HARLINGEN, RGV – Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell delivered his 10th annual State of the City address on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017.
The event took place at the Casa de Amistad in Harlingen.
The title of the address was “Harlingen – Partnering for Progress.” Here are Mayor Boswell’s prepared remarks:
1. Welcome and Introduction.
Welcome to this annual report on State of the City of Harlingen. It is truly an honor and a privilege to once again tell you about the great strides that our City has made in the past year.
The year of 2016 should be remembered for the strategic partnerships which have been formed or strengthened to move our great City forward. Those partnerships have brought strong economic growth and significantly improved quality of life to our community. And all of you present today represent the leadership of our community and the citizens of our community who have collaborated so effectively, so much so, that I can once again say that the state of our City is strong.
I would like to begin by once again thanking the Harlingen Rotary Club for serving as our sponsor of this annual event and to recognize them for their service to our community. The Rotary Clubs of Harlingen are excellent examples of how local organizations can partner with their City to develop projects to improve our quality of life.
I also wish to recognize all our special guests who were introduced at the start of this program. We thank you for your individual and collective contributions to helping build a great community in which to do business and to raise strong families. Thank you for being here today and your support of Harlingen.
I also want to personally recognize our City Manager, Dan Serna, and his team of 578 employees who work tirelessly for our City day and night seven days a week. Please give them a round of applause.
And it is very important for me to recognize City Commissioners Richard Uribe, Tudor Uhlhorn, Michael Mezmar, Ruben De La Rosa and Victor Leal for their service to our community. In football, they talk a lot about needing a great offensive line to make plays and score points. I’m still not sure what position I play, but I can tell you that the City Commissioners are the best offensive line that our City could ever have. This has been the best team of Commissioners I have ever had the privilege of serving with and I want to express my personal thanks to each and every one of them for their dedication to the City. Please give them a round of applause.
2. Harlingen’s Great Financial Strength.
I’m often asked by friends and colleagues “How’s the City?” and I always tell them “The City of Harlingen is great. If you want some details, how much time have you got?” Since we have a little time this afternoon I’m going to give you a little detail. As in the past, we can point with pride to Harlingen’s considerable financial strength. It’s a strong indicator of substantial growth and a prosperous future.
We ended the last fiscal year with a Sixteen Million Two Hundred Forty-Three Thousand dollar fund balance representing over 143 days of operating reserves. This is money in the bank, our savings account, our rainy day fund. It represents to the world that Harlingen is responsible in its fiscal management and has the discipline and political will to maintain and grow healthy reserves. It is a critical component of maintaining our strong bond rating. And is absolutely necessary when so much of our annual operating revenue comes from potentially fluctuating retail sales tax like most communities along the border.
This is not only my assessment, but more importantly, this is what the bond rating agencies have said about us. This past fall, Fitch Ratings reaffirmed our AA+ rating for the City of Harlingen saying that our credit rating reflected the City’s above average revenue growth prospects, strong gap closing capacity and moderate fixed costs. They said our historical revenue growth had been strong, exceeding the pace of national economic expansion. And Fitch also noted that independent revenue raising capacity is high, as the City’s property tax rate remains well below State limits. They said our debt levels were moderate.
Standard and Poor’s Global Ratings also praised our financial management saying Harlingen’s budgetary performance is “strong.” And they revised their outlook from stable to positive. That’s another rating increase, the third in the last eight years.
From 2015 to 2016 our tax base grew from $3.16 billion dollars to $3.33 billion dollars, a nearly 5 percent increase. Likewise, our retail sales tax growth remains steady, boasting another year-end increase of nearly 2.4 percent and last month posting a seven percent increase compared to the same month a year before. Many other valley cities did not fare as well. Our retail sales in Harlingen exceeded $1 billion for the sixth consecutive year growing by over 11 percent since 2012. Altogether, our total revenues have increased from $34,840,257 in 2011 to $38,81 1,988 in 2016. This organic growth allows us to keep pace with increased demand for services in a growing city.
3. Robust Economic Development.
Those retail sales tax revenue increases are directly tied to the increased development of new retail shops and restaurants throughout our City. New venues continue to open in both the Cameron Crossing, the Harlingen Corners Development and all around town. The new retail development commenced at Stuart Place Road and Expressway 83 will bring new restaurants and other mixed use development. They should begin opening doors later this year.
Currently we have six residential subdivisions under development with 265 lots for new homes in Harlingen. Two more subdivisions are under review for an additional 84 residential lots. More rooftops help us to attract more retail. So having 350 new residential lots is great news. And last year we posted a 15% increase in new construction totaling nearly $54 million in new projects.
Our healthcare hub continues to expand. Two notably large projects include the July 24, 2015 ground-breaking by Harlingen Medical Center on its multi-million dollar super expansion of its Emergency Room Facility bringing more quality healthcare to our community. And on August 1, 2016, we cut the ribbon and opened a new hospital in the heart of our medical district. Palm Behavioral Health, is a 59,000 square foot state of the art psychiatric hospital with 94 beds, and represents a $15 million dollar plus investment in our community with over 200 new jobs being created in our healthcare sector. Harlingen native Michael Sauceda returned to his hometown and serves as the Director of the facility. Palm Behavioral Center partnered with the Harlingen Economic Development Corporation and the City of Harlingen to develop this project. This is another proud addition to our healthcare district which employs over 5,000 people.
The Harlingen Economic Development Corporation and the City of Harlingen also continue to strengthen their partnership with the City of San Benito and Cameron County by developing a cold storage inspection facility at the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge. This joint project with the stakeholders in the Bridge is being developed to fulfill a need to inspect produce in a climate-controlled environment. Without such a facility, there is no way to encourage and attract trucks carrying produce to cross at the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge. We know this is a significant part of the truck traffic market as we have seen at other Ports of Entry in the Valley. As we break ground on the facility, we hope that soon the cold storage inspection facility will enable our partners here in Cameron County to realize more fully the potential of the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge. It also helps us capitalize on new truck traffic being generated by the Matzalan to Matamoros superhighway.
Just last month, International Assembly, Inc. announced its opening in Harlingen inside the Harlingen Industrial Park. The company will initially commence warehousing operations to help small- and medium-sized businesses gain access to Mexico’s young, motivated labor force. They currently have shelter operations in Matamoros and in 2018 they intend to commence a plastic injection molding operation to further increase employment and investment.
Also last June, another plastic injection molding company expanded in Harlingen. Fox Valley Molding created an additional 28 new high-skilled, high-wage jobs and will increase their annual payroll by 35 percent over the next three years.
We also welcomed El Clavo Lumber to Harlingen. This long-time Valley building supplier is taking advantage of Harlingen’s centralized location to serve customers as far north as Robstown and as far west as Starr County. El Clavo owners took an empty building near our downtown and have turned it into a showplace. We are proud to have them as part of our Harlingen family.
Another new hotel is set to break ground this year. The Qube Hotel Group plans to develop a Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott with construction for the 95-unit hotel set to begin in February. Qube Hotel Group is a Dallas area-based company with extensive experience in hotel management. This is another indicator of how outside developers are eyeing the growth in our region and the central position Harlingen has to offer.
Our job creation efforts have reduced our unemployment rate to 5.4 percent in December of 2016, down from 10.l percent in the same period in 2011. To insure the continuation of that trend, in August, the Harlingen Economic Development Corporation Board met for two days to continue to refine a strategic plan focusing on everything from the Harlingen Aerotropolis Development, UTRGV and the Medical School to additional industrial development opportunities. Their strategic planning process was very thoughtful and thorough and I am certain their vision will help us achieve even greater economic development initiatives.
A new video showcases our EDC’s focus on industrial development and the partnerships that we have with Harlingen Manufacturing Association and the local manufacturers clustered on the East side of our City in our industrial parks. You can view at the EDC’s website. In it, Danny Teixeira, general manager for Cardone Industries says: “Harlingen is a great location for us. It allows to take advantage of a good strategic location primarily for distribution to channel where we serve in North America.” As we move forward, Harlingen will continue to focus on expanding our industrial, commercial and manufacturing base to create more jobs for our community. The Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce is one of our other great partnerships as an outstanding advocate for business. They have once again helped our City prepare a legislative agenda as we head into a new session in Austin.
4. Freeport Tax Exemption will spur manufacturing and warehousing growth.
Our partnership with the County is critical to our future success. And this past year, after working in partnership with our county administration, the Cameron County Commissioner’s Court unanimously approved the adoption of a Freeport Tax Exemption which becomes effective in January, 2018. It is aimed at boosting economic development throughout the county. The county now joins most cities and school districts in Cameron County in allowing an exemption of taxes on goods that have been acquired or imported into Texas to be forwarded out of the state within 175 days. In Harlingen alone, about $107 million dollars in warehouse inventory would quality for the tax exemption resulting in a savings for companies up to $417,000. Brownsville, San Benito and Los Indios all have businesses that will qualify for savings. Hidalgo County has long had this county tax exemption and has benefited by the development of warehouses at their ports of entry. This important milestone levels the playing field for Cameron County and thus ushers in a new era for the entire county to take advantage of recruiting more manufactu ring and warehousing facilities. New businesses can now take advantage of this triple freeport tax exemption that Bexar, Travis, Tarrant and Hidalgo counties have all enjoyed. I thank and congratulate County Judge Eddie Trevino and Commissioners Garza and Ruiz for their leadership in adopting this tax exemption.
5. Harlingen’s Downtown continues its Renaissance.
Even as we see all of this important growth in our new retail sectors on the west side of the City and industrial growth on the east side of the City, Harlingen remains committed to its core and to our downtown. Last February, Harlingen received a national accreditation and recognition for its downtown revitalization program for the tenth year in a row. Our downtown completed a number of new projects for existing and new businesses. And, the excitement of what’s happening in our downtown has never seemed greater. Just last month, the Reese Plaza Development announced that it had leased 27,000 square feet of office space to Pro Bar, a joint project of the American Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas. A $1.3 million dollar renovation will make way for nearly 90 professionals and support staff to move into our downtown. Jo Wagner and Todd Aune should be recognized for their long term investment in our downtown. This is not only an important milestone for their entrepreneurship, but a great milestone for our downtown and the City of Harlingen.
6. Harlingen’s Public Safety Partnerships to keep our City safe.
The Harlingen Police Department is committed to having strong partnerships with other law enforcement agencies at all levels. That includes our good friends and partners with the Border Patrol, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Rangers, Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, Police Departments in our neighboring communities and others. Violent crime and property crimes remain well below the five year highs in each of these categories with fewer than 250 violent crimes and less than 2400 property crimes reported this last year. Another indicator of continued reductions in our crime statistics is the drastic decrease in emergency calls for service. 911 calls went down from just over 43,000 to just over 38,000 for a reduction of almost 5,000 calls, almost 15 percent. HPD’s community involvement helps them know the neighborhoods and our neighbors to know them. Their events like national Night Out and the 2d Annual Run with The Heroes 5k Run/Walk keep them engaged and help them build relationships with our citizenry. The City Commission is committed to keeping our City safe and to supporting the fantastic job that our men and women in uniform are doing for us each and every day.
7. Harlingen’s Comprehensive Plan envisions an even greater Harlingen of the future.
This last year the City Commission approved a new Comprehensive Plan which envisions an even greater Harlingen of the future. The plan is wide ranging and focuses on ways in which to increase job creation, continue downtown development, improve our transportation infrastructure and our quality of life. Our Comprehensive Plan also includes a newly adopted parks and recreation master plan which focuses on enhancing and upgrading our existing parks, developing a network of trails, expanding facilities that create economic development and tourism opportunities. After adopting these comprehensive plans, the City Commission prioritized 17 different projects, many of which are well under way.
8. Lon C. Hill Destination Park and all-inclusive playgrounds will strengthen our quality of life.
One of our most exciting comprehensive plan projects will improve the quality of life for all of our residen ts and children. This project genuinely demonstrates our community’s commitment to partnership as a way to achieve our goals. Lon C. Hill Park will become a destination park with a walking trail, lighting, an amphitheater and a central plaza. One of the centerpieces of this destination park will include an all-inclusive playground on which we broke ground last month.
This all-inclusive playground along with two others planned for Victor Park and Pendleton Park are our best examples of collaboration for the greater good of the community. Supported by generous gifts from the Koppel Family, Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation and the Sunrise Rotary Club, the City of Harlingen and the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District will work together to build three all-inclusive playgrounds which can be enjoyed by children of any ability level. Swings and equipment, which are wheelchair accessible, will allow all of our children to play together and will exclude none. Children from our public schools will have access to these facilities during school hours and the playgrounds will be open to the public in the afternoons and weekends, getting maximum use of these cutting edge playgrounds — the first of their kind in South Texas. We give thanks to the leadership of our school district and the support of our fellow community members for making these playgrounds possible.
9. Harlingen’s Strong commitment to a Healthy Community and Park Development.
Our partners at the Legacy Foundation also helped our City develop our Harlingen Hometown Hero’s Trail at Pendleton Park last year. Our partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation and the $2.3 million dollar grant, with additional support by our Harlingen Community Improvement Board also helped us cut the ribbon on our 251 Street Hike and Bike Trail. We made playground park improvements at our Rangerville Park in 2016, kicked off our Geo-Cache Program, and ran Harlingen’s second half marathon in November. Our partners at the Harlingen-San Benito MPO sponsored Viva Streets in May of 2016 with a tremendous reception from our community. Our friends at It’s Time Texas, our Harlingen Wellness Council and the Mayor’s Fitness Council have all worked together to encourage our community members to stay active, use our trails and parks, eat right and stay fit for a healthier Harlingen.
We have also been blessed with an expansion of Arroyo Park through the generosity of Mac Elkins and her late husband Ted. The Elkins Family has donated 25 acres of land adjacent to Arroyo Park and across the Arroyo from the Thicket. This beautiful piece of property will enhance our recreational and birding sites in our City. We thank the Elkins Family.
Another significant and ambitious partnership centers on developing all of Cameron County into an outdoor recreational tourist destination which will also contribute to our economic development. Dubbed the The Active Plan, Brownsville, also supported by the Legacy Foundation, has developed the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan. The plan sets as its goal attracting active tourists-those seeking appealing attractions and destinations, suitable amenities, infrastructure and support with a reputation for charm and natural resources. It is modeled on other such initiatives in Oregon and the Alleghenies. One of the signature projects involving Harlingen would be the extensive expansion of our Arroyo Hike and Bike Trial several miles east and looping down to San Benito to connect with their Heavin Resaca Trail. The plan would also open the Arroyo as a a kayaking and canoeing blue trail. Ten Cameron County cities have signed on to this joint effort. And although, we see this as a long-term effort, it is sweeping in its vision for tourism and promoting a healthy lifestyle in our Region.
10. Building Infrastructure will continue to support our growth.
Our City’s growth is dependent on continuing to maintain and improve the City’s infrastructure at all levels. One of our Comprehensive Plan projects is to promote and increase access to our retail restaurants and soon to come Harlingen Convention Center by the reconstruction and realignment of Spur 54. Partnering with TXDOT, state funds from Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 have been earmarked to make this a reality and we hope to break ground on the $6.8 million dollars project in 2018. Our efforts to make our community an active, walkable, rideable and pedestrian friendly city received a boost when we received a notice of a grant award for the construction of approximately two miles of sidewalks at three locations in our City. This is a grant through our Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council which receives federal highway administration funds. To improve and preserve the quality and safety of our street system, the City Commission continues to commit funding for annual street overlay projects. Last year we budgeted 1.5 million dollars for overlay projects for approximately 3 miles of roadway improvements. This year we are budgeting 1.2 million dollars from general fund revenues and another $328,000 from Community Development Block Grant Funds. We remain focused on ramping up our street overlay program as much as possible.
11. Our new fire station will support growth on our West side.
As I mentioned earlier, new housing subdivisions, and new commercial and retail construction, especially on our West side, will be made safer by the opening of a new fire station which should be fully operational this month. This $1.5 million dollar project increases our fire department service area and reduces response time to service calls providing a greater sense of security for our citizens who reside or work in this area.
We also welcomed a new $2.5 million Cameron County 911 Call Center at 501 Camelot Drive. This marvelous new facility coordinates all 911 calls throughout the County and we are fortunate to have this center call Harlingen home.
12. Wastewater Treatment Plant Extension Project.
We’ve had the good fortune of having excellent leadership on the Harlingen Utility Board and with the general manager Darrell Gunn and his talented staff. Over the years, I have been able to proudly report to you about the very cost effective “pay as you” go re-construction and extension of our Wastewater Treatment facility. Let me remind you that in 2007, a National Consultant estimated that it would cost $50 million to construct a new Waster Water Plant. But because of the great stewardship at Waterworks, here we are ten years later, and we are nearing the completion of this project, but not at a cost of $50 million, instead, at a cost of $13.9 million dollars. Our rate-payers and citizens owe a great deal of thanks to our Waterworks staff for this in-house design and construction which has saved them over $36 million.
13. Our Partnerships with the Texas National Guard and Habitat for Humanity.
We continue the fantastic partnerships we have with the Texas National Guard and Habitat for Humanity. For the sixth year in a row, we will be hosting the Texas National Guard to tear down dilapidated structures in our neighborhoods which are graffiti magnets and which also attract drugs, gangs and criminal activity. This program makes our neighborhoods safer. In 2016, our Code Enforcement Department, Police Department and other City Staff worked with the Texas National Guard to eliminate 35 blighted structures dangerous to our community including a massive tear down of 17 structures on Taft Street. To date, this partnership has eliminated 154 blighted structures from our neighborhoods. And our partnership with Habitat for Humanity is helping us create new homes sometimes on the very same lots where the Guard knocked down a bad building. Last year, Harlingen donated eight lots to Habitat. Harlingen Proud has also joined this effort working to improve the appearance of the entire street in a neighborhood near Jefferson Elementary. We are so grateful to the leadership of these organizations.
14. Library and Museum Projects.
We will soon be making Library and Museum improvements as part of our Comprehensive Plan. And once again, we have found an outstanding partner in one of the great service organizations of our community, the Junior League. Improvements to our library focused on our youth will include the expansion of our children’s library with an interactive and discovery component together with a dedicated computer lab for teens to work on homework and research projects. The Junior League of Harlingen has committed $294,000 to this project and their dedicated commitment to both the City and the children of our community is inspiring. We thank the Junior League for their work to make our City a better place. Likewise, we’ll be making some significant improvements at Harlingen’s Arts and Heritage Museum focusing mainly on the historical section which is in serious need of improvements. Our private fundraising effort is led by the energizer bunny and professional unpaid volunteer Ruthie Ewers who’s already raised more than half of her $300,000 goal to complete the one-half million dollar improvements which will be made at our museum. Be sure and ask Ruthie how you can help. I know she’ll tell you.
15. Increased boarding’s at Valley International Airport.
One of the big stories this year at our airport is the return of Sun Country Airlines non-stop service to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Sun Country has been a great partner in the past and in returning to the Rio Grande Valley market, they had a choice. And they chose Harlingen. And since the start of this fiscal year, we’ve seen an overall seven increase in boarding’s at Valley International. That’s great news for our airport and reflects the fact that larger capacity planes being flown by Southwest Airlines and United Airlines are in demand here in Harlingen. We’re filling up those larger planes with more passengers as we continue to capitalize our central location in the Valley for the air-traveling public.
16. Our Convention Center is a public/private partnership.
Last year, at this time, I was able to report that we had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with BC Lynd Hospitality and Reyna Family Development to bring an upscale hotel and convention center to Harlingen. Many of you have followed this story with interest and I can report to you that we are only a few months away from ground-breaking on this very important project for our community. This is truly a public/private partnership which will bring badly needed meeting space, a convention center and the largest hotel yet to the City of Harlingen. While it has taken time to complete the final agreement and to get to this stage, every aspect of the project and the methods of financing are the same as I described last year.
The convention center will be comprised of a 43,700 square feet adjoining a 150-bed Hilton Garden Inn. The developer will lease, maintain, staff and operate the convention center facility with a ten year lease, profits and losses are to be shared equally between the City and the developer. The final agreements between the City and BC Lynd have been signed. The bonds have been sold and funding through our Community Improvement Corporation, tax increment finance zones and hotel/motel taxes has all been approved. None of these revenue sources take from general revenue funds used for operations like public safety and streets.
More importantly, this convention center will allow us to take advantage of our central location to bring meetings, events and regional conventions to our centralized location in the heart of the Valley. This will be the only convention center in the Valley with a hotel that is actually connected to the convention facility and it will make it easier for participants to have access and utilize the facility.
17. UTRGV and The School of Medicine’s Partnership with Harlingen is critical to our future.
Our City’s partnership with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the School of Medicine has never been more important than it is today. Harlingen’s 41-acre campus is no longer part of San Antonio’s Medical School. It is officially now part of the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley, School of Medicine. For more than 15 years it has been called “The RAHC” and is now UTRGV’s “Academic and Research Facility.” The UTRGV School of Medicine welcomed its second cohort of 42 medical residents at the Harlingen Academic and Research building on June 24, 2016. One of these residents is Dr. Liezet Cepeda, a Harlingen native who graduated from the Chicago College of Medicine and said she has always had the dream of coming back and serving her community. These residents’ white coat ceremony was followed by the first white coat ceremony for first year medical students at UTRGV School of Medicine with that ceremony taking place in Edinburg. Harlingen’s campus remains an important part of our medical school focusing on third and fourth year student and residency programs and we remain committed to this important partnership with UTRGV and the School of Medicine.
A week ago, this is where this section of the speech on UTRGV stopped.
But this morning, we got some new material and more to tell you about the School of Medicine. At 10 a.m. this morning, at the UT-RGV Clinical Education Building on Treasure Hills Blvd, President Guy Bailey announced the largest gift yet to the UTRGV School of Medicine – $15 million from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation to create the new UTRG V Institute for Neurosciences. The Institute, which will be housed in Harlingen, catalyzes multidisciplinary research, integrated clinical services, educational programs, community outreach and engagement with hospital partners in the areas of mine/brain health, behavior and prevention. Dr.Bailey announced that the gift will be matched in significance with university funds for state of the art equipment and personnel. He said, “This is another historic day for UTRGV . . . [one] that will impact the Valley and beyond.”
The Institute will focus on:
–Education: integrating primary care behavioral health in internal medicine, developing medical student clerkships in psychiatry and neurology and will develop research and clinical fellowship in sub-specialties;
–It will include multidisciplinary research and service lines for specific populations;
–And it will include health and prevention programs for psychotic disorders, and implement behavioral health in internal medicine in internal medicine and other primary care clinics;
I am overwhelmed by the vision of the UTRGV leadership and that of the Staff and Board at the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation. The Institute for Neurosciences will change the landscape for how we diagnose and treat mind and brain disorders. We thank and congratulate all those who have brought this dream to the beginning of reality. Thank you.
We had a good year last year! And 2017 is starting off to be a fantastic year for the City of Harlingen. I predict that we’ll be making more important announcements for growth and progress as the year goes on. So stay tuned.
Certainly, all these positive milestones cannot be accomplished without the great partners and the partnerships we’ve talked about here this afternoon. And certainly, I would not be here today giving my 10th Annual State of the City Address if were not for my great partner, my wonderful wife Anita. Thank you.
We cannot do things alone. Not as individuals, not as organizations, not as Cities. We have to work together. With our Citizens. With our volunteer Boards. With our businesses and non-profit organizations. And with the other cities and towns, our County and our Region. Together, we have and can continue to accomplish a great deal. Thank you to all of you for what you do to make Harlingen the fantastic City it is. God Bless you. God Bless our Great State of Texas and our United States. And God Bless our great City of Harlingen.
Chris Boswell, Mayor City of Harlingen