HARLINGEN — Nancy Cantu followed a stream of visitors as the Harlingen Convention Center opened its tall glass doors for its first tours.
In the sprawling lobby, the bubbly crowd mingled under spiraling chandeliers hanging from long wooden beams looming over walls of tall, arched windows.
Yesterday, the convention center won the hearts of more than 200 guests during its long-awaited grand opening.
“It’s beautiful,” Nancy Cantu, a saleswoman with the Valley Wedding Pages, said near the door of the main ballroom named the Great Kiskadee. “I think it’s going to be a fabulous venue for every kind of event that comes to the region.”
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Mayor Chris Boswell described the $16.7 million convention center as his administration’s “signature project for the community.”
“What a great day in Harlingen,” Boswell told the crowd gathered under the building’s wide porte-cochere.
Boswell thanked voters who approved a one-eighth-cent sales tax earmarked to fund so-called “quality-of-life” projects in 2007.
On the city’s list of proposed projects was the convention center, he said.
“The voters said we wanted to do something to improve our community,” he said. “Thank you for giving us the funding to build a building like this.”
Brandon Raney, chief executive officer of BC Lynd Hospitality, told the crowd he and city officials planned to build a “beacon” aimed at drawing visitors.
“When we set out to build and design this with the city, we set out to build something that would be a beacon,” Raney said. “You could put it anywhere in the country and compete with anything.”
Raney said his new staff was busy booking events.
“We want to take off our hard hats and start selling this for the city of Harlingen,” he said.
Raney told the crowd his company had launched construction of its $25 million Hilton Garden Inn the day before.
“We will be working as quickly as we can to construct the hotel to complement this magnificent facility,” he said.
At night, the building’s light fixtures illuminate water fountains standing near the boulevard-style entrance, City Manager Dan Serna said.
“If you think this building is beautiful during the day, coming at night, you can see the fountains totally lit up,” Serna told the crowd. “It’s just spectacular.”
At 701 Harlingen Heights Drive, the 44,000-square-foot building, with its cream-brick façade and tall arched windows, boasts a South Texas panache.
“The building speaks for itself,” Boswell said. “It’s something we can all be proud of. We’re going to have a lot of community events here and bring people from the region and the state to this community. Everyone can make a memory in this building.”
For the ceremony, the 16,200-square-foot ballroom was divided into six partitions decorated to simulate events such as a wedding reception, a quinceañera, a party, a prom and a cocktail reception.
“The architecture is beautiful,” Jameson Findley, who recently moved here from Amarillo to work for Ambit Energy, said as he stood among round festooned tables under tall, elliptical chandeliers. “There’s ample room. This would be a great place for a wedding. I’m very impressed with what Harlingen’s shown me today.”
The building also features two meeting rooms which can be partitioned into four rooms as well as a bridal room.
Meanwhile, a full kitchen offers catering services.
As he mingled with the crowd, City Commissioner Tudor Uhlhorn described commissioners’ role in helping architect Geoffrey Butler give the building its South Texas flair.
Uhlhorn said the building’s tall arches were inspired by the architecture of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Brownsville campus.
“It needed to make a statement when you drive up that driveway,” said Uhlhorn, who proposed the wide-open pavilion that stands along the building’s right side.
Uhlhorn noted commissioners hired San Antonio artist Diana Kersey to create the two ceramic murals depicting the city’s past and future at the building’s entrance.
“That was a real leap of faith,” he said. “She did a lot of research. She was very thorough.”
The convention center’s rental rates are “comparable” or more affordable than those of the McAllen Convention Center while slightly pricier than conference venues in Brownsville and South Padre Island, city spokeswoman Irma Garza said.
Under the rate schedule, nonprofit organizations will receive a discounted rate of $4,500 for rental of the convention center’s 16,200-square-foot ballroom, whose so-called “best available rate” charges $5,500 for the main hall.
The schedule sets discounted rates that range from $1,200 to $160 for the rental of smaller meeting rooms.