HARLINGEN — The city saw some familiar ups and surprising dips in its retail sales, with major businesses opening or expanding while sales tax dollars rumbled like a roller coaster.
New businesses opening this year included a car dealership, a call center, a wine house, a salon and a café, and that’s just the beginning.
Bert Ogden Toyota Scion opened in August at 8721 W. Expressway 83. The 56,000-square-foot dealership immediately began doing a brisk business, selling more than 200 vehicles in the first month. The dealership had been located at 602 W. Jackson Ave. where it employed 55 people.
It opened at its new location with more than 100 employees, said General Manager Adrian Burone. There were plans to add another 150 employees in the near future.
Burone, a Brownsville native, appreciated the robust sales.
“People from all sides of Cameron and Hidalgo counties have given us support,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people who have chosen to drive a little farther just to come to our service department because of the great job they do.”
The dealership sits on 10 acres. Burone says future plans include the development of another six acres for expansion.
Qualfon opened its doors in May with 147 employees. But the call center has the capacity to employ more than 600 people.
A statement from the new business on Haine Drive off Ed Carey Drive said Harlingen is a city rich with outstanding technical support, customer service and sales talent that is 60 percent bilingual.
“In addition, Harlingen’s low cost of living combined with Qualfon’s industry-leading employee tenure rates offer clients ideal value in the USA for contact center and back-office outsourcing services,” said the Qualfon statement.
Several new businesses also opened in the downtown area. Armando’s Tuxedos opened early this year at 102 E. Jackson Ave., the location of a former Subway. Armando’s Tuxedos owner Gus Corona said Downtown Harlingen helped him with a 50/50 matching incentive grant. The $874.01 grant paid for his sign, a bold “Armando’s Tuxedos” across the side.
“It helped a lot,” Corona said. “It gave us money to do other stuff that we needed like get inventory, stuff we had to do inside as far as dressing rooms and painting, so it really helps.”
The tuxedo shop is the third opened by Corona.
“I’ve been looking for awhile now for a new location, and I came across it on the Internet,” said Corona, who owns two other tuxedo stores in Brownsville and Weslaco. He said he really likes the downtown area. He also likes the setup of the corner store, which has lots of windows.
“I saw the local shops around it and I thought it would just be a good fit for a tuxedo shop,” he said.
The attractive downtown area, which includes locally-owned clothing shops and antique stores each with their own special personality, may have convinced Luis Betancourt and his wife to open Carlito’s Wine House in August. The first of its kind here, Carlito’s at 204 W. Jackson Ave. is a rustic comfortable establishment with large leather sofas, wooden coffee tables, a high ceiling and brick walls.
Patrons can choose from a variety of wines from Napa Valley in northern California, plus Washington, Oregon, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and Argentina.
“We enjoy wine,” Betancourt said. “We enjoy what wine does to people. It brings them together. It’s kind of like having wine with friends in your living room. That’s the concept.”
Next door, Michelle Ballin recently opened The Vanity Lash Hair and Waxing Studio at 206 W. Jackson Ave. She’d been in business for several years at another location but decided she wanted to be on Jackson Avenue.
“I like the old buildings,” she said. “I wanted that Audrey Hepburn ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ look.”
Ballin opened the salon at its previous location several years ago because she wanted to bring something new to Harlingen. “It’s a full blowout bar, a one stop shop,” she said. “They can come in and get their hair shampooed and their nails done, their color done, their lashes done.”
Up the street at 204 E. Jackson Ave., John and Beth Fuqua opened J&B’s Café in October. The Java Café did business there for years, but the new owners have given the dining room and menu a noticeable makeover.
Pat and Sue Thomas have operated Twinkets and Friends for about a month. The two retired teachers have five businesses renting space in the store at 122 1/2 W. Jackson Ave. Those five businesses are filled with vintage furniture, crafts and antique home goods such as mixing bowls and glass. The shop has quickly become a draw for people wishing to visit the Thomases or other customers.
Juiceology Juice Bar, LLC opened in July at 210 E. Jackson Ave. It’s an organic juice bar that offers freshly-made vegetable and fruit juice, smoothies and protein shakes. Other downtown businesses this year include Escanuela Fine Art at 103 W. Jackson Ave. and Honey Bees, a boutique at 208 W. Jackson Ave.
In spite of all this activity, the city’s monthly sales tax revenue bounced all over the place.
In July and August, the city received increases in sales tax dollars of more than 9 percent from last year. In August, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sent Harlingen $2.054 million, a 9.21 increase from last year’s $1.880 million.
However, in September, the city received only a 4 percent increase in sales tax dollars.
Although the increase wasn’t as high as the previous two months, Mayor Chris Boswell was nevertheless pleased about the numbers.
“Nine, nine and four percent is great,” he said. “That’s five straight months of increases and almost four percent total for the whole year. That amounts to a total increase of nearly $800,000 for the year. More than we expected. Those are very good numbers.”
In October, however, the city didn’t see an increase at all. In fact, Harlingen had a startling 4.485 percent decrease in sales tax dollars when it received $1.644 million in revenue. The previous year the city received $1.728 million for the month.
Raudel Garza, manager and CEO of the Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, said he doesn’t worry too much about monthly fluctuations in receipts.
“When you look at the year over year gains of more than three percent, Harlingen is having a very good year,” Garza said. “In an economy of over $1 billion in annual taxable retail sales, that annual increase equates to about $35 million more in taxable sales from our Harlingen businesses.”
In November, the city rebounded with a 2.93 percent increase in sales tax revenues over 2014.
Business continues at a brisk pace into the New Year.
Plans are underway to restore the Baxter Building downtown. The city has agreed to sell the building to MRE Capital, a Kansas City, Mo., company on the condition it qualifies for state and federal tax credits to renovate the structure. The company has applied for the tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Housing Tax Credit Program.
If MRE qualifies for state and federal tax credits, it will pay the Harlingen Community Improvement Board $250,000 for the building while investing $4.5 million to renovate it to its original condition.
Boswell hailed the agreement.
“I think it’s the most unique because of the nine stories and because it’s going to be restored,” Boswell said. “If you consider a $4.5 million investment, anywhere in our city we would welcome that.”
City leaders are counting on the Baxter Building’s renovation to help cap the downtown’s revitalization.
“It’s a huge eyesore and concern,” downtown Manager Cheryl LaBerge said. “It’s been tough having that blighted area in the middle of downtown.”
LaBerge said the city’s plans to renovate the Baxter Building have helped lead more business owners to invest in storefronts near the nine-story building.
“I think that made people feel it’s being addressed and feel they could invest,” LaBerge said.
And just recently, city leaders launched a $14 million project to build a convention center in the business district. The project would include an “upscale hotel,” Boswell said.
The city has been trying for more than 20 years to build a convention center that would attract more tourist dollars.
“I really feel great about getting to this point,” Boswell said. “We’re excited about the prospect of moving forward. We still have hurdles to resolve but basic points regarding the structure of the agreement have been agreed on, in principle, between the developer and city.”
Some other projects started early last year are still in the process.
The $10 million Palms Behavioral Health Center on Victoria Lane was expected to be completed in 2015. Boswell said the project is well underway but not yet complete.
The $2.6 million multi-purpose building at St. Anthony Catholic Church is nearing completion, as is the $3.2 million Cameron County Communications Center at 501 Camelot Drive.
The building permit for a new Golden Corral was for $1.35 million. Work continues on that project. Hooters of America LLC., has submitted a building permit application for $1.25 million. The restaurant chain is planning construction of a new restaurant at the northwest corner of Dixieland Road and Harrison Avenue.
Work is scheduled to begin Feb. 1 and be completed by May 1.