Year in Review: City of Harlingen

Harlingen Convention Center ballroom rental rates are set to increase.

HARLINGEN — In 2019, Mayor Chris Boswell’s administration crowned two of its top achievements — the opening of the $16.7 million Harlingen Convention Center and the $4.5 million renovation project that turned the city’s tallest eyesore into Baxter Lofts, its first high-rise apartment development.

Meanwhile, city commissioners passed the city’s first property tax increase in 14 years.

As the Boswell administration celebrated its triumphs this year, residents spoke out against the 4-cent tax hike boosting the city’s rate from about 58 cents to 63 cents per $100 valuation.

Representing an effective 12.19 percent increase in the tax rate, state law allowed residents to call for a rollback election to decide whether to allow the tax hike.

But residents didn’t challenge commissioners’ call for the increase.

At City Hall, officials were counting on the tax hike to generate $1.3 million a year, enough to balance their new $47.8 million general fund budget.

Meanwhile, they said the increase would help fund drainage upgrades as many residents continued to repair their homes after a June storm that flooded much of the area.

During two public hearings, feisty residents launched blistering attacks, claiming officials were raising taxes to beat a new Jan. 1 deadline which will require governments to hold elections to allow voters to decide if they could raise tax revenue by 3.5 percent more than they collected the previous year.

As it stands now, the state allows governments to collect as much as 8 percent more in annual tax revenue before requiring them to hold elections.

After city commissioners passed the increase, with Commissioner Frank Puente casting the lone dissenting vote, former Commissioner Robert Leftwich argued officials had violated a new amendment to the Texas Open Meetings Act requiring governments to allow residents to speak out before voting on agenda topics.

House Bill 2840, filed by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, became law Sept. 1.

In a lawsuit, Leftwich argued Boswell failed to allow residents to speak before commissioners voted on the first reading of an ordinance aimed at boosting the tax rate Sept. 4.

In a hearing in 103rd state District Court, Judge Janet Leal dismissed the case, arguing she didn’t have grounds to hand down a ruling.

Now, Leftwich, who argues Leal didn’t allow him to present evidence, said he will appeal Leal’s decision to the Texas 13th Court of Appeals.

Convention center

After years of planning, officials opened the convention center to stage Boswell’s annual State of the City address on March 29.

“Just as we hope each generation can improve upon the last, Harlingen should find ways to improve those places we invite our friends, neighbors and guests to meet with us,” Boswell told the audience, noting officials largely funded the 44,000-square-foot building through the Harlingen Community Improvement Board’s one-eighth-cent sales tax earmarked to fund what he described as quality-of-life projects.

“It is a place where our friends and our children will marry or celebrate marriage and begin new lives together in our community, a place where young 15- or 16-year-old women will celebrate their special day, a place where couples will celebrate 50th anniversaries, a place where students will receive their college or university diplomas and begin new careers, where businesses will hold corporate meetings, a place where hospital staffs may gather for large meetings or training, where trade associations, professionals or government officials will gather to improve their knowledge of their professions and, yes, a place where conventions will be held.”

For decades, businessman Frank Boggus had heard city leaders talking about building a convention center here.

“It’s a beautiful center,” he said as he walked into the lobby.

Boggus said the convention center will double as 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.

The convention center’s opening carried the air of a social event.

“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.”

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.

Along the front of the building, a widespread pavilion leads to a long porte-cochere and glass doorways along walls of tall arched windows.

Inside, a long, wide lobby runs under twisting light features hanging from rows of beams featuring dark wooden accents.

The lobby leads to the sprawling Great Kiskadee grand ballroom, where a long, dark-blue stage stands under tall, elliptical chandeliers.

During the convention center’s first year of operations, BC Lynd Hospitality, which operates the facility, projected it would run a $202,389 deficit during the 2019-2020 fiscal year — not bad for its first year of operation, officials said.

From October through September 2020, the Rio Grande Valley’s newest convention center is expected to generate $735,602 in revenue.

Meanwhile, expenditures are projected at $937,991.

Under an agreement, city officials set aside $500,000 to cover any deficits during the convention center’s first two years, or “ramp-up” period.

As part of the public-private partnership, officials funded the convention center’s construction while BC Lynd agreed to build an attached upscale hotel at Teege and Harlingen Heights roads.

Meanwhile, BC Lynd agreed to operate and staff the convention center, splitting any profits and deficits with City Hall.

At City Hall, officials are counting on BC Lynd’s hotel to help boost the convention center’s revenues.

Now, the $25 million, five-story Hilton Garden Inn is expected to be completed in July, about two years behind schedule.

Late last year, Brandon Raney, BC Lynd’s chief executive officer, said he worked 18 months to land the “right” financing to launch the project.

In South Texas, the construction project marks the first to connect a convention center and hotel.

Baxter Lofts

When Boswell took office in 2007, he made the renovation of the iconic Baxter Building one of his top goals to help crown the downtown area’s hard-fought revitalization campaign.

After years of planning, Baxter Lofts opened late this year as a 24-unit, largely low-income apartment development following more than a year-long construction project.

“It’s been a long time coming but certainly worth the effort,” Boswell told a small crowd on the building’s first floor during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month. “Talk about the perseverance it took on the part of so many people.”

For more than 30 years, Harlingen’s leaders had talked about ways to rid the city of its tallest building after it had turned into a flophouse looming over downtown.

When the nine-story office building opened in 1927, it stood as the tallest building in the Rio Grande Valley and one of the city’s premier addresses at 106 S. A St.

But by the late 1960s, it had fallen into disrepair, turning into a flophouse blamed for standing in the way of the downtown area’s revitalization.

Then in late 2015, city commissioners entered into an agreement with MRE Capital to renovate the historic building to its original condition.

As part of a contract, the Community Improvement Board agreed to sell the Baxter Building to MRE Capital for $250,000 on the condition the developer clinch federal tax credits to help fund a $4.5 million renovation project.

Under the agreement, the building’s sale was contingent upon MRE Capital’s success in requesting the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs award it $3.3 million in federal tax credits to help fund the renovation project.

After failed attempts in 2016 and 2017, the developers won their appeal, landing the tax credits.

Under the Department of Housing and Community Affairs’ program, federal guidelines required MRE Capital to rent the apartments as affordable housing units.

Baxter Lofts, described as a “luxury” development, offers residents a unique opportunity to live in the city’s first high-rise featuring an outdoor picnic area, a community room, a small library including two computers and a fitness center.

Along its roofline, the building boasts a crown of ornate architectural features.

During construction, the developers meticulously restored the building’s brick finish.

Inside, one- and two-bedroom apartments feature wide-open floor plans, modern kitchens and panoramic views of the city.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com