HARLINGEN — When Rey Calara walked into the Harlingen Convention Center, he added it to his list of conference venues.
Calara, a consultant with Ambit Energy, said he works with energy companies often planning conventions.
“That’s why I’m here — to get to know the facility,” Calara, who lives in Harlingen, said as he sat in the building’s grand ballroom awaiting Mayor Chris Boswell’s annual State of the City Address.
On Friday, the convention center’s opening carried the air of a social event.
“It’s phenomenal,” Marilyn White, co-founder of the Harlingen Humane Society, said after traveling from her Florida home. “I’m absolutely delighted. I think Harlingen needed this for a long time.”
At 701 Harlingen Heights Drive, the 44,000-square-foot building, with its cream-brick façade and tall arched windows, sports a South Texas flair.
For decades, businessman Frank Boggus has heard city leaders talking about building a convention center here.
“It’s a beautiful center,” Boggus said as he walked into the lobby late Friday morning.
For Boggus, the convention center is both an economic engine and a community gathering place.
“It’s something Harlingen can use to bring companies in to see what Harlingen can offer for jobs and it’s a gathering place for social clubs and useful for events,” he said.
Along the front of the building, a widespread pavilion leads to a long porte-cochere — sort of a covered porch — and glass doorways along walls of tall arched windows.
“It’s awesome,” Lea Peacock said near the ballroom’s doors. “It’s the front of the building and when you come inside — all the colors. Everything is aesthetically done. I am very impressed and happy for Harlingen. It’s long overdue.”
Inside, a long, wide lobby runs under twisting light features hanging from rows of beams featuring dark wooden accents.
“It’s beautiful,” Patty Cantu, a Walgreens store manager, said as she sat in the ballroom. “It’s very modern. It’s a very nice layout. I think it will help bring new revenue to the city. We have limited things we can do here. This is going to help with development and help Harlingen grow.”
The lobby leads to the sprawling Great Kiskadee grand ballroom, where a long, dark-blue stage stands under tall, elliptical chandeliers.
For Calara, the convention center might become the venue for an energy conference.
“It’s very impressive. It’s bigger than what I expected,” Calara said. “It’s good to know there’s a big place to go.”
In Harlingen, the convention center will help the city compete for the conferences, Calara said.
“I think it’s a good time to open a convention center,” he said. “Other cities have convention centers. When there’s a big event, it’s nice to know there are other places to consider.”
Jerry Vasquez described the convention center as a symbol of Harlingen’s economic growth.
“We’re excited — we’ve got a convention center,” Vasquez, a photographer, said as he strolled across the lobby. “That’s what we needed. McAllen has one. We get a meeting place for out-of-town guests. We needed a place for special meetings, concerts. I’m excited — Harlingen is growing into a bigger town.”
Kathleen Galiger plans to tell her friends back home about the Rio Grande Valley’s brand-new convention center.
“It appears very functional and very beautiful,” Galiger, a Winter Texan from Minneapolis, said as she sat with her husband in the ballroom. “I think it will be a big drawing card. But they’ve got to get the hotel done. The convention center was built on the premise of having a hotel.”
During his speech, Boswell said BC Lynd Hospitality plans to break ground on its 150-room Hilton Garden Inn next month.
As part of a contract, the city agreed to fund the convention center’s construction while the San Antonio-based developer builds the attached $25 million, five-story hotel.
As part of the agreement, BC Lynd will also operate the convention center while splitting any profits and covering half of any deficits.
As the company worked on its financing, the project fell about a year-and-a-half behind schedule.
Earlier this month, Brandon Raney, BC Lynd’s chief financial officer, said he expected the hotel to be completed in 12 to 14 months.
At City Hall, officials are counting on the hotel’s opening to help draw more events to the convention center.