LAGUNA VISTA — Development of the South Texas Eco-Tourism Center project has moved another step closer to its fruition.

With city, school district, Cameron County and state officials in attendance, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $700,000 grant to the STEC project during a Regional Small Cities Coalition Committee meeting held yesterday in Laguna Vista.

“It was a very special day for the community of Laguna Vista because of the EDA grant announcement, but more than that, it showcased the partnerships we have and when people work together,” said Laguna Vista City Manager Rolando Vela.

Cameron County plans to build the eco-tourism center on 10 acres within Laguna Vista’s 23-acre site on the west side of Highway 100.

Vela describes the project as being the only one of its kind in South Texas.

The STEC is expected to include multi-purpose rooms with interpretive exhibits, rain catchment and grey water harvesting system, passive lighting and cooling systems, an amphitheater, pond and wetland enhancements, parking, pedestrian trails, boardwalk, observation deck, native landscaping, interactive exhibits, bird blinds and site amenities, a play area and picnic facilities.

“We’re excited because for us, the grant is going to be a catalyst to jump start all of this retail development on (Highway) 100,” he said. “We didn’t hit a home run here. We hit a grand slam.”

According to Vela, Cameron County plans to match EDA’s grant with $300,000.

In total, the $1 million dollar funds will be used to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements involving water and sewer lines for the eco-tourism center.

Cameron County Commissioner David A. Garza said the total cost for the eco-tourism center is about $11 million to $12 million.

“It’s very important to know that there is no local tax dollars being spent on this project,” Garza said. “All of the tax dollars that are being spent on this project are dollars generated from people that rent rooms or rental vehicles in Cameron County and that’s it.”

On Election Day in 2016, voters approved a 2-percent hotel tax increase proposed by Cameron County, which will fund the STEC project.

The county visitor tax went into effect starting January of 2017.

Garza said final plans for the eco-tourism center are anticipated to be ready in about 30 to 60 days.

Overall, he said finishing the construction process is anticipated to take about 20 to 23 months.

“People are going to want to visit the eco-tourism center and learn more about the various aspects it offers such as its environment an educational components,” Rolando said. “So we feel as if it would draw more people to Laguna Vista, and it’s also going to result in attracting retail businesses to complement that eco-tourism center.”

U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela attended the meeting and said he believes the eco-tourism center will have an incredible impact.

“When you consider the cumulative impact of what is being done in South Padre Island, Port Isabel, Laguna Vista, local towns and by the efforts of Cameron County officials, the more things we have to offer for tourists the better,” he said. “Once the eco-tourism center is up and running, it will allow us to be able to show even a broader benefit of what the federal, state and local governments did over the last 20 years to make the Bahia Rio Grande ecosystem what it is today, so this is going to allow us to focus on that.”

PROJECT BREAKDOWN

LAGUNA VISTA — Providing 10 acres where the South Texas Eco-Tourism Center (STEC) will be built and will develop retail 13 acres adjacent.

CAMERON COUNTY — Will create the STEC.

LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY DEVELOPMENT COUNCIL — Assisting Laguna Vista officials in the submittal of the Economic Development Administration grant application.

LAGUNA MADRE WATER DISTRICT — Will maintain infrastructure improvements when completed.