Breaking ground for a new citrus center in South Texas signals the next chapter in the book of 60 years of research excellence, said Dr. Michael D. McKinney, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System.
McKinney and others ceremoniously turned spades of soil June 23 to kick off the construction of new research facilities for the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco.
“We break ground today for new facilities at the birthplace of the Star Ruby and Ruby Red, dark red grapefruit varieties that are grown and enjoyed all over the world,” McKinney said.
He said the next 60 years would bring unimaginable marvels.
“The research conducted here is of great advantage not only to this area, but in Turkey, Australia, South Africa and many other citrus growing regions,” he said. “This new center will help extend that reach into phases we haven’t even thought of yet.”
Other speakers at the groundbreaking included Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; Dr. John da Graca, center director; state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.; state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez; Dr. Steven H. Tallant, president of Texas A&M-Kingsville; Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual; and Geof Edwards, of the architectural firm Kell Munoz in San Antonio.
Da Graca said the ceremony marked the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one.
“Since 1948, citrus research here was conducted in refurbished army barracks that were dragged to Weslaco from the deactivated Harlingen Air Base,” he said.
“They’ve been remodeled many times over the years, but maintenance on these old structures has been tedious and expensive.”
Da Graca said the new facilities will be state-of-the-art.
“The first floor will have meeting rooms, classrooms, diagnostics laboratories and administrative office,” he said. “The second floor will house research laboratories, student cubicles and faculty offices. A large open laboratory will include space for specialized equipment and containment labs for tissue cultures, a cold room and mass spectroscopy equipment.”
Construction is scheduled to begin in July and should be completed next summer.
Martinez said the new facility will be an area showplace.
“I am so proud to be here,” he said. “The new Citrus Center will be a jewel in the crown for Weslaco and the Rio Grande Valley. It has been a long time coming.”
Staples said the center would attract experts and researchers from afar.
“This center, with its continued research, will be an anchor for the citrus industry,” he said. “It will attract people from all over the world to learn here, to train here. It will continue to place Weslaco as a big, bright spot on the map.”
Tallant said the new facility presented endless possibilities and was part of a much larger construction effort at the main Texas A&M-Kingsville campus, some 120 miles north of Weslaco.
“Imagine decoding the genetic basis of cold tolerance to resist future freezes here,” Tallant said, referring to two tree-killing freezes in the 1980s. "This new center will be an example for the whole world to emulate. It’s been a great 60 years and will get even better."
Lucio noted the impact of the center’s history.
“We do research here that impacts the entire world,” he said. “I am very proud of the scientists and workers here. They need to be thanked, not just by me, but by the people of the Valley and the whole country. They reap the benefits on their kitchen tables each and every day when they have citrus or orange juice or grapefruit juice at breakfast.”
Prewett, who was praised by Lucio for his lobbying efforts in Austin to fund the new construction, brought applause from the crowd of about 100 when he alluded to the area’s $120 million citrus industry.
“We do grow the best grapefruit in the world,” he said. “But the credit for the good fruit and the strong industry is a credit to this place. On behalf of the citrus industry, thanks. Our successes couldn’t have happened without this center.”
Edwards, of the architectural firm contracted for the new building, said the final designs were the result of excellent collaborations with citrus center staff.
“I was amazed at all the agricultural successes this center has enjoyed over the years,” he said. “And those successes will continue in a first-class, world-class facility that we can all be proud of.”