Cowen delivers first presentation as mayor of Brownsville

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Brownsville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Esmeralda Villarreal gives the introduction for Brownsville Mayor John Cowen Friday, June 30, 2023, during Friday With The City at the Brownsville Event Center. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

John Cowen Jr. delivered his first presentation as mayor of Brownsville on June 30 for “Friday with the City,” an event put on by the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce and the city, which took place at the Brownsville Events Center.

Cowen, who formerly served as city commissioner At-Large “A,” gave a progress report on major projects already underway while also discussing big things to come. He admitted he’s been extremely busy since taking office.

“It’s been about six weeks since I was elected, but it feels like about six months,” Cowen said. “Every day is jam-packed, and it’s been overall a very positive experience. I think I’m very blessed to have a very progressive and focused commission at this moment, and I think we’re going to get a lot of stuff done.”

Among the key topics he covered was the reimbursement to Brownsville Public Utility Board customers of rate hikes imposed to pay for BPUB’s failed Tenaska power plant project — a source of controversy after the release of a third-party audit last year. Cowen, who also serves as chairman of the city’s audit and oversight committee, said one of the priorities he campaigned on was addressing issues stemming from the Tenaska audit.

“We were able to shed light on what happened with that project and make sure that steps were taken to remedy the situation,” he said.

Cowen said the city worked with BPUB to devise a plan reimbursing ratepayers to the tune of $29 million plus interest. BPUB’s approximately 55,000 current customers have already received credits on their bills, while former customers received checks in the mail, he said.

“There about 26,000 checks that were processed, so it was a big endeavor by PUB staff, and I really appreciate all the hard work to get it done in such a short amount of time,” Cowen said. “On the city side we’re also looking at options on refunding the city’s portion of the Tenaska rate hikes, which is about $11 million. That’s a little bit more of a challenge because we’ve already spent all that money, but there are different options that we’re pursuing, so I look forward to hopefully resolving that in the near future.”

Another top priority is the continued viability of the Gladys Porter Zoo, another issue he emphasized during the mayor’s race. The zoo, which opened in 1975, is out of compliance with newer regulations governing the size of certain animal exhibits. Without a plan to expand, the zoo could lose its accreditation, which would put an end to its world-renowned breeding program and ability to work with endangered animals, Cowen said.

“It would be a real shame if that were to happen, so I think it’s in our best interests to make sure that the zoo evolves into what it needs to be,” he said.

Cowen noted that the zoo attracts more than 650,000 visitors a year.

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen addresses the crowd about ongoing developments and projects in the city Friday, June 30, 2023, during Friday With The City at the Brownsville Event Center. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“It’s a huge economic development engine for us, but it’s also a jewel for us as a community and the Rio Grande Valley,” he said.

Cowen said the city and the Brownsville Independent School District put together a committee to explore how the city can acquire the former Cummings Middle School for the zoo’s expansion. Cummings currently houses a career and technical education center.

Cowen said the theme of his administration will be “accelerating economic growth” for the city.

“I think everyone knows that Brownsville is in a unique position in our state and our nation to really capitalize on all the investment, all the eyes on Brownsville, for all the right reasons,” he said. “I think investors recognize that. That’s why we have multiple billionaires investing in our area.”

SpaceX and the NextDecade liquefied natural gas project (Rio Grande LNG) at the Port of Brownsville represent opportunities to leverage billions of dollars in investment and thousands of current and future jobs, Cowen said, adding that the city is “anxiously awaiting” NextDecade’s final investment decision on moving forward with the LNG plant at the port.

Brownsville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Esmeralda Villarreal sits down with Brownsville Mayor John Cowen for a Q&A session Friday, June 30, 2023, during Friday With The City at the Brownsville Event Center. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

What he characterized as the biggest economic development project in the state will create around 5,000 construction jobs at its peak, which should be within the first two years of construction, he said, noting that NextDecade has committed to using at least 35 percent local workforce. Cowen said the city is engaged with BISD, Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas-RGV to ensure there are enough people fill all those jobs.

“Obviously 5,000 jobs is a lot of make sure we’re ready for,” he said.

Cowen also gave an update on the BTX Fiber high-speed internet project, which he noted was a top priority of his predecessor, Trey Mendez, and which is also a big part of the goal of making Brownsville a “smart city.” Brownsville has consistently been ranked the first or second least-connected city in the United States, with nearly 45 percent of households lacking an internet connection, he said. The response is BTX Fiber, a high-speed internet network project the city is undertaking through a partnership with Alabama-based Lit Communities.

“We committed $90 million to build out our own network, which is a very innovative method to get it done in a short amount of time,” Cowen said. “The city of Brownsville is putting in $20 million to build the middle mile, which is 100 miles of fiber. I think it’s eight rings around the city. Lit Communities will be in charge of doing the last mile, running fiber to businesses and residences.”

“The first and most difficult fiber ring is being installed downtown, and work is proceeding quickly,” he said.

“That is the hardest ring to do, but we’ll have customers in September of this year,” Cowen said. “Packages will start at $30 a month, and I know there are federal programs for low-income households that will make that essentially free for a lot of residents.”

The entire BTX Fiber network should be complete by the end of 2025, he said.