Boosting jobs, economic growth

HARLINGEN — The city shows “strong economic growth” and “significantly improved quality of life.”

Yesterday, Mayor Chris Boswell pointed to incoming businesses, expanding industry and new housing starts as he delivered his annual State of the City address.

Boswell cited the city’s financial strength, pointing to a $16.6 million cash reserve fund that helped lead Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings to upgrade the city’s bond rating, or credit score.

“It’s a strong indictor of substantial growth and a prosperous future,” Boswell told area leaders at Casa de Amistad.

“This is money in the bank, our savings account, our rainy day fund,” he said. “It represents to the world that Harlingen is responsible in its fiscal management and has the discipline and political will to maintain and grow healthy reserves.”

From 2015 to 2016, the city’s tax base grew by nearly 5 percent, from $3.16 billion to $3.33 billion, Boswell said.

He said housing development shows the strength of the city’s economy.

Last year, the city saw a 15 percent increase in construction, totaling $54 million in new projects, Boswell said.

Now, he said, six subdivisions are under construction, with 265 lots, while developers plan two more subdivisions, with 84 lots.

Meanwhile, Boswell said, the city’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.4 percent in December, down 10.1 percent from the same period in 2011.

Last year, he said, the city’s sales tax collection grew 2.4 percent, climbing to more than $1 billion for the sixth consecutive year.

“Those retail sales tax increases are directly tied to the increased development of new retail shops and restaurants throughout the city,” Boswell said.

Jobs, economic growth

At the Harlingen Industrial Park, International Assembly announced it’s opening a warehousing operation while planning to expand into a plastic injection molding plant, Boswell said.

Meanwhile, he said, Fox Valley Molding expanded operations, adding 28 new “high-skilled” jobs while planning to increase its payroll by 35 percent during the next three years.

Boswell said the city’s medical hub continues to grow, with the 94-bed Palm Behavioral Health psychiatric hospital opening 200 new jobs.

Nearby, Harlingen Medical Center broke ground on a multimillion-dollar emergency room expansion, he said.

Last year, “strategic partnerships … brought strong economic growth and significantly improved quality of life to our community,” Boswell said.

A “public-private partnership” will develop the city’s $14.8 million convention center along with a 150-room Hilton Garden Inn, Boswell said.

While the city will fund construction of the 43,700-square-foot convention center, San Antonio-based developer BC Lynd Hospitality will build the attached hotel.

“This is truly a public-private partnership which will bring badly needed meeting space, a convention center and the largest hotel yet to the city of Harlingen,” Boswell said. “More importantly, this convention center will allow us to take advantage of our central location to bring meetings, events and regional conventions to our centralized location in the heart of the Valley. This will be the only convention center in the Valley with a hotel that is actually connected to the convention facility and it will make it easier for participants to have access and utilize the facility.”

Medical hub and more

At the new UTRGV School of Medicine, Boswell said, a $15 million gift from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation will help create an Institute for Neurosciences.

“Our city’s partnership with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the School of Medicine has never been more important than it is today,” Boswell said. “I am overwhelmed by the vision of the UTRGV leadership and that of the staff and board at the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation.”

“The Institute for Neurosciences will change the landscape for how we diagnose and treat mind and brain disorders. We thank and congratulate all those who have brought this dream to the beginning of reality.”

A partnership between the city, the Harlingen school district, the Rollins Koppel family, the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation and the Sunrise Rotary Club led to a $1.3 million project to build three all-inclusive playgrounds at Lon C. Hill Park, Victor Park and Pendleton Park, Boswell said,

“This project genuinely demonstrates our community’s commitment to partnership as a way to achieve our goals,” Boswell said.

Boswell said the playgrounds “can be enjoyed by children of any ability level.”

“Swings and equipment, which are wheelchair-accessible, will allow all of our children to play together and will exclude none,” he said.

At the Free Trade Bridge in Los Indios, a partnership between the city, San Benito and Cameron County led to a $500,000 project to build a cold storage unit expected to help draw more produce trucks to the bridge.

Under an agreement, the city will fund $134,121 of the project cost, the same as San Benito’s share, while Cameron County will pay $268,243.

“As we break ground on the facility, we hope that soon the cold storage inspection facility will enable our partners here in Cameron County to realize more fully the potential of the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge,” Boswell said.

Working with Cameron County, Boswell said, the city pushed to exempt businesses of the Freeport tax on warehoused inventory held for 175 days or less.

“This important milestone levels the playing field for Cameron County and thus ushers in a new era for the entire county to take advantage of recruiting more manufacturing and warehousing facilities,” Boswell said, adding Hidalgo County’s tax exemption helped draw warehousing businesses there.

In Harlingen, he said, $107 million in warehoused inventory would qualify for tax exemption, saving companies as much as $417,000.

“It is aimed at boosting economic development throughout the county,” Boswell said.

Last year, the city’s drive to revitalize the downtown area marked big success when The Reese leased 27,000 square feet of office space to ProBAR, a project of the American Bar Association and State Bar of Texas, as part of a $1.3 million renovation plan that will open offices for nearly 90 employees, Boswell said.