A dispirited group of Del Rio businessmen met in the bad depression days of 1936 and requested a charter from the State of Texas to form a Chamber of Commerce in the town that then called itself “the Queen City of the Rio Grande.” They had all of the New Deal remedies from Washington and decided that self help was their only solution.
With nothing to lose and a lot of originality, our first Executive Director decided to write an invitation to a doctor from Kansas who had very nearly been elected as their governor, but had subsequently been run out of the state by the medical association and wanted to move where he could practice and advertise his unique work as he wished.
That doctor’s name was John R. Brinkley; he came to Del Rio-Acuña and built XERA, the most powerful radio station in the world, to advertise his procedures and for years kept his clinic in the top floor of the Rosewell Hotel. His business interest was the biggest and most controversial industry in town until Laughlin was opened in 1941.
At the end of World War II, Laughlin closed down, and growth in Del Rio slowed. Some people have been unkind enough to say that without the advent of air conditioning at that time, no one would have been able to stay in Del Rio at all. The Korean War re-activated the demand for wool and mohair in the 50s and Del Rio again became “the wool and mohair capitol of the world”; however, a seven year drought occurred in the later 50s which almost broke the ranching industry, which was still the biggest part of Del Rio’s economy.
Again in a time of need, the Chamber went to work on two of its most important and successful projects. Laughlin Air Force Base was re-activated in 1952 with an upswing in economics and growth, and became a S.A.C base in 1957. The S.A.C. group was the elite of the Air Force and had traveled the world. They became an important part of Del Rio’s cultural and economic life and many stayed here or returned as they retired from service.
The Chamber’s second great success at that time was to get the government of the United States and Mexico to build a man-made water reservoir on our portion of the Rio Grande. As we were celebrating the good news of the Amistad Dam, disaster struck when it was announced in 1961 that Laughlin was slated to be closed. The Chamber and its Military Affairs Association led a battle that kept only Laughlin open of the 52 bases that were on the early B.R.A.C list.
The Chamber became increasingly aware of the need for our local economy to diversify our industrial offerings. In 1961, the Chamber and various citizens formed the Del Rio Area Development Foundation to solicit industry. They bought land and in a relatively rare co-operation with the City and County, put in an industrial park which found one tenant and then languished.
This then lead to another accomplishment of the Chamber, our industrial recruitment program which began to boom as Mexico passed laws to allow the creation of the maquila industry. The first new industry came to Acuña in 1969 from Oshkosh under the name Standard Components and at one time hired 1,200 from Acuña to assemble T.V. tuners. The first real maquila was a Sears supplier named Kellwood Industries, and the Chamber and the City cooperated to get them an early version of industrial bond financing.
Acuña, too, began and industrial park in 1973 and the Del Rio Area Development Foundation developed two additional phases in Del Rio. During these years, all industrial prospects were recruited and toured by members of the Chamber’s Industrial Committee. The Chamber’s volunteer leadership was able to compete successfully against hired staff in other border cities, and today we have more maquilas in Acuña than Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo combined. The economic impact of the maquila industry is only second to Laughlin. The only limitation to growth in this industry was infrastructure in Acuña, which is currently investing heavily to upgrade their respective conjoining roads with our Ports-to-Plains corridor that is being completed.
As the Amistad Dam rose and began to capture the clear waters of the Devil’s, Rio Grande, and Pecos Rivers, tourism began to boom in Del Rio. New hotels began being constructed and many in the tourism industry urged the Chamber to support the enactment of a “room tax” which could be used to advertise our city and its environs. A portion of these funds have been turned over to the Chamber, which established the Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the growing tourism industry of Del Rio. More tourists came to enjoy Fiesta De Amistad and Super Bull which both took life as spin-offs from Chamber Committee. The Chamber CVB continues to work to promote our area attractions and works to showcase our community in different mediums of advertising. Using our revenue from the hotel tax, we have been able to get Del Rio exposure in various travel guides and magazines as well as on TV channels like the Food Network, PBS, ESPN, and GAC.
The Chamber has assisted in recruitment of scheduled airlines and recently was able to sustain Continental Airlines, which flies from Del Rio to Houston to anywhere in the world. Our leadership was very influential in building our new airport facilities. In earlier years the Chamber was also a major player in getting the bond issue passed to build our current bridge to Mexico. After studies by the Chamber, our organization pressed hard for some reasonable water policy, and our leadership has continuously worked on City and State boards to protect our water supply.
The Chamber continues to operate with big ideas with minimal finances and our staff works hard to support our business community. For the past 75 years, much of the Chamber’s success has come from continuous pressure to achieve real long term goals. Throughout our history the Chamber continues to rise to the occasion regardless of the economic challenges and we will continue to work to develop and promote economic growth and quality of life for our community. We are a group that has done more for our area than any other, and we will continue to advocate, promote, and protect our local economy.