Brownsville mayor says $10m donation will speed revitalization

·6 min read

Apr. 23—When Elon Musk tweeted on March 30 that he planned to donate $20 million to Cameron County schools and $10 million to the downtown Brownsville revitalization effort "with details to come," local officials expressed guarded optimism.

"We kind of temper the expectations and the excitement a bit until we get a chance to see what it's all about," Mayor Trey Mendez said at the time.

But schools have already started receiving funds, and on April 20 Mendez confirmed that he'd met with the Musk Foundation, the nonprofit donating entity, created by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk in 2002, regarding the pledge for downtown.

"I had one meeting with the Musk Foundation already, just to kind of have an initial discussion to see what it is that they wanted the return to be for the donation," he said. "We got a pretty good idea. They're going to give the city a lot of deference."

It's too soon to know exactly how the money will be directed, Mendez said.

"We're still going to discuss the parameters," he said. "We want to make sure that there's measurables. We want to make sure that we get them a return on their donation, and that we maximize the value of that money and try to leverage it into possibly more money."

Mendez said downtown revitalization is a priority for him, the city and now Musk apparently.

"I've made it a priority of mine to continue to make Brownsville a destination city, and a city where people want to come to, and a city that people who are from here want to come back to. It seems as though our goals are definitely aligned. We have the same visions for our downtown."

As for what the foundation expects in return for its investment, Mendez said Musk wants downtown to be more of a magnet for the kind of people he needs for SpaceX's Starship moon and Mars rocket development program at the company's Boca Chica production complex and launch site, a little over 20 miles east of Brownsville as the crow flies.

"They want to continue to see downtown become a destination," Mendez said. "They want to see it being something that will help them attract personnel to their company. You want arts and culture. You want destinations. You want something for people to want to come to."

At the same time, he said, the foundation is attuned to the city's needs in terms of downtown infrastructure, public safety and so on.

"We're definitely going to make full use of that," Mendez said.

Proponents of downtown revitalization have been around for decades, though little progress was made until recent years, with a few plucky pioneers leading the way. Early advocates for revitalization couldn't have imagined that a space company focused on the future would step in to help rescue the past.

"It's definitely something that we weren't expecting," Mendez said. "Now that we have it, it's just going to accelerate the growth of our downtown even more. It's created so much interest and so much excitement already. That in itself is a good thing. It's real. It's definitely a very real donation and we're just working on how to structure it to where we get the maximum return for their donation."

Musk tweeted the pledge less than two hours after the March 30 explosion of SpaceX's SN11 Starship prototype toward the end of an otherwise successful high-altitude test flight, and 17 days before NASA announced it was awarding a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build a spaceship to land U.S. astronauts on the moon's surface for the first time since 1972.

SpaceX beat out Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and another company, Dynetics, based in Huntsville, Ala., for the contract to build a Human Landing System as part of NASA's Artemis program, which aims to put Americans back on the moon by 2024 before moving on to Mars and beyond. NASA chose SpaceX on the strength of the company's Starship vehicle, which has been under development at Boca Chica for just that purpose.

"It could very well be that the first person that departs for another planet could depart from this location," Musk told reporters during the Boca Chica site's ceremonial groundbreaking in September 2014.

SpaceX is ramping up production and flight testing of Starship prototypes at Boca Chica even as the Federal Aviation Administration conducts a follow-up environmental review of the company's plan to launch the 165-foot-tall Starship in combination with a 230-foot-tall booster rocket, dubbed "Super Heavy," in early stages of construction at Boca Chica, and as environmental groups sound the alarm over SpaceX's growing footprint in Cameron County and affordable housing advocates warn of overwhelming the local housing market.

But SpaceX needs additional personnel to speed up production and testing even more. Also on the day of the SN11 explosion, Musk tweeted out a call to his 51.7 million Twitter followers for people with particular skill sets to relocate to the Brownsville area to be part of the Starship program.

"Please consider moving to Starbase or greater Brownsville/South Padre area in Texas & encourage friends to do so! SpaceX's hiring needs for engineers, technicians, builders & essential support personnel of all kinds are growing rapidly," he wrote.

"Starbase" is what Musk wants to call the incorporated community he's seeking permission to establish at the current site of Boca Chica Village next door to the production complex. He predicted the community "will grow by several thousand people over the next year or two." A revitalized downtown Brownsville with lots to do and see, and places to eat, drink and hang out, in theory will make Musk's goal easier to achieve.

All this was before NASA tapped Starship as the next lunar lander. "Everything to the moon!" Musk tweeted upon hearing the news.

Mendez said he was with some SpaceX people the day following NASA's announcement and that they were "over the moon," so to speak.

"They were just elated for what that means and what that means for Brownsville as well," he said. "We've seen Musk really ramp up operations at Boca Chica. Now for them to have gotten this contract, that just means that they're going to probably look at expanding these operations and launching from here even more. They have 1,400 employees now and that's only going to grow."

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