2:35 p.m. Sept. 2: This story has been updated with additional comments.
The federal government is awarding a $40 million prize to the University of Texas at El Paso and its partners to revitalize the area’s manufacturing sector and strengthen U.S. aerospace and defense industries.
“I cannot tell you what this means to us, what it means to every student I teach, what it means to every (person) I interact with in this beautiful community, and you will not be disappointed,” said Ahsan Choudhuri, associate vice president of UTEP’s Aerospace Center and the El Paso coalition’s leader. “American manufacturing will be reborn in El Paso and that is a promise.”
The award, part of the Biden administration’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge, was announced Friday by President Joe Biden. The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan, an economic recovery and pandemic relief bill passed by Congress in 2021 without Republican support.
“They’re going to empower small manufacturers in Michigan, Kansas, North Carolina, El Paso, Texas, helping them modernize and become part of a supply chain for cutting edge technologies, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, aerospace,” Biden said of the programs funded by the grant program.
The El Paso project was among 21 proposals across the country to be selected for awards ranging from $25 million to $65 million, part of an effort to boost regional economies, develop and strengthen industries, create good-paying jobs and enhance the country’s global competitiveness. El Paso was the only Texas city selected for the grant.
Among the goals of the West Texas Aerospace and Defense Manufacturing Coalition, led by UTEP, is to support the metamorphosis of hundreds of small- and medium-sized manufacturers into companies that can support the needs of the aerospace and defense industries. Along with that, the alliance plans to create high-paying jobs for employees, including UTEP graduates, who want to stay in the Paso del Norte region.
Choudhuri said he was confident in his coalition’s plan.
“El Paso has the talent,” Choudhuri said, adding that UTEP had produced more than 1,500 graduates in the past 10 years who have earned jobs with defense and aerospace contractors. “El Paso has the infrastructure and El Paso has the resolve to make this happen. We’re a community that if we think we’ll do something, we will do something.”
Choudhuri said the first step is to build a 200,000-square foot aerospace center/advanced manufacturing campus near the El Paso International Airport. He expects to start the project in fall 2023. The plan is to grow the facility to 3 million square feet by the end of the decade, and to relocate 200 to 300 small- to medium-sized manufacturers there.
He mentioned that El Paso’s history included manufacturing, and that its future would include advanced manufacturing of components needed in the United States, especially its defense systems, so the country would not depend on a broken global supply chain.
Choudhuri met with the media Thursday to discuss the grant, on condition that the details not be disclosed until after the Biden administration made its announcement Friday. Also present to announce the award were White House Senior Advisor Gene Sperling, Assistant Commerce Secretary Alejandra Y. Castillo and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso.
Escobar praised Choudhuri, a friend for many years, for his efforts. She said both lamented the fact that El Paso lacked the industries and good-paying jobs that would keep many of his students in El Paso.
The congresswoman said that connecting defense manufacturing with a talented workforce has never been more important because of today’s global challenges. She said the Build Back Better plan in a post-COVID world will benefit many communities just like El Paso.
“Many of our young people want to stay in El Paso,” Escobar said. “They just need an opportunity. They need a great job and they need to be able to contribute in a way that is meaningful to them.”
Escobar recalled that the seed of the region’s winning proposal was planted in 2018. She said that she and Choudhuri attended a lunch with university, community and business leaders. She said an official with the Lockheed Martin aerospace company mentioned that his industry saw the need to improve its supply chain and suggested that El Paso, with its university, talent and leaders like Choudhuri, was a great place to make that happen.
“It’s like the bulb went off above our heads,” Escobar said. “(Choudhuri and I) looked at each other and said ‘oh my gosh, that’s the plan.’ This is the culmination of that plan.”
Among those who hope to benefit from this award are Pablo Rodriguez, owner of El Paso-based Prod Design & Analysis, and Alberto Meza, a UTEP mechanical engineering doctoral student.
Rodriguez, a native El Pasoan, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to El Paso, but could not find suitable employment so he bounced around several jobs before returning to El Paso to start his own company almost 19 years ago.
Prod Design in East El Paso has 120 employees, with half being engineers and technicians. The company manufactures devices for medical procedures such as open heart surgery.
He met Choudhuri about three years ago and as a result of their talks, he created a splinter company two months ago, Prod Aerospace, that will cater to aerospace and defense contractors.
“We do see that market coming to El Paso,” said Rodriguez, who added that several contractors have already contacted him. “We see that little sparkle in their eyes.”
Meza, born in El Paso and raised in Ciudad Juárez, said he is passionate about aerospace, but was concerned that he would not be able to find a suitable job in the region – until now. He said the Build Back Better award gives him hope that he will be able to stay in his hometown and contribute to its growth.
“I want to stay close to El Paso and the people I love so much,” Meza said. “This is my path to give back.”
The Commerce Department’s Castillo said the winning programs, chosen from 60 finalists, would generate transformational change. She stressed that an important aspect of the competition, which attracted 529 applicants, was the regional input about what would drive economic development.
“We’re thrilled that this funding will especially impact Texas manufacturing industry and help small and mid-sized firms co-locate with research and innovation assets as well as train and educate a diverse STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce that includes a large rural population,” Castillo said.
This Build Back Better announcement followed a Tuesday groundbreaking celebration for the university’s $80 million Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace Center at the corner of Rim Road and Hawthorne Street on campus. The four-story, 98,000-square-foot building will be used for innovative research and academic space.
Correction: This story was updated at 6 a.m. to correct the grant amount.