PORT MANSFIELD, July 30 - Willacy County’s increasingly diverse economy has been recognized by the Texas House of Representatives thanks to a resolution authored by state Rep. Ryan Guillen.
Willacy County leaders say the resolution is timely because the county is being transformed and is no longer solely dependent on farming. They point to the growth of eco-tourism, wind-powered energy, and residents and businesses having access, thanks to Valley Telephone Cooperative, Inc., to the fastest Internet connections in South Texas.
Added to this, Willacy County now has an interstate running through it. Indeed, local elected officials have stopped referring to their main north-south artery as U.S. 77 and are now calling the corridor by its new name, I-69 East. They say they will use the interstate designation as a marketing tool.
“Willacy County, when you look at us, we really have a lot of different assets,” said Willacy County Judge John Gonzales. “Right now we are trying to bank on them so we can expand certain areas of economic development. We are expanding on quality of life.”
Gonzales said the increased diversity of the Willacy County’s economy will be highlighted when he holds the next State of the County address. He said he has been holding back on staging it because of the special sessions at the state Capitol. “I would like state Senator Eddie Lucio and state Representative Ryan Guillen to be there to share their thoughts. When we hold the State of the County we will basically by unveiling a new Willacy County.”
Gonzales pointed to five areas where Willacy County Commissioners Court is focusing its attention: infrastructure investment, law enforcement, emergency response, educational attainment, and quality of life.
With regard to infrastructure investment, Gonzales said the County is investing $5 million of its own money and $14 million overall to improve streets and drainage in the large colonias in Sebastian and Lasara. And, he said the County is also building a 100-acre industrial and sports complex at no cost to the county taxpayers.
With regard to law enforcement, Gonzales said Sheriff Larry Spence had to make do with 15 deputies for the longest time. He said an additional three deputies were hired last year and additional three will come on board this year. “We are doing this without increasing our budget. We want protection for everyone in the county. Companies will not come here if we do not have adequate law enforcement.”
With regard to emergency services, Gonzales said Willacy County’s fire department left a lot to be desired. “Basically, we could not put out a camp fire. Now, we have new fire trucks, new hoses, new equipment, at all four locations. And we have a mobile EMS hospital.”
With regard to educational attainment, Gonzales said Willacy County has a very young population, which potential employers want to see. However, he said about 50 percent of the population lacks a high school diploma. Thanks to a satellite campus located in Raymondville by Texas State Technical College, anyone can now study for a GED in Willacy County. “We have 300 people enrolled and we just graduated our first 20 students. We are very proud of this,” Gonzales said.
With regard to quality of life issues, Gonzales pointed to a new skateboard park in Lyford and a new park to be called Laguna Point that will be built on the southern end of Port Mansfield. The State of Texas chipped in $1.5 million for this project. “We have 28 acres for a birding and nature conservatory and education park. It will have a new pier. And, also at Port Mansfield, the Willacy County Navigation District put in another boat ramp for kayaking and airboats. This particular form of recreational activity is starting to boom in Willacy County. Port Mansfield is a hidden jewel that we need to promote.”
Willacy County Commissioner Noe Loya agrees that eco-tourism can really put the county on the map. Loya thanked Edward B. Raymond Heirs and the Herman J. Wetegrove family for donating land for what will be the Coastal Land Resource Center at Willacy County. The center, to be built near I-69 East on State Highway 186, will promote the Texas Coastal Birding and Wildlife Trail.
“This new center will provide tourists navigating through I-69 an option for an initial view of South Texas' wildlife and nature value,” Loya told the Guardian. “And, added structural improvements at Port Mansfield will provide outdoor enthusiasts more access. Our ultimate goal is to continue supporting the Port Mansfield community to enhance year-round tourism.”
Other projects in the works, Loya said, include a hurricane shelter that can house 1,000 people and a Boys and Girls Club. “This county is moving forward, there is no doubt about that,” Loya said.
One idea currently being explored to raise additional revenue for the County is the creation of a County Assistance District. This is permitted under Chapter 387 of the Local Government Code. Rural communities with a population of less than 45,000 can apply for such a district. The Commissioner’s Court has to call an election of the voters to determine if such a district should be set up. Not more than one County Assistance District may be created in a county commissioner’s precinct.
A County Assistance District can only raise two cents on the dollar on sales taxes levied in the county outside of a city’s limits. The taxes raised can be used to fund the expansion or establishment of parks and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, improve infrastructure and transportation roadways, build or improve libraries, museums, cultural arts and tourism, and emergency, public health, safety and fire prevention.
Currently, Willacy County residents are being surveyed on their attitude towards setting up a County Assistance District. Supporters point out that a two cents tax would bring in an additional $22,000 a year from Port Mansfield and anywhere from $144,000 to $520,000 from a projected Love’s truck and travel stop.
“We have talked about setting up a County Assistance District but we have not made a decision. This is a poor county and it is hard to hit the people with an increase in the sales tax. They already pay high property taxes,” Commissioner Loya said. “On the other hand, the proceeds could pay for the new nature center and improving our county roads. We have poor county roads and a small budget. We cannot put caliche down because the dust would go everywhere. We have to blacktop the roads to keep the dust going into the homes.”
County Judge Gonzales said if a County Assistance District were to be set up it ought to be limited to areas of the county where there is a lot of transient traffic. Such as the planned Love’s truck and travel stop on I-69 East, south of Raymondville.
“Personally, I am not for any new or additional taxes. But, the voters will decide. I could support a County Assistance District where there is a lot of transient traffic, such as along I-69. But, taxing the most indigent in our community? I say ‘no.’ I think we need to think about the long-term. With more development, we can generate more taxes while still lowering the tax rate,” Gonzales said.
Asked to give a wrap-up remark about how things are going in Willacy County, Gonzales said: “When we started on our current path, the voters said they wanted change. Now it is happening, some people say they do not like change. But, the roads are getting fixed and the money is coming in. Things are coming together three years earlier than I expected. I think we can market the fact that we have I-69 and that we have the latest in fiber optics technology. Our roads are being fixed, our drainage is being fixed. We have new parks coming and we have a four-year college, thanks to TSTC. We are moving forward.”
Here is the Resolution Rep. Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, authored in honor of past and present Willacy County Commissioners:
By: Guillen H.R. No. 156
R E S O L U T I O N
WHEREAS, Willacy County located in Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas in leadership of its Commissioners Court has built a diversified local economy while also promoting the conservation of its abundant natural resources; and
WHEREAS, Home to a strong agricultural industry, Willacy County has supported Bermuda onion farming since 1912 and counts sorghum among its other most important crops; oil and natural gas production continue to further contribute to the county's economy over 73 years, and a recent over $20 million capital investment in drilling for natural gas underscores the continuing importance of that industry to the county's economic progress; and
WHEREAS, Other sources of energy are also being developed; the county welcomed the completion of two wind farms titled, Los Vientos I, II and Magic Valley built by E.On Climate & Renewables, Inc, and Duke Energy, Inc. are generating more than 600 megawatts in green source energy serving South and Central Texas as a long-term source of revenue to meet energy demands. In addition, Willacy County has become home to the corporate headquarters of Valley Telephone Cooperative, which provides access to television entertainment, telephone services, and the Internet; the location of several detention centers in the county has added still more jobs to the local economy; and
WHEREAS, Known for the richness of its plant and animal life, Willacy County contains a wide variety of flora and faunavar have received special protection specifically recognizing the "ocelot" on the federal highly endangered list, a cat species with less than 50 in population habitat known to the area; and
WHEREAS, Willacy County and its leaders aim to promote ecotourism as for world visitors and residents alike to also enjoy the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the Tieniente and East Lake sections of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and the Padre Island National Seashore--Laguna Madre; moreover, development of the Coastal Land Resource Center being developed on donated property by Edward B. Raymond Heirs, and Herman J. Wetegrove family and structural improvements to the Laguna Madre at Port Mansfield, titled Laguna Point Recreation Area as two major projects aimed to promote tourism, environmental education and recreation of area's great outdoors with completion dates set for 2014; and
WHEREAS; the county takes pride in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to promote ecotourism, manage and preserve its pristine environments;
WHEREAS, Willacy County, and its cities and community leaders work together to build and develop its community human capital by joining partnership, investment and in alliance with higher education institutions for college, satellite and classroom coursework learning to provide it citizens access to education resources; and
WHEREAS, Willacy County residents are working together to build a bright future for themselves and their children, and it is indeed fitting to honor them for their numerous accomplishments; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 83rd Texas Legislature, 2nd Called Session, hereby recognize Willacy County Commissioners Court members of 2008, 2009 and current Commissioners Court elected officials for charting myriad paths toward economic growth, environmental sustainability and community progress and extend to its public officials, its business and civic leaders, and all who call the county home sincere best wishes for continued success.