SCOTT NORTON is Executive Director and CEO at TexAmericas Center—one of the largest mixed-use industrial parks in the Americas, with 12,000 acres and 3.5 million square feet of commercial and industrial property.
TexAmericas Center prides itself on innovation and forward-thinking that allows businesses to grow and expand. To do that, we need to be open to new ideas and suggestions from new people. A partnership between a group of college students at Texas A&M has pushed us to think outside the box and lean on young minds to help us envision the future for businesses. It is a win-win and makes us excited about the future for economic development.
Located on the Texas side of the Texarkana metropolitan area, TexAmericas Center owns and operates one of the largest mixed-use industrial parks in the United States. With roughly 12,000 development-ready acres of land and approximately 3.5 million square feet of commercial and industrial product, TexAmericas Center services four states—Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.
This year, the organization celebrates its 25th anniversary. Over the years, they’ve continued to learn on people who might offer new perspectives to the “business as usual” mantra. The partnership with students in the Master of Land and Property Development (MLPD) Program within the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University allows us to do just that.
Since 2020, TexAmericas Center has worked with Texas A&M College Station students for a semester-long project that allows them to devise real plans to develop hundreds of acres of land and attract businesses to the Texarkana region. For this year’s project, they identified 400 acres on the TexAmericas Center West Campus as property that could ideally accommodate a data center park with green energy amenities.
TexAmericas Center is confident in the labor market where workers have been plentiful and expenses are low. That’s part and parcel of the attraction TexAmericas Center offers to 21st century manufacturers: The Texarkana MSA has a manufacturing participation rate of nearly 20%, has a labor surplus, and delivers dramatically lower operating costs than most other locations in Texas. From utilities and taxes to overhead and labor, business costs at TexAmericas Center average between 20 and 30% less than the other major Texas MSAs.
The caveat to the project with Texas A&M was that it’s uncommon to use “green energy amenities” in the same sentence as a data center park, since a lot of energy is required to run operations without interruption. At TexAmericas Center, we’re hearing more and more from businesses that are cognizant of their carbon footprint, looking for responsible ways to exhaust their energy, and setting themselves up for expansion in ways that are ecologically friendly and productive. Texas A&M students in the MLPD program were challenged to develop a vision – and a plan – to bring the West Campus property to fruition while accommodating environmentally ethical solutions.
Over the course of the semester, student groups incorporated best business practices with financial considerations for construction, land transformation, business and jobs attraction, as well as provided due diligence recommendations for economic and community development. Their presentations focused on an initial 200,000 square feet of data center space on the West Campus location because of low-cost electricity and a reliable grid, its robust capacity for fiber optics connections, and incentives that are applicable to data center operations.
In efforts to promote the area as an eco-friendly green park, the student groups encouraged the adoption of provisions to protect and enhance wetlands located adjacent to the site. They also cited the adjacent, underdeveloped 1,100 Engie-NA solar farm as being highly complementary to data center site selection needs. “This was no small task. We were impressed by the students’ willingness to take the project head-on and offer ideas we hadn’t even considered,” said Jeff Whitten, Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer at TexAmericas Center.
To do the job well, students had to exercise their networks to produce and bring the best product back to TexAmericas Center and achieve the best grade. Connecting with TexAmericas Center staff and its vendors was step one in tackling the project. At the end of the semester, TexAmericas Center employees traveled to College Station to attend the student presentations, evaluate the plans, and provide valuable feedback and coaching to students.
“This project allowed the students in the Capstone Course to take the knowledge they have acquired throughout the MLPD program, as well as their individual job experiences, and apply it to a tough, real-world situation,” said Dan Leverett, Professor of Practice at Texas A&M University, and the professor who taught and coached the team of students. “The teamwork, research, financial analysis, networking, and presentation skills are invaluable to the toolkit that these students take to the job market. The students at Texas A&M offered TexAmericas Center an outside perspective and pushed us to be more innovative.”
On the flip side, we believe this project provided valuable experience to the students preparing to enter the job market. Entry-level jobs would not allow the input and hands-on opportunities they got to experience during the semester-long course. Now, they are able to put the project on their resumes, which we believe will help them stand out in the job market.
“A real-world project like this gives students valuable experience. It teaches them about networking, hard work, and precision. It also gives them an opportunity to see if they would like to enter this type of workforce,” Whitten said. “From our perspective, TexAmericas Center gets to benefit from their innovation and forward-thinking. We can’t think of a better win-win situation.”
TexAmericas Center is already looking forward to the next project – almost as much as it are hopeful to hiring these students someday. “We started this partnership in 2020 and have used the ideas from students to push our organization forward and help businesses. Students get to see this isn’t just an exercise. We’re actually using their very valuable ideas to build a stronger economy and provide opportunities for business and the workforce,” Whitten said.