RIO GRANDE CITY — Nearly 10 years ago, three Starr County officials met at a McAllen restaurant to discuss the economic future of their county on the west end of the Rio Grande Valley.

Rose Benavidez, the president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation met with Sam Vale, the president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company and then-Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben O. Villarreal that day and talked about how to utilize a large piece of land in Rio Grande City that sits right off U.S. Highway 83, the city’s main artery.

Joel Martinez |
Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal adjusts his hard hat before breaking ground with other dignitaries in a ceremony marking the beginning of construction of Rio Grande Village on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Rio Grande City.

“We had a map of this aerial shot and we started to say, ‘Well, here we could do this, we could do that, but this has to happen and that has to happen,’” Benavidez said of that meeting, “and it was just one of those things that we knew we were going to make it and it was going to get done, it was just that we didn’t know how long it was going to take and we never anticipated it was going to take a decade, almost.”

It was actually about eight to nine years since that meeting, according to Benavidez, that over a dozen Starr County officials marked the beginning of construction of the first phase of the project with a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday.

The Rio Grande Village project is a mixed-use development, which will sit on 150 acres of land across from the city’s lone Walmart, which will include retail, commercial and national restaurant chains.

Among them are Blue Wave Car Wash, a new Whataburger, and a Buffalo Wings and Rings, according to Mayor Joel Villarreal Jr., who announced the future tenants during his remarks as part of the groundbreaking ceremony.

Prospective tenants include Chic-fil-A, Starbucks, Ross Dress for Less, and Marshalls.

The city partnered with St. Ives Realty I LLC — a Dallas-based real estate developer — for the project.

“This project is the biggest retail investment that we have ever had in the county of Starr,” said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera before recognizing the various local entities that worked on the project, including the Starr County Industrial Foundation, the Rio Grande City council and staff and the Rio Grande City Economic Development Corporation.

The project had been in the works for so long, Vera said, that people would approach to express their disbelief that it would ever get done.

“But never did I have a doubt that this would happen,” the county judge said.

One major obstacle for the project was that the land where the development will be built is designated a flood zone by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Benavidez explained that FEMA issued a conditional letter of map revision, which outlines the requirements needed so that area is no longer designated a floodplain.

“So in the next 10 days, they’ll begin that work which means dredging the creek and actually using the dirt excavated to elevate the ground…,” Benavidez said. “And so once that is complete, the engineer certifies the work is done, it’s sent back to FEMA and FEMA revises the floodplain map.”

The creek work will start within the next seven to 10 days and is expected to be complete by spring 2020. After that’s done, construction of the first retailers is expected to begin by the summer of 2020.

“So by the fall of 2020, a great deal of these projects will be complete,” Benavidez said.

For the project, the city received approximately $1.25 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the city’s EDC pitched in about $2.25 million while the city agreed to invest $1 million in in-kind infrastructure while the county agreed to $1 million in tax abatements, according to state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.

“For a total of well over $6 million in investment into the deal,” Guillen said. However, completion of all phases of the project is expected to result in approximately $50 to $70 million of direct investment.

Officials estimate the project will create between 500 and 700 jobs and that direct impact will generate $1.4 million in property taxes and $1.1 million in sales taxes when the entire project is completed.