Rolando Pablos, a Cathedral High grad and San Antonio business attorney, starts work this week as CEO of a brand new El Paso-based organization that aims to develop the economy for three states and two nations.
Pablos, 45, is a rare gem. He grew up here, on both sides of the border; he’s bicultural, bilingual, Hispanic and a conservative. He’s an El Paso insider, but also an outsider having earned his chops in San Antonio and Austin.
Friday was his last day as a member of the Public Utility Commission of Texas in Austin and Monday is his first day on the job as chief executive officer of the brand new Borderplex Bi-national Economic Alliance.
The alliance was formed by the recent merger of the El Paso’s Regional Economic Development Corp., or REDCo, and the Paso del Norte Group. It’s intended to solve the problems raised in a 2011 study by Edward Feser.
A highly touted economic development consultant, Feser identified key weaknesses in the region’s economic development and recruitment efforts.
The Borderplex Alliance has a tangled family tree and history, with several economic development organizations having come and gone before it. But talking to Pablos, one gets the sense he spends most of his time looking forward.
“The first thing I hope everybody understands is this is a brand new entity,” he says.
The second thing Pablos wants people to know is the Borderplex Alliance, while headquartered in El Paso, would work for the region – West Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua.
Pablos, 45, was born in Sonora, Mexico. He spent the first nine years of his life in Juárez and the next nine of his formative years in El Paso.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University, an MBA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a master’s degree in hospitality management from the University of Houston. Pablos earned his law degree from St. Mary’s University School of Law.
Working in San Antonio as a business lawyer and on various commissions in Austin, Pablos has earned the respect of key Texas politicos.
He has strong relationships on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the border. Pablos is good friends with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and George P. Bush, the nephew of former President George W. Bush.
Pablos sits on the board of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas. With Bush, he is forming an organization to foster conservative talent in Texas.
He was chair of the Texas Racing Commission and was senior advisor to the global law firm SNR Denton. In 2009, Pablos was appointed honorary consul to Spain, facilitating two-way trade and investment opportunities between Spain and the United States.
After a national search, Borderplex Alliance’s executive committee voted to hire Pablos earlier this month.
Pablos and his wife, Laura San Martin, have four children – Cristina Elizabeth, 11; David Alan, 9; Mia Noelle, 6; and Andrea Nicole, 3.
Pablos says he will take a personal interest in working with school districts and parents to promote special education. His daughter Mia has Down syndrome.
Pablos’s wife is an orthodontist, and Pablos himself comes from a long line of dentists. His grandparents were dentists, his sister is a dentist, and both his parents were dentists in Juárez but are now retired in El Paso.
Pablos spoke to El Paso Inc. from his home in San Antonio. He talked about his strategy for growing the region, fostering conservative talent in Texas and the dangers of late-night tweeting.
Q: Why did you accept the position here?
They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; they offered me the opportunity to come back home and be part of this economic renaissance the region is experiencing. The region has tremendous potential.
All the things I have done while I have been away, I can now come home and put them into action. To be given the opportunity to work alongside all of these wonderful people who are already doing a tremendous job developing the economy for the region, I mean, how do you say no to that?
We are going to be close to my parents and to my sister and brother; we are just so happy to be back home. I’m very excited about the opportunity to bring my children to the place where I grew up and have them experience it, learn about the culture, learn the language and live in a place that will become world class and an even more attractive place to be.
Q: The Borderplex Alliance has a rather tangled family tree, with several economic development organizations in the region before it. How would you shape the alliance differently than its most recent predecessors, REDCo and PdNG?
The first thing I hope everybody understands is this is a brand new entity. We are going to focus on bringing the region together, pooling our resources to promote the entire region.
We’ll be focused on advocacy; there are a lot of things we need to do at both the state and federal levels, on both sides of the border, to shore up what we have. We need to focus on border crossings, on that international trade. We need to focus on retention, both business and military.
There are a lot of things we need to do, so we are going to come in with a brand new strategy that is really going to be based around creating this regional economic block that will work together to promote itself but also to make itself more attractive.
Before we go out and try to attract, we have to continue to make ourselves more attractive. Quality of life is an important part of attracting investment. We need to continue to build our workforce; we need brainpower. Education is going to be a huge component. Health care, biomedical, is going to be a very, very large component – all of the things site selection executives look for.
Q: The region hasn’t been as integrated as it could be, the various entities working in an ad hoc fashion at best and only coalescing around certain issues. Attempts have been made to integrate in a strategic way, but it’s never worked well. What’s your strategy to get everybody here working as one?
Let me make it very clear: there will be no ad hoc anything. We are coming in with a strategy, and every community in the region needs to understand that it will be an integral component of the strategy.
The fact that I am bicultural, bilingual and am from both sides of the border, that will give me a leg up in bringing these various components together.
My strategy is to build trust, to build respect, but to also to identify those assets we can leverage together as a region. We need to think regionally, and we need to think globally. This organization will be a world-class organization. This organization will be something that is going to be watched. It’s the first of its kind – the first binational economic development alliance. What better place than the borderplex to do this?
Q: How will you sell the idea to the leadership in Juárez?
Just like we need to make the region attractive, we need to make this new organization attractive. The way we make this organization attractive is by having a very detailed, solid strategic plan that shows everyone we are serious about coming together and promoting the region to the world. I don’t think there’s ever been a true regional strategic plan that has resonated across the board, and this one will.
Q: What is the region?
The anchor cities are Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and Las Cruces, but I’m seeing beyond that. I’m seeing West Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua.
Q: You spoke of the region’s assets. What assets does the region have?
Really the greatest asset is its people; we’ve got a good workforce, and we’ve got to continue to develop the workforce. We’ve got our military installations, which are tremendous assets. We have our manufacturing and logistics base that is world class. We have two major highways; Interstate 10 is a tremendous asset. We have a huge tourism opportunity as well.
We have our universities. I haven’t done that math yet, but we have thousands of college students in the region – everything from NMSU to community college in El Paso, UTEP, the Texas Tech medical school and Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. Research is going to become very important. We need to make sure UTEP reaches tier one.
Q: One threat to the long-term prosperity of the region, experts have said, has been the educational attainment of the local workforce. How important is it to build the workforce?
The most important. Helping our youth become educated and develop the skills to compete on a worldwide basis is a top priority. We’ve got to work with the school districts, community colleges and universities to make sure that happens.
Developing that brainpower to compete globally, that is to me the priority in all economic development efforts – to have a highly qualified workforce so we can bring in high tech, so we can bring in the biosciences.
Q: Much of the economic development effort up to now has largely involved identifying sectors that would be a good fit for the region, reaching out to companies in those sectors with a sales pitch and then sweetening the deal with tax incentives. It hasn’t worked real well. Is that how Borderplex is going to do economic development?
The best incentive you can give any company you are trying to attract is to be attractive. What I mean by that is you have to shore up all those components we’ve been talking about – workforce, quality of life, logistics.
You’ve got to be able to say to these companies, “When you come to the borderplex you’ll have museums, you’ll have parks, your children will have good schools and you will be safe.” All those things are very important to people. Working with established organizations to develop that will be very important to me.
The idea here is not to come in and switch things up; the idea here is to come in, identify the work that is being done and organize it in a fashion that allows us, very quickly, to get up to speed and align the efforts.
Q: The Feser report said one of REDCo’s weaknesses was it lacked full stakeholder support. How might Borderplex build those ties with local organizations?
Look, I can’t speak to what happened in the past; I can only talk to you about what I plan to do along with my board and stakeholders. I’ll tell you, as long as you have a solid plan that is transparent, that is predictable and is reliable, then you will begin to attract those individuals and organizations that may have strayed away. I can assure you people stray away from things they don’t believe in, and once you show them something to believe in, they come back.
Q: How would the new organization be funded?
From what I understand the new organization is going to be funded from private sector stakeholders in the region.
Q: So there would be no public sector funding?
Q: How quickly do you hope to have this all up and running?
(Laughs) Well, I’ll find out when I come in on Monday. We can have this conversation next week, but what’s really promising to me is there seems to be a tremendous amount of excitement in the region. Generating that excitement and a willingness to work together is half the battle.
Q: As a member of the Texas Public Utility Commission, you’ve become known as an advocate for solar power. Do you have a special interest in developing solar here in the Sun City?
I will take a special interest in renewable resources – the Borderplex is primed for that. If we can take advantage of our asset base like I’m talking about, which includes the sun, it’s a win win. I would love to see the region become the solar hub of North America.
Q: Besides your overall duties as CEO, is there any particular area you’d like to be responsible for or focus on? Say public policy, research or recruitment?
There’s going to be a need to focus on advocacy and public policy very quickly. We are in the middle of a legislative session in Austin, we have a new president in Mexico and we have President Obama who has another four years, so advocacy for the region is going to be very important.
I will take the reins on ensuring we have a regionally based public policy strategy. I see us spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City.
Q: You’re good friends with the governor and many other politicos in Texas. How will your political connections be an asset?
I want to encourage all my friends to come take a look at the exciting things we are going to be doing in the Borderplex.
Q: I loved the photo you posted to Twitter recently of you with George P. Bush on a hunting trip.
(Laughs) Well, look, I think I posted that in the middle of the night when I wasn’t thinking.
Q: It’s always dangerous tweeting late at night.
Here’s the thing; the one thing I pride myself in is the fact I’ve been able to work on both sides of the aisle. We need to focus on ensuring we work for the common good, for the entire region, and partisan politics get in the way.
In San Antonio, we have such a tremendous environment for bipartisanship, and this is where I’ve spent my career learning the ropes, and this is how I think. I’ve got strong relationships on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the border.
Q: To be frank, the GOP has struggled to connect with Hispanic voters, which makes you sort of a rarity. Now you’re moving to one of the few blue counties in Texas where more than 80 percent of the population is Hispanic. Why do you think Republicans have struggled to win over Hispanic voters?
I can’t speak to that. What I can say is conservative values are very important to me but moderation is more important.
Here’s the thing; just like I say the region needs to become attractive and the Borderplex needs to be attractive, I think the Republican Party needs to become attractive. Before Republicans can expect to attract Latino voters, they first have to empower Latinos.
Q: What do you mean by moderation?
We’ve got to focus on our values and one of those values, especially as a public official, is ensuring that whatever you do is in the best interest of the people. Starting there, you can usher in a new environment that allows for progress to be made.
Q: For some time now, there has been speculation you would run for public office, specifically the District 23 Congressional seat, and your move to El Paso is adding fuel to the fire. Are you in this for the long term?
Absolutely. My only focus right now is to come to the region to help develop the regional economy.
Q: You’ve mentioned before that you would like to create a program that identifies and fosters conservative talent in Texas. Is that something you’re looking to bring to El Paso?
The program we are developing is a statewide program; I’m working on it with George P. Bush. We are trying to create a program where those individuals who are conservative and would like to enter into public service have a place to go to learn what it really means to run for public office.
We don’t have anything like that right now. I have been amazed by the number of individuals who have approached me for guidance on how to get involved and George has the same situation.
Q: Some expressed concerns about the culture of secrecy at the Paso del Norte Group. What are your views on how transparent the alliance should be?
I can promise you the culture I will bring to this new organization will be one of transparency, openness and inclusiveness. I can’t speak for the past, but REDCo and PdNG are no longer. We have a brand new organization that will have the opportunity to start again. The exciting part is we get to do it on a truly regional scale.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.