EDINBURG, RGV – First Hartford Realty wants to sit down with Hidalgo County Commissioners to discuss the possibility of building a new county courthouse next to another of its major developments, The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley.
The group’s president, John Toic, told the Rio Grande Guardian that First Realty has about 45 acres of land next to The Shoppes that could be used for a new courthouse. Toic sent a letter to Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia this week urging commissioners court to hold off on plans to build a new courthouse on the current downtown courthouse square.
“While there is still time, we encourage that alternative plans for the courthouse be considered in terms of location, price, and financing– for the benefit of the public and the project,” Toic said in a news release. “Over the last several years we have been developing a plan that will provide the County those options, and we believe it is time to allow those options to be explored.”
Toic said the current courthouse plan comes at an estimated cost of $150 million. He argued that cost can be greatly reduced, and that a public-private solution can lessen the financial burden to taxpayers. He also points out that the current downtown site is both small and land-locked, limiting future potential growth.
“A potential site that provides ample parking, responsible drainage, and encourages current and long term economic growth for the County would be the best site for Hidalgo County’s new courthouse,” the news release states.
Asked if First Hartford has enough land at Trenton and I 69-Central for a county courthouse, Toic told the Rio Grande Guardian:
“We think it would blend in very well with the existing development that is there. We could utilize the infrastructure that we put in for The Shoppes when we opened ten years ago. That was a great example of a public-private partnership that we completed with the county and the city. The Shoppes was created out of a TIRZ district and we were able to utilize that partnership to bring infrastructure to the property, which now, I think, is probably one of the biggest shopping centers in the trade area. The area to the north of The Shoppes is quite substantial and could accommodate very easily a project of this nature. I think we have about 45 acres of land that has not been utilized.”
TIRZ stands for Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. It is an economic development tool to incentivize development and redevelopment.
Toic added that his company has architectural renderings for a new courthouse to be built at The Shoppes. He said they could be made available to the media after they have been “fine-tuned.”
Here is Toic’s letter to Judge Garcia, sent May 10:
Honorable Judge Ramon Garcia
100 N. Closner
Edinburg, Texas 78539
Honorable Judge Ramon Garcia,
It is with great interest and respect that we wish to address Hidalgo County’s current plans to design and construct a much-needed, new county courthouse to replace the existing facility that is both under-sized and outdated.
Given the scope of this project and its cost (an estimated $150 million) we believe it is critical that the County consider an alternative site that could provide greater options in terms of size and spacing requirements, price, and financing– for the benefit of the public and the project. For this reason, we respectfully request that a pause be placed on the project until additional proposals can be considered. [I think we drove this point home in the press release].
A pause on the project will also allow new leadership that is taking office in January to be involved in the decision-making process, especially since they will be responsible for its cost, construction, and completion.
We are not alone in requesting this action.
Recently, The Monitor published an editorial recommending that the project be put on pause given the upcoming change in leadership. As its editorial states:
“Considering that two of the five members on the commission will be replaced in 2019, perhaps the court should hit the pause button, at least until the new commission is fully on board.
The new incoming county judge and commissioner for Precinct 4 could very well have very different ideas as to how this new facility should be built, where it should be built, the cost and possibly even if it should be built, at all.” (The Monitor Editorial Board, March 26, 2018)
As such, we ask that you give this request your most urgent attention before proceeding further with this most-important project.
Commissioner David Fuentes
Commissioner Eddie Cantu
Commissioner Joe Flores
Commissioner Joseph Palacios
First Hartford’s news release about building a new courthouse for Hidalgo County next to The Shoppes was issued May 8. Toic said it was sent to “set the record straight.” This is how the news release started:
Last week, in a letter to Mayor Richard Molina, as reported by The Monitor, County Judge Ramon Garcia asked the City of Edinburg to commit $30 million dollars to help build a new, long-overdue county courthouse. The report noted that in the letter, Judge Garcia said all other options for the courthouse had been considered, and that the county had completed months of discussions with potential partnerships including First Hartford Realty, the developer of The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley, which offers an alternate site for the courthouse.
The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley wishes to set the record straight.
While the organization had a brief discussion with Judge Garcia almost five years ago, there was no meaningful discussion with First Hartford Realty about the new County Courthouse, and it was clear from that discussion that Judge Garcia had already made up his mind about where he wanted to build the courthouse. First Hartford Realty now proposes an alternative location at The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley, located at the intersection of Highway 281 and Trenton, that could be accomplished quickly and more affordably than the current project by way of a public/private partnership.
In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Toic said: “What prompted us to issue the (news) release yesterday is to just clarify something I read in a report that was forwarded to me last week, a newspaper article. It indicated there had been quite a bit of discussion about a public-private partnership with us and I thought I just needed to set the record straight.”
Toic said his only interaction with Hidalgo County officials about a new courthouse came in ten to 15-minute conference call in 2015.
“I think I would be exaggerating if I said it was more than a ten-minute phone call with our then president and current chairman, Neil Ellis. I think it was a joint meeting of the county commissioners and the city council of Edinburg. Literally, I think the meeting lasted all of about ten or 15 minutes. For a $150 million project, I did not really consider that to be enough time to really delve into the details. After that, there was no real follow-up. We felt it was pretty clear that the direction had been determined.”
Toic said prior to that 2015 telephone conversation, First Hartford’s chairman was introduced to Garcia once, in an informal setting.
“I believe our chairman had an informal introduction to the county judge at a private dinner event. Nothing of any significance was discussed about a specific courthouse project at that time,” Toic said.
In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia disputed claims he and his staff have not had serious discussions with First Hartford about a new county courthouse. He said he, county commissioners and county staff have met with the company on multiple occasions. Besides, Garcia said, a District Attorney opinion states that the county cannot enter into a public-private partnership to build a county courthouse.
Garcia’s staff provided the Rio Grande Guardian with copies of agendas, notes and an architectural rendering produced by First Hartford for a county courthouse – on the current courthouse square.
“We had a meeting with them in September 2012, with them and the City of Edinburg. Our DA sent us an opinion that it was illegal to enter into such an agreement for the construction of a courthouse. The law did not allow the courthouse to be owned by a private developer,” Garcia said.
“We kept on meeting, trying to see if there was some way we could come up with an exception. We met again the following year, 2013, and in 2013 they sent us a sketch of what they were proposing. That sketch shows a new courthouse building located in downtown courthouse square. It was not, as they are now telling the public, at The Shoppes at Trenton. They never talked about that.”
Garcia said that in August of 2014, ERO Architects brought the contractor for the only P3 courthouse project in the country, which was in Long Beach, California. “It was determined that it was more expensive to go that route than for us to build it,” Garcia said. “We then went with our financial advisor to New York to meet with First Hartford, in August 2014. I really do not understand where this gentleman is coming from when he says we have not met them.”
Bobby Villarreal, a key lieutenant to Judge Garcia said: “We have a lot of documents that show we have met with First Hartford. The renderings they sent were all about the courthouse square. If we were to leave the square, we don’t just take the courthouse. We take the district attorney’s office across the street, which encompasses about four floors of offices. Some other ancillary offices that would have to go as well.”
Villarreal added: “There was never a concrete proposal submitted to us by First Hartford. We are in the 9th innings now for our new courthouse.”
Michael Leo, another staff member for Judge Garcia, sent the Rio Grande Guardian two agenda notices for joint meetings held with First Hartford. He also sent a prior design submitted by First Hartford for a new courthouse to be located within the downtown square. Another document sent shows the timeline for meetings with First Hartford and other P3 companies.
Here is the timeline of Hidalgo County’s discussions about a public private partnership, as provided by the Hidalgo County Judge’s Office:
- September 2012: Meetings held with First Hartford, City of Edinburg on P3 potential for Courthouse. Request for opinion sent to D.A.
- D.A. later issues opinion to county that it would be improper/illegal to enter into a P3 agreement for the construction of a courthouse.
- Feb. 2013, County Judge staff attends P3 Conference in Dallas and meets again with First Hartford regarding P3 option for Courthouse Project
- July of 2013 First Hartford sent a sketch of proposed P3 project for Hidalgo County Courthouse, to be located within the downtown courthouse square.
- August 2014: Architect, ERO, brings Contractor for the only P3 Courthouse Project in the country at the time, the Long Beach Courthouse. (Project deemed as not financially feasible)
- November 2014: Judge Garcia, Financial Advisor and representatives from the City of Edinburg attend various meetings in New York with First Hartford regarding the courthouse project and financing options for P3
- August 2015 through Dec. 2015: P3 discussions with CBRE out of Atlanta
- September 2015: P3 Meetings with HOK and law firms involved in P3 structure and projects
- September 2015 Special Meeting held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance with the Edinburg City Council and Hidalgo County for presentation by First Hartford Realty.
- March 2016: Meeting with P3 Connections, Inc.
The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley
Here are some pictures from a groundbreaking ceremony for The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley. They were taken in August, 2007, by then-Rio Grande Guardian reporter Joey Gomez.