Mercedes celebrates completion of safe room, rec center

MERCEDES — “It reminds me of the Astrodome.”

Weslaco resident Maria Puga’s sentiment came this past week as she stood inside the gymnasium of Mercedes’ new Safe Room and Community Recreation Center, a 20,000-square-foot facility that sits on 5 acres atop a 7-foot incline at 1202 N. Vermont Ave.

In awe of the structure — a dome with an aerodynamic design built to withstand hurricane-force winds of up to 200 miles per hour — Puga added, “I think the people of the Valley need places like this for safety and emergencies, like big storms.”

It’s a sentiment many shared at Tuesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony, which marked the center’s completion and took on a celebratory tone from local leaders enthusiastic about its potential impact on the community.

Mayor Henry Hinojosa, for instance, stressed that the facility will serve the city in a multi-purpose capacity, specifically in that it will not only provide shelter to the public during inclement weather or a natural disaster but activities for members of the city’s Boys & Girls Club.

Found inside are four classrooms, an exercise facility equipped with weight benches and workout stations, a computer lab with as many as 30 desktops and several printers. Then there’s the aforementioned gym and the rec center floor, where foosball tables, billiards and classic arcade games are available.

As a shelter, the center can temporarily hold up to 760 people and provide access to showers for a small number of residents who may need to stay longer.

Of particular significance to Hinojosa is that the facility is located north of U.S. Expressway 83, where such amenities have historically been lacking. In fact, City Manager Richard Garcia said the highest concentration of youth and the unemployed is north of the expressway.

“Most of, if not all the parks have been on the south side historically, so I made it a point when I won in 2011 to start concentrating on the north side, and this is where we are at,” Hinojosa said before thanking Mayor Pro-Tem Ruben Chano Guajardo and Commissioners Howard Wade and Armando Lopez for their support of the endeavor. “We still have a long way to go, but we are going to have a really fantastic, family-oriented park built in phases. This is a dream come true.”

The mayor was referring to a community park planned around the dome that would include a walking trail, basketball courts and soccer fields as well as baseball diamonds and exercise stations.

The City of Mercedes has already received $500,000 from the Knapp Community Care Foundation to help construct the trail, and $1 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration that will go toward infrastructural improvements in the area.

They’re the latest of many endowments for the park and the dome, beginning with FEMA funds that, according to city officials, helped pay for 75 percent of the center’s $4.2 million price tag. The city also received $180,000 from the Hidalgo Urban County Program, which went toward an 8-inch sewer line.

What’s more, Garcia said officials are working to acquire a grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife for continued help funding the project and an even larger, 100-acre business park.

Garcia said city officials are cultivating public and private partnerships as well as recruiting the Development Corp. of Mercedes to help commissioners tackle the business park’s development. Financing efforts are currently spurred by a $2 million, no-interest USDA loan that Garcia said will be paid with sales tax revenue.

The $1 million EDA grant, news of which that Regional Director Jorge Ayala was on-hand Tuesday to deliver personally, will also go toward the business park development.

City officials at Tuesday’s ribbon cutting referred to the project as an opportunity to create 135 additional jobs in the area, not to mention $2.8 million in private investment.

First things first, Garcia said the city will primarily focus on the walking trail as the next phase of construction, which is scheduled for completion in two months.

In the meantime, the city manager confirmed that it’ll be another month before the center is open to the public as officials are currently hiring a part-time staff of six to man the facility. He added that Mercedes ISD will provide breakfast and lunch for the recreation center members, one of whom expressed excitement Tuesday of the new center.

“It’s really cool because it has more stuff, and I like how it has a basketball court,” said Matthew Rodriguez, an 8-year-old Zachary Taylor Elementary School student.

Garcia added, “We’re not just transforming Mercedes but these individual neighborhoods the center will serve.”