HARLINGEN, February 19 - Harlingen mayoral candidate Rick Morales says he wants to create a foreign trade zone on land next to Valley International Airport in order to attract businesses from Central and South America.
Morales, the former mayor of Donna, spoke about his initiatives for Harlingen at a campaign kickoff event at La Playa Mexican Grill on Monday evening.
“I look at our airport and how it is under-utilized. Let me tell you what I want to do with our airport. The City of Harlingen owns 430 acres on the east side of the airport. I want to take those 430 acres and turn it into a foreign trade zone, a free-trade foreign trade zone,” Morales said.
“I want to be able to build five or six or seven million square feet of warehouse space to attract companies from Central and South America using CAFTA, which is the Central American Free Trade Agreement.”
Morales said that as far as he is aware, no other city in the Rio Grande Valley is taking advantage of CAFTA.
“I want to build that warehouse space and I want to have a presence of Harlingen in Central and South America. We can create five to seven thousand good paying jobs in Harlingen.”
Morales is running against Mayor Chris Boswell. He said he has nothing negative to say about Boswell. “He is a good man. I think he has done the best he can. But, you know what, we can do better,” Morales said, to applause from family, friends and supporters.
Morales pointed to his time as mayor of Donna as evidence of his leadership qualities. He said he was told better men than he had tried in vain to get an international bridge built to connect Donna with Rio Bravo. In fact, he said, Donna leaders had been trying to get the bridge developed for 50 years. Morales said he secured $65 million in low interest grants and loans for the $115 million bridge project. He said he also cut city taxes in Donna for six years in a row.
Harlingen Mayor Pro-Tem Robert Leftwich was at La Playa to hear Morales’ speech. Leftwich told the Guardian he is endorsing Morales because Harlingen needs new leadership. He said the focus in Harlingen has been on bringing big retail stores to the city when it should have been on manufacturing. Morales said the same thing in his speech.
“I believe if you have good paying jobs in Harlingen, the retailers are going to come,” Morales said. “You are going to get your Macy’s. You are going to get all those chain restaurants that people ask me about. People ask me, are you going to bring Tony Roma’s, are you going to bring P.F. Chang, or Cheddar’s. You know what, if you have good paying jobs for the people in Harlingen, those people are going to follow.”
Morales was harshly critical of the number of new homes being built in Harlingen. He compared Harlingen’s new home permits with Edinburg’s. Last year, Edinburg had 614 new homes built, compared to Harlingen’s 87.
“That, to me, is unacceptable. We can do better in Harlingen. We are going to do better. Why do developers not come to Harlingen? Why? We need to restructure our impact fees,” Morales said. He pointed out that, as a developer, he plans to build 288 new apartments in Harlingen. “It is costing me a million dollars in fees to build in Harlingen. One million dollars. The property I am buying cost me $907,000. I am paying more in fees than I am for the property. That is unacceptable and we can do better in Harlingen. We can do better,” Morales said.
Morales said other Rio Grande Valley cities are growing much faster than Harlingen. He listed Brownsville, McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr, Mission, Weslaco and San Juan. He said these cities have good leadership.
“They are doing great. They are growing by leaps and bounds. My hat’s off to those people. They have good leadership. They are doing the right things over there. They are keeping the (impact) fees down. They are small business-friendly,” Morales said.
Morales said he hears from people every day complaining about over-regulation in Harlingen. He said Harlingen now has a reputation for not being friendly towards businesses. He said he will make sure Harlingen has a reputation for being open for business. “I want people to know that Harlingen, once I get elected on May 11, it is going to be business unusual. We are going to do things differently. We are going to get those companies here. We are going to have the EDC people… let us identify companies, let us get on a plane, and go meet the people you need to meet to get them to Harlingen. Let them know that Harlingen is open for business.”
Morales also said he wants to develop eco-tourism as a major industry for Harlingen.
“Eco tourism is a big business all over the world. People will spend thousands of dollars to see a bird for five minutes. I don’t understand it but you know what, more power to them. I want them to come to Harlingen,” Morales said.
“I want to turn the Arroyo (Colorado) into a state park. You have ocelots, all these types of species you do not see in other parts of the world. I want to go and talk to the state and say, what do we have to do to turn that (the Arroyo) into a state park. I want people to fly into Harlingen, to stay in Harlingen. That is what I want. I want them to stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants. They money stays in Harlingen. That is what we need.”
Morales pointed out that his son suffers from Down’s syndrome. He said that within the first 90 days of taking office he would be announcing plans for a baseball stadium for special needs children. He said special needs children from Mexico would be able to use the facilities. He also said he would approach state leaders about changing the tax credit program for low income housing so that some money from the program is set aside for housing for special needs children.
Morales added that he will do all he can to bring a veteran’s hospital to Harlingen. “There are so many things we are leaving on the table right now. So many things; it is absolutely unacceptable,” Morales said.
Morales concluded his speech by saying he wanted to unite the city. Some Harlingen residents feel the city has been held back because of a divide along ethnic lines. “We need to come together, no more this side, that side,” Morales said.