RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – A veteran economic development leader says Rio Grande City has all the ingredients to grow as big as the city he once managed – McAllen, Texas.

Jose (Joe) Escamilla served as city manager of McAllen from December 1983 to September 1992. He was the first city manager of Rio Grande City when the town incorporated in the mid-1990s. He then worked for the Starr-Camargo International Bridge and is currently a member of the Starr County Industrial Foundation. 

“I served the City of McAllen for 28 years, including a spell as city manager. I feel that this area (Rio Grande City) has as great or better potential than McAllen and the center of the Valley, simply because it is in a direct line between Monterrey, Houston and the northeast seaboard,” Escamilla said. 

Escamilla (pictured above) gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian following a recent groundbreaking ceremony for the much-anticipated Rio Grande Village retail project.

The project is being developed next to U.S. 83 on land Escamilla persuaded landowner Bill Robertson to donate to Rio Grande City 25 years ago. 

“We started this project after the donation the land for FM 755 some 25 or 26 years ago. At that time we put in the street light in front of the Walmart and that started the project,” Escamilla said.

“Phase 2 of FM 755 has been approved. They intend to start that, from what I understand, in September of this year and that will go south from the intersection there at 83 and Redwood, down to the international bridge. That will be the next phase of it.”

Escamilla said he wanted to give a shoutout to landowner Robertson and to Pete Alvarez, the Pharr District director for the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Pete Alvarez is a visionary and he is looking at a parallel route from Starr County all the way to South Padre Island. He is working on it. Plans are in the mill. This area will be great to develop in the future and I don’t think you will recognize this area in a few more years.”

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera agreed with Escamilla’s analysis.

“The shortest route to Monterrey is Ruta 54 so we are much closer than other cities in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. From here to Monterey, you can be over there in an hour and 45 minutes, which is a lot less than anywhere else. So, hopefully with this new retail development we will get a lot more Mexican shoppers coming across to buy in our stores,” Vera said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.

“There is just so much potential. We are very excited. This retail project is going to be the catalyst that Rio Grande City and Starr County and all the neighboring cities needed. So, now we become believable. I agree with Joe. We are in the right place at the right time.”

Asked how good Ruta 54 is, Vera said: “It has already been done on the Mexican side. It is a good road. It has got hard shoulders. The problem is the insecurity on the road. If Mexico ever gets a handle on that, this is going to be a boom town.”

Rio Grande Village project

Starr County VIPs and guests participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Rio Grande Village retail development in Rio Grande City.

The multi-million dollar Rio Grande Village project has already seen the arrival of an expanded Whataburger. Next up is the construction of a Stripes gas station, a Panda Express, a Starbucks, a Buffalo Wings and Rings and a new Hilton hotel.

Speakers at the recent groundbreaking ceremony focused their remarks on the trials and tribulations that occurred in getting to this point. The challenges included severe flooding and the downturn caused by COVID-19.

Developers St. Ives Realty have been working on the project for seven years, alongside the City of Rio Grande City, Rio Grander City Economic Development Corporation, Starr County, and the Starr County Industrial Foundation. 

“Every journey starts with a single step that allows you to move forward. But sometimes there are unfathomable challenges that test and bend even the best of us,” said Starr County Industrial Foundation President Rose Benavidez, alluding to the realignment of key infrastructure, floods, a hurricane, a big freeze, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Benavidez predicted: “This (Rio Grande Village) will transcend and transform the economic vitality of the place we call home.”

In his remarks, Vera was bursting with pride. 

“Today is really a very exciting day for Rio Grande (City) and Starr County. This is probably the biggest or certainly one of the biggest economic development projects that we have had for a very, very, long time, if not ever,” Vera said.

“I think this will be the seed that will begin a domino effect into our unemployment and job creation and economic development.”

Rey Ramirez, president of Rio Grande City EDC, said the “dream” of developing the Rio Grande Valley started seven years ago. 

“This was just an open field that needed a lot of work, a lot of investment,” he said, before paying tribute to Troy Bathman and Jim Gissler.

Gissler is founding partner and broker for St. Ives Realty. Bathman is a founding partner of the company also. 

“Thank you for believing in Rio Grande City,” Ramirez said to Bathman and Gissler. “You guys have been with us for many, many, years. I know that for a while we were back and forth discussing what we can and cannot do. But, thank you, gentlemen, for sticking with us.”

Ramirez added: “This is a multi-million investment in our community. More importantly it is going to create a lot of jobs. That’s what we want. Job creation, bringing people to our hotels, to visit Rio Grande City and to stay here and to enjoy our city and our community.”

Jim Gissler, co-founder of St. Ives Realty

In his remarks from the podium, Gissler said he was relieved the project has finally got to the point of a groundbreaking ceremony.

“We know we have had an interesting year and a half. We started this project in October 2019, turning dirt, and we planed open in 2020, working with the tenants.”

However, Gissler pointed out, the project had to overcome a storm that produced 30 inches of rain, a hurricane, a statewide ice storm and a pandemic. 

“This made everything slow, late. It made everybody question their decisions. But with the help of the City, Starr County, the EDC, the Industrial Foundation, the planning department, and the building department… the planning department and the building department were wonderful. Without them this would not have happened. Today we are seeing the fruits of their labor.”

Gissler said the Rio Grande Village is attracting national brands.

“Some of the most exciting national brands in the country that every city is clamoring to get: Starbucks, Panda’s, Buffalo Wings and Rings, a sit down restaurant, I know everybody wants that. We’ve got Stripes, Hilton, and we have got several other contracts working.”

Gissler then looked to the future.

“After the pandemic, everything took a step back as far as tenants were concerned but we’ve got new contracts working. Some of the tenants that had left are now back at the table. And that is most exciting. It just speaks so much about Rio Grande City and the community and everybody here,” Gissler said.

Gissler added: “This is such a personal thing for Troy and me because we have become friends, as close as we can get with the city of Rio Grande City, with Starr County, the EDC, Starr County Industrial Foundation. We are just grateful for the opportunity. None of this would have happened without each of you all going that extra mile, working with us when things looked bleak and getting this thing done.”

Editor’s Note: To read the commentary of Rio Grande City Mayor Joe Villarreal at the groundbreaking ceremony, click here.

Vera’s viewpoint

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera

After the event, the Rio Grande Guardian interviewed Judge Vera.

“We have been working on this for years. For it to happen now, I just cannot explain the feeling. We are certainly extremely grateful to God and to our community for helping us to do this,” Vera said.

“I think this is going to be the catalyst we need to actually start working on our unemployment. Unemployment in Starr County has always been among the highest if not the highest and this is going to bring in, according to Rose (Benavidez), once it is built out close to 600 jobs for us. That is unheard of.”

Another big plus, Vera said, is that the residents of Starr County would no longer have to travel to Mission, McAllen, and other parts of Hidalgo County to visit national brand retail stores and restaurants.

“Our people will not have to go to the Valley for a lot of things, they can shop locally, our sales tax is going to increase. There are just so many benefits from this kind of project that is hard to summarize. It will stop the bleeding,” Vera said.

“And, hopefully, also it stops some of the brain loss we get because we don’t have jobs. This is big. We are real thankful to Tory and Jim for believing in our commuting and investing the amount of dollars and effort that they have.”

The Rio Grande Guardian asked Vera about the numerous times he had to address residents that doubted the project would ever materialize.

“It has been such a long time coming. I would get lots of questions when I shopped at HEB. It even got to the point where I told Rose, ‘don’t talk about it any more. They think we are lying.’ There were a lot of obstacles and thankfully, thanks to Dalinda and Rose, those obstacles were taken care of,” Vera said, referring to Rose Benavidez and Dalinda Guillen, executive director of Rio Grande City EDC.

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