Plans for sports complex draw fire

RAYMONDVILLE — Willacy County’s proposed $25 million project to build a sports and entertainment center is drawing criticism amid the area’s growing economic crisis.

After years of planning, county commissioners last week accepted a master plan that calls for the phased development of the Willacy County Natural Resource and Heritage Center.

The complex is planned for 100 acres of county-owned land off State Highway 186 near Interstate 69.

The project would be funded through grant money, said Sally Velasquez, the county’s consultant.

But some residents question whether the project will ever materialize.

Yesterday, the project drew criticism from residents concerned about spending amid an economic crisis that stems from last year’s closure of the Willacy County Correctional Center, which slashed a third of the county’s $8.1 million budget.

Last week, the fiscal crisis deepened after Walmart announced the closure of Raymondville’s store, which employs about 110 workers.

“It’s going to take a lot of money to get it done,” Armando Correa, a farmer and longtime community leader, said of the proposed project. “They better get some money. The county is in pretty bad shape financially. People I talk to say they don’t think it’ll ever get done.”

Correa said residents cannot afford to help fund the project.

“If it’s going to cost the taxpayer, it’s a different story,” Correa said.

Joe Alexandre, a businessman who twice served as Raymondville’s mayor, said he does not believe the county can win grant funding for the project.

“I don’t think they can come up with $25 million in grants,” Alexandre said. “It’s good to plan positive for the residents but you’ve got to get down to the real world right now.”

He said commissioners should keep their focus on working to reopen the prison.

“It’s a crazy idea to be considering at this time,” Alexandre said. “This is a crisis in Willacy County. It’s going to impact the economy hard.”

Alexandre said questions surrounded the funding of the center’s operation and maintenance costs.

“Not everything is free,” he said.

Businessman Glenn Harding said the project would duplicate Raymondville’s new $1.2 million sports complex that features playing fields.

“The city’s got one on the northwest side and the county will have one on the east side,” Harding said, referring to projects to build sports complexes.

Harding questioned the use of grant money to fund the project.

“I think Willacy County has great expectations and ambitions — if someone will give them the money for it,” Harding said. “I say it will be decades before it happens. But they can dream.”

Corpus Christi-based Naismith Engineering drafted the master plan that calls the project’s development in four phases “based on need.”

Velasquez said the center would create needed jobs while holding events to draw tourism to the area.

The project’s first phase would include a baseball and softball complex made up of five fields featuring bleachers, a concession stand and restrooms.

A second phase includes a $1.3 million uncovered arena that would stage livestock events.

The master plan also proposes a $7.6 million project to cover the arena.

A third phase calls for development of a $4.5 million civic center and tower that would hold meetings, county fairs and other events.

A fourth phase would develop two football fields, five soccer fields and five baseball and softball fields at a total cost of $2.9 million.

Velasquez said the county has applied to the Texas General Land Office’s Texas Coastal Management Program for funding.

County Commissioner Eliberto Guerra said he has worked on the project for about five years.

In 2011, the county’s past administration paid $737,000 for the project’s 100-acre site.

But then-Commissioner Noe Loya argued the land was located on a flood plain, adding it would cost $2.5 million to buy dirt to fill the site.

In 2014, the past administration agreed to use $2 million in wind farm revenue to help fund the project.

At the time, commissioners voted to allocate annual sums of $200,000 generated through a 10-year agreement with Duke Energy, a wind farm operator.

The project’s first $200,000 allocation would fund an architectural design and environmental study.

Then last year, County Judge Aurelio Guerra said commissioners agreed to delay the project as they tried to offset a $220,000 monthly shortfall that stemmed from the prison’s closure.