Boomtown? San Benito drawing new businesses

SAN BENITO — Along downtown’s tall brick buildings, rows of empty storefronts stand testament to the many shops that have closed their doors here.

For decades, city leaders have worked to revive the area that once served as northern Cameron County’s commercial center.

Now, it looks like businesses might be coming back.

Along Business 77, the city’s biggest development in years has broken ground along the resaca.

Meanwhile, in the past two weeks, three Harlingen businesses have signed two-year contracts to open along Sam Houston Boulevard and North Travis Street.

“The business climate has changed dramatically,” Rebeca Castillo, executive director of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said yesterday. “It’s a total turnaround.”

Earlier this month, Varco Real Estate launched construction of a multimillion-dollar project to build a boardwalk featuring restaurants and retail shops off the resaca across from the Heavin Resaca Trail.

The project marks the first resaca-side commercial development in northern Cameron County.

With a Texas Regional Bank branch as its anchor, the development is expected to feature retail shops that could include Russo’s New York Pizzeria, Tropical Smoothie Café and Orangetheory Fitness, Benito De Leon, superintendent of OrigoWorks, Varco’s design and construction firm, has said.

Construction is expected to be completed in about seven months.

City Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez calls all the business buzz signs of a long-awaited resurgence in San Benito.

“There’s new business opening almost every week

“I think much of our potential had not been tapped into and, in all honesty, a positive attitude and push can go a long way,” Sanchez stated yesterday.

At City Hall, officials are working to draw “huge projects” to town, she stated.

Earlier this week, city commissioners met in closed session to discuss six different projects.

Along downtown, Castillo is pushing local grants and a rent subsidy program to help fill up empty storefronts.

Some shops are coming from Harlingen’s Jackson Street business district, Castillo said.

In the past two weeks, she said, three Jackson Street businesses, including an antiques shop, a vintage record store and a boutique, have signed two-year contracts to open by April 1 along Sam Houston and North Travis Street.

“They feel San Benito can offer them a better opportunity for their business,” Castillo said.

In Harlingen, downtown property owner Bill DeBrooke said the shops are leaving a building at 206 E. Jackson for lower rents.

“San Benito is working to make things happen downtown,” said DeBrooke, who spearheaded Harlingen’s downtown revitalization program nearly 30 years ago. “San Benito is cutting deals. They’re going to cut half their rent.”

The Cameron County Appraisal District’s proposal to increase Jackson Street buildings’ property values was not a factor behind the three shops’ decision to move out of the area, DeBrooke said.

DeBrooke said he uncovered those proposed increases on the district’s website just last week.

Meanwhile, three more Jackson Street businesses, including an art gallery, are considering moving to San Benito’s downtown to take part in that city’s incentive programs, Castillo said.

San Benito offers grants of up to $10,000 to match downtown businesses’ investments aimed at sprucing up their storefronts.

Another program offers subsidized rents for as long as six months.

San Benito also helps merchants develop business plans while offering customer service training, Castillo said.

“We’re trying to see how we can strategize and get downtown receiving traffic and more businesses,” Castillo said. “With programs, we can help their business. It’s an open-door welcome and being business-friendly.”