casinos in Texas and is one of the biggest attractions to the area. It draws people from all over Texas.
Eagle Pass loves to celebrate and they do so frequently with many festivals throughout the year. One of the most notable events is the International Friendship Festival, hosted by Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, their sister city of 200,000 people, located just over the Rio Grande River that separates the USA and Mexico. “We have a very strong relationship with them,” Marquez shares. The long history of these two cities– their collaboration and cultures– are celebrated with parades, activities, and lots of amazing food. The highlight of the event, though, is the Abrazo (that’s Spanish for ‘hug’). “It’s a hugging ceremony,” Marquez states. “We go out on the international bridge– it actually gets shut down. And we celebrate the partnerships that we have.” City officials meet on the bridge and exchange a hug, symbolizing their great friendship.
Eagle Pass has had some rough waters, though. In recent years, they’ve been all over the news, at the center of the immigration debate. And while they are still a hotspot for immigration, they are making waves for a host of other reasons these days.
For starters, they opened a new Sports Complex in 2021. “It was a $17 million project,” comments Marquez. “And it’s definitely made its money back.” It’s a huge facility, with courts and fields galore. During the week, it serves the community, used by local teams for practice. On the weekends, it hosts big tournaments with club sports teams and junior leagues from all over the country. “We just get tons and tons of people to come out and play,” Marquez says. And those tons and tons of people need a place to stay. And they need a place to eat. And so began the cycle: “City Council,” he recalls, “immediately saw the increase within about five months, when everything was completely booked.” And so Marquez was tasked with bringing in hotels.
In the last 12 months, Eagle Pass announced three new hotels. Each is roughly $11 million, with 100 rooms, a pool, and conference rooms. There are new restaurants coming in. There are also new businesses.
Take the Money and Run
The boon is widespread, too. Sul Ross University, recently announced a $30 million expansion. “They were looking to grow,” Marquez explains. “They were looking at Eagle Pass and they were seeing the growth pattern.” The school requested 100 acres of land donation, with an agreement to build their new administration building there. “It’s step one of what is going to be a plethora of growth over the next few years,” he adds.
Partnerships with the schools run deep in Eagle Pass. Two years ago, during the height of Covid, Eagle Pass had a bit of a problem: they didn’t have enough nurses to vaccinate their people in a timely manner. So they used their federal funding and teamed up with Southwestern Texas Junior College to train and certify 42 people in medical assistance phlebotomy. “We saw the need. They wanted to help. We got the funding so we were able to create that partnership which was amazing,” states Marquez. “It was a very quick response.”
That sort of thing isn’t new, though. Several years ago, Microstar, a keg cleaning company, came to Eagle Pass. They also partnered with Southwest Texas Junior College, to develop the skilled workforce they needed, like forklift and other machine operators. According to Marquez, their attitude was “if we don’t have what you guys need, we’ll train them for you. We’ll get them ready for you guys to come in.”
It’s that sort of attitude that makes Eagle Pass fertile ground for business development. “We are really just bulldozing through these different investments that are coming in,” states Marquez. He’s proud of it. And he should be. He’s spearheaded a surge of economic development that could make anyone’s head spin.
It began, he says, with just a small project. A small grant of $20,000. But they promoted that project. They celebrated that win (they like to celebrate, remember?). And then came another grant. This time, it was a little bigger. They celebrated that one, too. “It was Guerrilla PR,” he laughs. “We took one small win and then we took another one and put it out there. Then we took the next one and put it out there.” Eventually, others took notice. “Those people spread the news and we got more wins,” Marquez says. “And they started getting bigger.”
Now, they are dealing with multi-million dollar investments on the regular and there are no signs of slowing down. “We just snowballed into getting the attention of different entities,” attests Marquez. “We use our elected officials as much as possible, not only at the local level, but at the state and federal level, too. We make sure when they visit us, we welcome them and brief them on anything new that’s happened.” It’s customary for U.S. Representative Tony Gonzalez to tour new businesses when he’s in town. Likewise, Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, and State Representative Eddie Morales, do the same. “We make sure we have strong communications with them. We make a consistent argument of what the needs are for the community,” Marquez adds.
“We are one of the few communities that has been fortunate enough to get funded through the Economic Development Administration multiple times within a very short period of time,” Marquez explains. They received a $3.5 million grant in 2020 for the Business Incubator project and just recently, another $3.25 million for the expansion of an industrial road and park. “So we’re just a little bit shy of $7 million through the EDA within a three year period,” Marquexz continues. “If you look at EDA historically, they typically don’t give out grants to the same community in that short of a timeframe.”
Growing Their Own
There’s a lot of outside investment coming in. But there’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Eagle Pass, too. “It’s just a group of people,” he maintains, “that aren’t shy at all to think of a business idea and go for it.” Statistics, though, aren’t always in favor for the new young business owner. Many small businesses fail due to lack of capital and poor planning. And while Marquez can’t do much in regards to the capital portion, he feels like they can do something for the planning portion. “We thought it’d be a great idea to help them along in the process, making sure they’re going in there with a business plan, a financial plan, and a marketing plan… That they have a structure in place so they’re not just winging it,” Marquez explains.
The new Business Incubator will do all of that. Marquez says he’s quite fond of the project. For starters, they’ve taken an old brick building– a dilapidated, rundown, 100-year-old abandoned building– and revived it. The city submitted an application to the EDA to get funding to renovate it, with the goal of giving it back to the public. It’s extra special, Marquez believes, because “it is a historic building, so a lot of it has to do with bringing that history back to life.”
That building is huge, actually. It will provide spaces to rent for offices, and rooms to meet with clients. They’ll host networking events and bring all the entrepreneurs together for mentoring. Essentially, it’s a campus for new business owners to receive guidance and provides a place and space for them as they enter the business world. It will also have a restaurant, retail stores, a ghost kitchen, an expansion of the Arts and Culture Center, and will be the new home for the Economic Development Department.
Let it Rip
Marquez believes that Eagle Pass is the port to the future. He alludes to some very substantial projects coming to town, with several thousand acres of development on the horizon, with a focus on manufacturing, logistics, and international trade.
“After living and working in other communities, I can tell you Eagle Pass is experiencing economic growth like no other,” attests Marquez. “The amount of new investors that are coming in… that are finding out about Eagle Pass… We’ve got individuals from Houston, Laredo, San Antonio, and Dallas, coming in here with everything they’ve got. They’re seeing it and want to get their foot in before it really spikes up.”
In the Center
Sometimes you launch a stone and hope it makes a splash.
Sometimes, if you are lucky, it skips along the way, breaking the surface as it flies, creating ripples that spread out, wider and wider.
It’s called the ripple effect. And Eagle Pass is right in the center.