Texas Border Business –
By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez
James E. ‘Jim’ Darling, mayor of the City of McAllen, is an experienced public servant; he considers that a challenge is an opportunity that brings new ideas to solve problems. He is the 20th mayor of the City of McAllen.
As mayor, he governs the city gently but with a decisive character and a sense of humor equal to none.
He is a Vietnam Vet with two tours of duty 1967-1971 USAF SSGT, and a US Navy Reserve 2nd Class Petty Officer 1973-1977.
Mayor Darling was born James E. Darling in Rochester, New York to parents Ralph Darling and Doris Essig. He said, “My mom was divorced and I was raised by my stepdad, John Essig, for 50 years before he passed away.”
Mayor Darling’s ancestors originally came from Germany; he shared with Texas Border Business that his brother Ron Darling had been doing research and found out that his great, great, great grandfather Captain John Darling fought as a captain in the Civil War. “My brother found that out recently so we know that our family has been here quite a while,” he said.
But how did a New Yorker end up in Deep South Texas? “A job,” he replied.
Mayor Darling is an attorney; he graduated from Baylor Law School in 1977 and Baylor University in Waco Texas with a BA in Psychology in 1975.
He recalls, “It’s interesting. I had a job in Waco all lined up and everything ready, then at the last minute after I took the bar exam, the gentleman said he was going to hire his partner’s nephew.” He said, “I didn’t have a job and looked all over in that city, but I had several job offers, and McAllen was one so I drove down here on 281.”
As he was driving south he realized that it was a very long drive on an almost deserted road and asked himself, “What am I doing here?” Nevertheless, in 1978 he got to McAllen, he liked the people and decided to take the job as assistant city attorney under Rush Milam and three months later he became city attorney. “Rush left and I was pretty much city attorney almost from the get go,” he said. Mayor Darling started his new job during the Othal E. Brand, Sr. era.
He has been in the Valley for 36 years, “It will be 37 years in February 10, 2015,” he stated.
No one can argue that during the different episodes of his professional career and as a public servant, Mayor Darling has amassed a wealth of experience, and less than a handful in the Valley possess his abilities.
He has advised leaders like the late Jack Whetsel, the late Othal E. Brand, Sr., Leo Montalvo, and Richard Cortez, all former mayors of this city and their respective commissioners.
For this reason we asked, “What kind of challenges have you encountered? “No challenges, they are opportunities.” He said, “Even if a challenge is a mistake you make, there’s an opportunity to fix a mistake and become better and so that’s why I’ve always looked at things like that.”
Do you think that you have seen all the challenges? “I was here when we had the police brutality cases back in the early eighties. I went through the McAllen General Hospital sale, which was a big deal for McAllen, and look what that’s done.” He said, “I was the lawyer when the community college was started and that was a challenge but it turned into a great opportunity and we exceeded growth there. I was the lawyer when McAllen Affordable Homes, now Affordable Homes of South Texas was created which is a not for profit organization which has built over 1,800 homes for low income families.”
In general he said that he has been very fortunate to be involved in a lot of growing entities, entities that did new things. He said, “I’ve always looked at it as opportunities and a lot of fun.”
He told Texas Border Business that former city manager Mike Perez used to call him a “crisis junkie”. He said, “To me it’s an exciting process.”
The conversation led us to discuss many issues important to the city such as available water, drainage, and the frequent power outages that it has experienced. He acknowledged that power outages affect businesses tremendously and cause traffic jams because traffic lights don’t work without electricity. He also emphasized the fact that McAllen has the proper infrastructure to attract businesses to the city.
What ideas have you brought to better McAllen? “I brought inclusion for everybody in our region as part of the regional water authority, the other cities joining together, doing and exploring things and then within our city making sure the city commission feels that they have a say in what goes on, not only just a vote but in expressing their ideas about projects they want and the visions that they have.”
He pointed that he brought ideas expressed during a retreat when he first got elected as mayor. “We talked about the individual city commissioner’s vision.” He mentioned that in his case he was a little bored being a city commissioner because he realized throughout the years that the mayor sets the agenda. For him it was important to get the city commissioners really involved besides going to city commission meetings. He said, “Of course, they are involved with their individual boards, bridgeboard, utility board and those kinds of things but really getting involved in their vision for the city.”
During the retreat the commissioners spoke about their vision. He said, “Commissioner Hilda Salinas said since we are a central city it would be important to have an event or a series of spectacular events so it got to be a parade.”
His suggestion to the former city manager was that for such events he needed to hire Joe Vera. He said, “Vera is a promoter and it took about eighteen months to get him here.” City Manager Roy Rodriguez led the final approach in bringing Vera to be part of the team.
“City Commisioner Scott Crane’s vision was to enhance athletic facilities in McAllen and now we have the McAllen Soccer Complex coming onboard as well as the baseball and softball fields. “We had a bond issued for the baseball project and so that happened as well.”
Mayor Darling said that Commissioners Trey Pebley and Aida Ramirez wanted to transform and make it easier for developers to deal with the city. “So now we have the Development Services Center.
Mayor Darling’s vision was to refocus on retail. He said, “Our economic development focused on manufacturing in Mexico, which is fantastic but we were getting our butts kicked all around us because almost all the EDCs are heavily promoting retail for their cities.”
He points that the Chamber is supposed to represent the existing business not new business necessarily. He stated, “I wanted a retail office to be more involved in retail and we appointed Rebecca M. Olaguibel as the Retail and Business Development Director and she is doing a fantastic job.”
At this point what concerns do you have? “The only thing that really concerns me is Internet sales because we don’t get sales tax from that and we are so dependent on sales tax revenue.”
He said that the opportunity is there to work with state and federal lawmakers to make sure the federal government understands the need for cities to collect their share of sales tax and to develop ideas to make it equitable for sales tax collectors.
“We think we should collect it but we need a system to figure out on a mail order which city should be paid and who is responsible for the payment of the tax.” He said that there is more work to be done in that respect.
It is also important to say that Mayor Darling is the lawyer for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR) and he says that is an exciting place to work. “When I started in 2006, I left the city attorney’s position and became general counsel for them. Today we’ve more than doubled in size.” He said, “We went from 1,200 employees to almost 4,000 employees, added all kinds of lines of services, buildings, women’s hospital, behavior hospital and more.”
In addition he said, “To be general counsel for DHR hospital, that is probably one of the fastest growing hospitals anywhere, has been a really exciting thing to do. City attorney stuff was always exciting.”
He said that Doctors Hospital at Renaissance has supported him one hundred percent. “They’ve said take care of the city, make sure you do what you need to do as mayor and so I’ve felt no pressure.” I still have to do my hospital work however.
What about your wife, Sandra? “My wife has been fantastic and my employer has been fantastic and you need that combination to be a good mayor because otherwise you can’t throw yourself into it like you should.”
Does McAllen have a water problem? “No, he explained that McAllen has sufficient water rights and contracts with four different water districts where we have reciprocity of delivery and supply. He said as a region, municipal water has the first call on the water in the reservoir systems on the Rio Grande so that the Cities essentially own the “bottom of the reservoir”, or in other words even in the worse drought, our reservoir was full.
He said that the McAllen Utility Board has done a great job in making sure that McAllen has enough water. He also added that, “We have sufficient plant capacity. We have three reservoirs, two water plants, and four water districts to buy it from so we are in good shape.”
He said that as far as infrastructure the city is building a brand new sewer plant. “We are replacing one.” He admits, “Sewer is a tough deal. We are going to spend $40 million building a new sewer treatment plant, so we have enough infrastructure, water and sewer wise.”
Concerning drainage he said that some of the streets are part of the drainage system. He said, “We are just too flat to have a drainage system that will accommodate everything and keep the streets from being partially flooded.”
The other problem with drainage in McAllen is that the city depends on the county. “We can have great drainage in our city but we can’t get it out of our city because we are choked down when it goes into the county system and for that reason we have holding ponds.”
In this regard he said that the city is fortunate to have a great relationship with the McAllen School District as some of the holding ponds are in the school district’s property. “We have to gather it and hold the water in those ponds in our city so it doesn’t flood people’s houses. We gather it and then slowly release it to the county into the county system.”
Mayor Darling said that last year he worked with Judge Ramon Garcia on a bond issue because part of that bond issued was improvement of a second Raymondville drain, the Willacy County Drain. “The big plan was getting that water out of the system, which benefits everybody, and that is why I supported the bond.”
How important is Mexico for McAllen and the region? “I think whatever happens in Mexico happens to us and we are tied to Mexico because of sales tax revenue.” Mayor Darling said, “Between 30 and 40 percent of our sales tax comes from our friends and shoppers from Mexico”.
He continued, “We’ve looked at the last 20 years of our economic development money and put it in recruiting manufacturing for Mexico and that has resulted in 65,000 jobs for us and 150,000 for Mexico.”
He went on to say that if Mexico gets their act together on issues like security and safety there’s no limit because the Koreans and the Japanese and all the ones that are leading the world in manufacturing want to be closer to the United States and Mexico.
He made that comment because last month, Mayor Darling traveled to South Korea and the first thing people asked is what’s going on with the safety issue?
He understood that they want to be here. “Our selling point besides that, is they want their suppliers to be local. Hyundai Motor Co.-Kia Motors will invest $1 billion in a new factory to be built on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico’s industrial capital, near the Los Ramones gas pipeline to manufacture 300,000 small cars annually for North America and Latin America.”
According to the company website this is the first South Korean auto-assembly plant in Mexico and they expect to have the new factory in production by the first half of 2016.”
On another report, this one comes from Mexico’s history; the U.S. automotive companies have been assembling cars in Mexico since the 1920s.
In the 1960s,Volkswagen and Nissan started to sell to the domestic market and after the free trade agreements the export trade accelerated; Honda and Mazda factories now shine in the 150-mile industrial corridor that stretches from Nissan’s in Aguascalientes all the way through the state of Guanajuato. Soon luxury brands like BMW, Audi, Infiniti, and Mercedes-Benz will come out of Mexico and that’s how Mexico is increasing its rank in the car manufacturing industry.
Mayor Darling is no stranger to manufacturing. He said, “I grew up in upstate New York where a lot of manufacturing took place and Eastman Kodak was one of them with 60,000 people employed when I was growing up.” He said, “Now there are 4,000, you know they made film.”
The mayor also worked when he was a kid in the carbon paper company. He said, “It was the largest carbon paper manufacturer in the world and now it’s closed because it’s an outdated article and people under 30 don’t even know what the heck carbon paper is.” He said that this was an example on how fast things are going.
During his overseas trip he met with labor-intensive companies in Korea. He said, “To get land for them on the US side of the border is going to be more difficult.” Adding that, “The metal pressing, the plastic injection we can land on our side because labor is not a big factor. When you are employing 200 people it’s one thing but when you have 10 employees and you are putting up the same output because it’s automated that’s the one we can land and of course those are good paying jobs, however the stronger Reynosa is, the better-off we are.”
A closer look at Mayor Darling:
Mayor Darling is married to Sandra Mendoza and they have six kids, Amy, Jason, Jerry, Christopher, Jamie, and Jenna.
Mayor how do you perceive yourself as a person? “How I perceive myself is not important. It’s how other people perceive me.”
How old are you? “I’ll be 66.”
Did you give up anything in your life in order to become mayor? “Yes, I mean time with my wife. I don’t sacrifice because I love what I’m doing.
But the fact that she is supporting you that’s what makes you successful? “Yes, she never asked to be in that position and I don’t know if I asked her, probably not.”
Based on that response then you wouldn’t do anything different if you had a chance to change something in the past? “No. No, it’s all been fine. Sometimes I wish I’d been younger when I started public service but…”
How many years did you serve as city attorney? “Twenty-eight years. I had one break in service of one year and a half. I went to Fulbright and Jaworski, a big law firm in Houston, great firm; I just missed the action and came back to McAllen.”
How many years as City commissioner? “Six, and as mayor it’ll be two years in May 2015.”
Do you have any hobbies? “I ride my bike when I can. I don’t get to do it as much as I used to, but I like riding the bike and college football. I love to watch college football.”
I know that cycling is one of your most loved hobbies, really how often do you do it? “I did it yesterday. I went out and did the whole trail on Bicentennial and went back into the one on Second Street to see what the differences were and it’s a great trail. I get to see a lot of great neighborhoods in the city. I get to see potholes, and that’s when I call Roy, he is usually the one who needs to know and I call him when I’m out on the trail.”
How would you like to have been remembered when you leave this earth. “ It’s a philosophical question, but just being remembered is good, right? He continued, “Usually, when people remember you it was because you did something good or bad. I don’t know one if for me it will be one or the other, but I am not concerned with that.”
As long as they remember you? “They don’t even have to do that, because that’s really for your family. You are dead so what difference does it make. I would like my family to be proud of what I did but it’s not important to me to be remembered.”
What do you think your legacy will be? “I haven’t thought about a legacy. I’m not… if anything I think what I’ve tried to bring to the table is that we grow as a region and making sure not only of the region’s growth but also the growth of our individual citizens,” he finalized.
You can see Mayor Darling’s BIOGRAPHICAL Information here. TBB