A new, $9 million building equipped with the latest in scientific technology was dedicated Dec. 15 at the Texas A&M-Kingsville University Citrus Center at Weslaco.

The two-story building replaced converted military barracks dating back to World War II that were hauled to the site from a nearby military base in Harlingen, according to center director Dr. John da Graca.

“Those old buildings were getting very expensive to maintain, so we are especially pleased to be in our new facilities that will help us carry on the 60- year tradition here of excellence in research,” he said.

The center’s achievements over that time include development of deep red grapefruit varieties, including the Star Ruby and Rio Red varieties developed by Dr. Richard Hensz, a former director of the center who traveled from his home in Kerrville to attend the ceremony.

“The Rio Red is the main variety grown in Texas,” da Graca said. “The Rio Red and the Star Ruby are widely grown in other countries including South Africa, Australia, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel and Argentina.”

New varieties in pipeline

The development of new varieties continues, with several “in the pipeline,” da Graca said.

“This new building will help us meet the current and future challenges of maintaining a healthy, profitable citrus industry that generates badly needed jobs and income. It will also help us continue helping local students earn their graduate degrees, 50 of whom have done so already,” he said.

Several state officials praised the center’s scientific research history as the foundation for the Texas citrus industry’s past and future.

“Planning for the fine facilities we are dedicating today began 10 years ago,” said Dr. Allen Rasmussen, dean of the Dick and Mary Lewis Kleberg College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Sciences at Texas A&M-Kingsville.

“Funds were provided by state tuition revenue bonds, but the term is misleading,” he said. “It was not paid for with any tuition anybody has paid; it was paid for by the citizens of Texas.”

World-class scientists

“The eight professors at this center are world-class scientists who do significant research here, known both nationally and internationally,” said Dr. Steven Tallant, president of Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

He cited various areas of ongoing research at the center including identifying and developing strategies for several serious diseases and pests, solving post-harvest problems, the development of new pesticide registrations, molecular biology, investigations of genetic disease and cold tolerance, and researching the role citrus compounds can play in preventing human diseases.

“This new building is symbolic of where we’re going scientifically for the people of Texas,” he said.

“This facility is a gem in our educational system of Texas,” said state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

“Battling diseases, improving orchard production, developing new citrus varieties and all the first-class research that goes on here helps the Texas citrus industry compete with China, Florida, California and all the other citrus-producing regions of the world,” he said

Lucio also cited the center’s successful efforts in creating and managing the state mandatory virus-free budwood certification program for nurseries throughout Texas, both commercial and homeowner.

State-of-the-art

In thanking the center’s faculty and staff for providing the scientific research that supports the area’s annual $200 million industry, Lucio presented a State Senate proclamation to Dr. Michael D. McKinney, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, and Tallant.

Texas Agriculture commissioner Todd Staples praised the center for teamwork and collaboration in helping the Texas Department of Agriculture develop state regulations.

Other speakers or state officials on hand for the ceremony included state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco; state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City; Paul Heller, chairman of the Citrus Center’s advisory committee; and Josue Reyes, senior project manager of Skanska, the building construction contractors.

The new building is a two-story, 25,000-square-feet facility with state-of-the-art laboratories.

“The first floor features administrative offices, meeting rooms, classroom and diagnostic laboratories,” said da Graca. “The second floor consists of a core laboratory, specialized laboratories, offices for faculty and technicians, and graduate student cubicles.”

Construction began in the summer of 2009 and was completed this year. Staff and faculty moved from their old facilities to the new one in August.

Following the dedication ceremony, a luncheon was held in the new auditorium, sponsored by Texas Citrus Mutual and TexaSweet Marketing.

Becky Bonham, chairperson of Texas Citrus Mutual presented the Citrus Center with a poster depicting the family tree of Texas grapefruit.

Solomon Torres, representing U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, presented a ceremonial U.S. flag, and Barbara and Jimmie Steidinger presented a check to Tallant for a scholarship endowment for Citrus Center graduate students.