HARLINGEN — Mayor Chris Boswell on Thursday showcased one of his biggest years in office while hailing the city as a burgeoning medical hub during his annual State of the City address.

Boswell took the stage at noon at the Harlingen Convention Center before an audience made up of about 500 community leaders, residents and Rio Grande Valley officials at the event sponsored by the Harlingen Rotary Club.

Along the convention center’s dark-blue stage, two large screens displayed photographs and statistics as Boswell outlined key events of 2019 and looked back at the last decade.

“I am proud of our city and the state of our city is strong,” Boswell, the longest serving mayor in the city’s history, said.

“It’s not only about what your city government has done but about what our entire community does in working together to build a city we can all be proud of. Striving for great achievements and working to meet challenges are the hallmark of our community and the many great men and women who work for and volunteer in our city.”

Strong economy

Boswell described the city’s economy as robust, boasting its lowest jobless rate ever, as it enters the new decade.

“Our city staff does an outstanding job of being fiscally conservative, exercising strong management and implementing good financial policies and practices,” Boswell said.

Last year, the city’s general fund budget operated on $43.9 million in revenue, with a hefty $19 million cash reserve fund capable of running the city for 151 days in case of emergency, he said.

Meanwhile, in December, he said, the Texas Workforce Commission recorded the city’s lowest unemployment rate at 4.6 percent.

Steady growth

Boswell described Harlingen as one of the Valley’s fastest growing cities.

Last year, he said, the value of the city’s construction permits jumped 5 percent, marking an $8 million increase over the previous year.

New businesses continue to boost the city’s sales tax revenue, he said.

“Last year saw an arguably record number of new businesses open in our city,” he said, citing the growth of retail centers such as Harlingen Corners, Cameron Crossing, Harlingen Heights, Stuart Place Crossing and the Ed Carey and Business 77 areas. “New business growth has been registered in nearly every corner of our city and it continues.”

Boswell described skyrocketing sales tax growth since 2011, with the city’s annual sales tax collection climbing from $18.7 million to $25.5 million.

Meanwhile, since 2012 the city’s tax base climbed 27 percent, from $3 billion to $3.85 billion, “a remarkable rate of growth for a short period of time,” he said.

“That’s a 36 percent rate of growth for retail sales tax in the last eight years for Harlingen,” he said. “That growth rate compares very favorably with some of our neighbors such as Brownsville, which grew by 18 percent, and McAllen, which grew by 27 percent — all strong growth rates, but Harlingen is clearly on top.”

Convention center

Last year marked some of biggest accomplishments of Boswell’s administration, including the opening of the $16.7 million convention center.

“I’m pleased to report that the reception of this building has been universally positive,” Boswell said. “You’ll also be pleased to know this center has been used by a wide variety of organizations, educational institutions, businesses and individuals.”

While the convention center has opened its doors to such events as meetings and training sessions, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas State Technical College and IDEA Public Schools have held graduation ceremonies there, he said.

“The convention center is currently projecting revenues for the first full year of operation to be slightly higher than the budgeted revenues,” he said. “The last quarter of the fiscal year exceeded budgeted revenues by 56 percent and the first full quarter of this year revenues have exceeded projected revenues by 12 percent.”

Meanwhile, BC Lynd Hospitality, the city’s partner in the project, is building a $13.5 million, five-story, 149-room Hilton Garden Inn expected to be completed in August.

“As you know, this will be the largest hotel in Harlingen and this will be the only convention center with an attached hotel in South Texas,” he said.

Baxter Lofts

After years of planning, the historic renovation of Baxter Lofts marks a milestone in the city’s hard-fought battle to revitalize its downtown.

“After nearly 40 years of vacancy, dereliction and vandalism, this beautiful new building stands in the place of an eyesore. It proves that some things are worth saving,” Boswell said.

“Over $4 million in private investment was made by (developer MRE Capital) to restore this iconic and historic landmark in our city’s downtown,” he said.

Late last year, the city also launched a project to develop Lon C. Hill Park into a destination park described as an outdoor family venue expected to draw tourist dollars to town.

The project’s $3.3 million first phase will include an entry court, a center plaza and water features.

Institute of Neuroscience

Boswell described the development of the city’s medical complex as the city’s big step into the future.

“The development of a school of medicine for our city and our region has always been driven by the desire to improve the quality of life for the people of our community,” Boswell said.

Last year, officials held a ceremony to break ground on UTRGV School of Medicine’s Institute of Neuroscience on 35 acres acquired by the Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, a project funded in part by the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation’s $15 million grant, he said.

“The 32,570-square-foot, two-story building will house clinicians and scientists in an interdisciplinary environment where they can interact to develop and test new ideas for behavioral health and neurologic care,” Boswell said. “Over time, specialties available at the institute will include cerebrovascular disease, neuromuscular disease, memory disorders, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging and behavior health.”

Then last week, the Legacy Foundation presented an historic $38 million grant — the largest single gift ever to UTRGV — that will fund diabetes research, research at the Neurosciences Institute and the development of a surgical residency program at Valley Baptist Health Center.

“We know that 67 percent of doctors stay in the communities in which they train during their residency and that bodes well for the future of health care in our community,” Boswell said.

Early college high school

Last month, commissioners donated six acres to UTRGV to serve as the site of the Harlingen school district’s Early College High School, which will allow students to take dual enrollment courses to earn high school and college credits, he said.

“Once these students have completed high school, they could choose to complete their four-year university studies in one of several majors to be offered by UTRGV right there on the same campus,” he said. “Think of it — a four-year UTRGV degree without ever having to leave Harlingen — and because of UTRGV’s innovation, families making less than $75,000 per year can complete that degree tuition free. That’s right — tuition free.”

MPO merger

Boswell described the city’s “key leadership role” in the merger of Harlingen, Brownsville and McAllen metropolitan planning organizations as a move to generate more state money to fund transportation projects.

“It seemed reasonable to believe that a merger could lead to more dollars flowing into our highway and road systems here in the Valley if we were larger. But, as always, there was a catch,” Boswell said. “Could the three MPOs trust each other and what would a merger look like once accomplished?”

“Harlingen played a pivotal role in addressing those issues by engaging experts in the transportation field in Austin. They helped us craft an agreement that would lead to merging the MPOs, including an assurance that we would not be swallowed up or marginalized in the wake of such a merger. We would be willing to merge as long as we could be assured that we would not be losing any transportation dollars for our cities that we would otherwise have gotten without the merger.”

“After two years of talk and one year of serious negotiation led by Harlingen, we were able to reach an agreement which created the concept of sub-regions and sub-region allocations of funding. This plan would assure that each of the former MPO regions would receive at least as much funding as they would have otherwise received if they continued as a stand-alone MPO.”

Drainage projects

Last June’s storm that flooded more than 4,000 homes here led the city to “re-doubling” its plans for drainage projects, Boswell said.

“This was personal and devastating to many of our neighbors,” he said. “Our hearts continue to go out to our neighbors who were affected and we hope they know that the city commission continues to make our drainage efforts a top priority.”

By the end of the year, the city had completed nearly $13.5 million worth of projects proposed in its 2008 master drainage plan calling for $35.6 million in storm sewer projects and $8.7 million for drainage ditch projects.

“To further improve drainage, the city had identified and was in the process of seeking grant funds for another $10.6 million of drainage improvements,” Boswell said.

Meanwhile, a $1 million federal grant helped the city fund a drainage project in the area of Ninth and 13th Streets.

“The drainage projects I’ve just described as completed or underway now total almost $20 million of drainage improvements over the past 10 years — clear evidence of the city’s ongoing commitment to improving our drainage system,” Boswell said.

Tax increase

Boswell also recalled the commission’s passing of the city’s first property tax increase in 14 years, a 4.1-cent hike expected to generate $1.4 million.

“The City Commission did so in large part because of the forecasted need to invest more money and resources into our infrastructure such as the drainage projects I just described,” he said.