Willacy, Raymondville hope hospitality sways visiting Texas politicians

HARLINGEN — Willacy County and Raymondville are prepping for their close-up.

Come Saturday, the county and its leading city will have five to six hours as the exclusive focus of Texas lawmakers touring the region on the RGV Legislative Tour 2017.

The Valley tour for Austin lawmakers occurs every two years, providing officials here with an opportunity to highlight issues unique to the area, and to discuss what is being done — or could be done — to address them.

Organizing the tour is Sergio Contreras, president and CEO of the Weslaco-based Rio Grande Partnership, which serves as a regional Chamber of Commerce. Contreras says he hopes to have 50 commitments by Thursday, when the four-day tour begins.

Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said municipal and county officials met yesterday for about two hours working out a presentation strategy for the visitors.

He said the historic but deteriorating Willacy County Courthouse will be part of the tour, as will the La Jarra Ranch where the La Jarra Assisted Living and Memory Center is being built. The facility is expected to employ 38 people.

The three-story courthouse is nearly 100 years old, but was closed in 2015, eight years after widespread mold was found throughout the interior.

County officials have been seeking private funding to restore the site, and hope they can persuade state lawmakers to help financially, too.

“It being a historical center, hopefully they will find the funds to get it ready to use again because it’s just a beautiful building,” Gonzales said.

“And then we’re going to take them to the ranch, La Jarra,” the mayor added. “The courthouse is a priority and then the ranch, the assisted living facility, and we’ll show them how it’s going to be helping a lot of people here.”

For Willacy County, the legislators’ visit presents the possibility of improving the county’s economic prospects, hard-hit by the closure of the Willacy County Correctional Center two years ago following a prisoner riot.

Shuttering the prison cost the county one-third of its annual tax revenues.

The weakness in the oil and gas industry is hurting the county, too. Although revenues from wind farms have been a positive, the taxable value of oil and gas wells dropped from $327 million in 2008 to $46 million by late 2016.

Gonzales acknowledged the county has had some hard times recently, but he said officials are embracing the opportunity to host Texas legislators in hopes of encouraging them to find ways to help.

“We’ll give them a taste of Down South country living,” Gonzales added. “With some barbecue.”