“There’s nothing to do in Brownsville.” It was a constant refrain when Eva Garcia was growing up in the midsize Texas city, situated just across the border from Mexico. After college, most of her friends moved away to Austin or other cities perceived as more dynamic and interesting. But Garcia stayed, got a job in city government, and is now part of an initiative to transform her community and neighboring cities. “I want to make Brownsville a place where people want to stay,” she says.
As an employee of the city’s department of planning and development, Garcia is taking an active role in doing just that, helping to organize programs and funding for a network of 17 miles of new multiuse trails in and around Brownsville. She’s also been lobbying to attract new businesses to open alongside these new biking, hiking and paddling trails. She recently attended the Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit to connect with other people working to build thriving small business communities and get new ideas for how to improve her own.
The goals of Brownsville’s recent outdoorsy development are nothing less than ambitious: Boost the local economy, improve health outcomes, rescue precious natural resources and encourage the growth of a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Those are big problems to solve, and Brownsville is trying to tackle them all at once. But the city is aiming to prove that all at once is the best way to take on big issues.
“There’s never enough money to do what you want,” Garcia says. “We’re leveraging resources to attack multiple problems.” For Garcia, the ESHIP Summit was a chance to better understand and imagine the end goal of the development happening in Brownsville. “What I’ve learned is the characteristics of highly functioning systems,” she says, “and how collaboration is essential.”
Turning around an entire community’s idea of itself isn’t exactly easy. Brownsville is behind the curve in developing as a tourist destination, Garcia says. “Right now the challenge seems to be changing the perception of what’s successful, or what could be successful.” Some people believe that in a relatively poor community, building nature trails is a waste of taxpayer money that could be better spent improving public transportation or other services.
But Garcia sees the potential to make her community much stronger — and healthier too. The progress happening today is a steep departure from her experience growing up in Brownsville, which as recently as 2012 was the poorest city in America, with a median income of less than $30,000 a year. The majority of residents are Hispanic, and a CDC study found that the rates of obesity and diabetes were among the highest in the country. Almost 40 percent of residents lack health insurance, according to the most recent census data available. Growing up, Garcia says she had no idea that the health disparities and poverty levels were so severe.
After graduating from the University of Texas at Brownsville (now the University of Texas Rio Grande) with a degree in environmental science, Garcia got an internship with the city and started to learn more about her own community. “I felt like my eyes were opened,” she says. “I started becoming aware of what the issues really were here, and why there were challenges to development.” The city had already started to work on some initiatives to reduce poverty and improve health outcomes, and Garcia decided she wanted to be involved.
Today, Garcia’s department is partnering with Rails to Trails Conservancy to connect 10 local communities with new pathways. The UT School of Public Health in Brownsville has provided grant funding to help promote the new trails and healthy living in general. And the city is taking advantage of a local utility program to dredge and restore tributaries of the Rio Grande that have filled with sediment, organizing new trails around these resacas. The university’s architecture program is designing birding blinds (small shelters that help observers watch birds without startling them) to line the new trails. “Everyone has a role to play,” Garcia says.
That includes entrepreneurs, who are key to making the “active tourism” initiative a success. The city is looking for ways to incentivize small businesses to take advantage of the new walking and biking pathways. “You cannot be active without the [proper] gear,” Garcia says. “Even to go fishing, you need poles and lines, and people to take you out on boats to show you where things are.”
More businesses are needed, she says, to showcase the city’s assets — new companies like outdoor tour operators or kayak and paddleboard rental shops will help market the community as a fun, dynamic place.
“There are constantly things to do now,” Garcia says.
This content was produced in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which works in entrepreneurship and education to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back to their communities. In June 2017, the foundation hosted its inaugural ESHIP Sumit, convening 435 leaders fighting to help break down barriers for entrepreneurs across the country.