DONNA, RGV – On Thursday, the city of Donna held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of a Circle K located at the corner FM 493/N. Salinas Boulevard and Interstate Highway 2.
The new convenience store, along with the business and jobs it has already generated, is the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come for the city.
“This signifies more than just the opening of a convenience store for us. This is the start of a $53 million investment that’s coming to our town,” said Lyle Garza, executive director of Donna Economic Development Corporation.
The Circle K sits on one of 11 lots developed by the city. Two years ago, Donna city council members agreed to purchase 25 acres along Interstate 2 and FM 493, committing to invest in and provide the infrastructure needed to attract businesses to the area. Spearheaded by Ernesto Silva, Donna’s interim city manager, a partnership was formed between the city, the Donna EDC, Terracor Real Estate Services and Scarborough Real Estate to develop the land for sale to retailers.
“For the last 20 years, the city of Donna has had the most undeveloped land along the expressway between Harlingen and Mission. You drive through just about every little town and you see the businesses growing. You see jobs that are being created everywhere,” said Garza. “And, yet, Donna for many, many years stood very quietly as a bedroom community, where it was a great place to live, but you really had to go work outside of Donna.”
Garza says the $5 million infrastructure project sparked job creation in the city six months ago with the hiring of construction crews to carry out the endeavor. They brought in water and sewer lines to the lots and started work on a new water tower able to hold twice the volume of the old tower. With the developments, businesses are now set to move in.
“When they buy the property, it’s already ready to go. It has all the utilities. It has the fire protection. It will have the roadways, and so the amount of time that it’ll take for somebody to develop the property is reduced greatly because the city is the one undertaking all of that, and we’re doing it ahead of schedule,” said Silva.
So far, the city’s investment seems to be paying off. In addition to the new Circle K, city officials announced the sale of lots to Burlington Coat Factory, Ross, Marshalls, Dunkin’ Donuts and T-Mobile. The stores will be part of the new $53 million retail plaza known as the Shops at 493. With the land sales, Silva says that the city should be able to recoup its entire investment without having to dip into its own revenue. Still, the immediate impact for Donna residents will be the creation of about 500 jobs.
“These are jobs that are being created, and maybe they’re not the most lucrative jobs that are going to be paying $20 or $30 or $40 an hour, but these jobs mean something for people in this community because there are many … people living here in Donna who have to drive 15 miles to go work at another convenience store or another plaza somewhere else, and isn’t this more beneficial to them to now be able to work in their hometown …?” said Garza.
International Bridge – a catalyst for growth
While excitement for the new shops is mounting, it wasn’t too long ago that Donna residents griped about a proposed investment to build what is now the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge. Before becoming interim city manager, Silva and his company, Silva Otting & Silva LLC, were contracted in 2003 to help the city turn its sluggish economy around. It was at this time that he put forward plans to complete the bridge as an impetus for economic revitalization. When city management changed hands in 2010 – the year the bridge was opened – Silva and his company were released from their contract, but rehired in 2013.
Since then, bridge traffic has increased by 87 percent with 3.9 million visitors crossing last year. Concurrently, Donna experienced a 55.83 percent growth in sales tax revenue over those four years – a thrilling trend for city leaders. In August, the Texas Department of Transportation began work to widen a stretch of FM 493 to ease the flow of traffic. The expansion is to expected to be complete by 2019.
At the bridge itself, construction also continues. After obtaining U.S. Customs and Border Patrol approval for their Donations Acceptance Program (DAP) proposal in April, the city is erecting facilities to accommodate the crossing of commercial traffic. They hope to see empty commercial vehicle crossings by 2018 and loaded commercial vehicle crossings by 2019. Empty commercial vehicle crossings are projected to bring an additional $500,000 in toll revenue to the city annually, while loaded commercial vehicle crossings are projected to bring an additional $1.7 million annually.
Increased revenue aside, Silva says that the crossing of commercial traffic will spur the growth of new types of businesses in the city. He foresees distribution, warehousing and manufacturing businesses cropping up and says that city officials have already met with companies interested in locating to Donna.
With so much progress seen in such a small timeframe, it is no wonder that many, including Garza, attribute the city’s recent renaissance to Silva’s guidance. Since his return, Donna went from having the highest property taxes in the state (raised mostly to fund the bridge) to seeing dramatic reductions for the past four years.
“While most cities are trying to hold the line on property taxes and make a minimal reduction every year, the City of Donna’s leadership has done the unheard of and dropped taxes at an astronomical rate,” said state Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco). “It’s a true testament to the leadership and dedication of the elected officials and administrators.”
Even as property taxes have decreased, investment in the city has not. Over $500,000 has been spent on park improvements, and Donna’s police department recently received new uniforms, standard issue weapons, and an updated communications system. Years of drainage issues are also being addressed, with many neighborhoods and streets slated for maintenance and repaving.
When asked the secret behind all he has accomplished, Silva said it came down to “hard choices and even harder work” by him and, ultimately, the city council. This included unpopular decisions like requiring city council approval on all department purchases over $49,999 and laying off employees – all done with the city’s betterment in mind.
“I tell the citizens, if you want to complain, I suggest you ask previous elected officials why they did not improve the city’s infrastructure. I totally agree with the citizens. I would be upset, too,” said Silva. “However, the blame should not be on the current administration. We are trying to fix 50 years of neglect in three years.”
To that end, Donna seems to be in very good hands.
“Every city he has helped he has definitely left it a better place than he found it,” said Rep. Martinez. “If I were a betting man, I would bet great things will continue happening in Donna.”