MERCEDES, RGV – An out-of-the-box idea by the Development Corporation of Mercedes three years ago to invest $58,000 in a branding initiative that saw the placement of around 20 five-and-a-half feet tall cowboy boots, made of aluminum and painted with the colors and logos of universities, has been a big success.
Many people who may otherwise not have visited Mercedes have driven to the city’s downtown to have their picture taken next to the boot signifying their Alma mater.
Now, city leaders believe the number of visitors will increase even more because they have had a boot designed to honor the place most people get their education – the School of Hard Knocks. The giant cowboy boot has been erected outside offices of the Development Corporation of Mercedes on South Ohio Street.
“Now, we have a boot honoring the School of Hard Knocks. We thought we needed this because most people come out of the School of Hard Knocks. Your college education did something for you but it did not prepare you for life. Life prepared you for life.”
By way of an example, Gonzalez said he was visited recently by Myra Garcia, the wife of Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia who is now back working at VIDA as interim executive director. VIDA stands for the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement and its office is just across the street from the Development Corporation of Mercedes.
“Myra came in and said, ‘Hernan, I have a PhD from the School of Hard Knocks and I graduated with Honors.’ It has the biggest alumni of any school. Since we erected the boot we have had many people come in and tell us what they learned at the School of Hard Knocks.”
The motto on the cowboy boot says, ‘Hard Work, Faith, Ambition.’ Gonzalez said DCM resisted the urge to put the motto in Latin because Latin is not usually taught in the School of Hard Knocks.
The School of Hard Knocks cowboy boot is sponsored by Texas National Bank. “We are very proud of it,” Gonzalez said, while also giving a shout out to the other schools featured in the series: “Baylor, Harvard, Notre Dame, Rice, South Texas College, Southern Methodist University, St. Edwards, St. Mary’s University, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Texas A&M, Texas A&M University at Kingsville, Texas Lutheran College, Texas Tech, Texas Woman’s University, Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, University of Houston, and University of Texas.”
What makes Mercedes unique
The cowboy boot initiative is an example of Gonzalez’ focus on making downtown Mercedes more vibrant. In an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Gonzalez said that while some economic development leaders in the Valley put much of their emphasis on bringing business to their interstate corridor, in Mercedes the priority is both the expressway frontage and downtown.
“For us, it is not the expressway versus downtown. It has got to be both. The uniqueness of a community is your heart and soul, your history, your buildings and what new and adapted uses can you find for them,” Gonzalez said.
In Mercedes’s case, the heart and soul has to include imagery of the West, Gonzalez said. Mercedes is home to Rio Boots, which employs more than 100 boot makers, and other western wear stores. It is also home to the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show, a ten-day festival that draws tens of thousands of visitors every year.
“We have a long legacy of boot making in Mercedes. We have the livestock show, which is historic, with a 75-year legacy. A major destination event. This is why we hold, on the last Thursday of every month, in front of city hall, our country music night. It is the brand we want to promote. It goes with the livestock show, it goes with the boots, it goes with our legacy,” Gonzalez said. “It is meant to draw people into Mercedes and it does. People said it will not work on a Thursday but it has. It is an off night. It allows business people come into town and entertain their clients.”
As the Valley continues to attract more professionals, thanks in part to UTRGV and its School of Medicine, Mercedes is positioning itself as a great place to live, even if work is in McAllen, Harlingen or Brownsville, Gonzalez said.
“We have new talent coming in all the time, from places like Kentucky and Puerto Rico, all over. Location-wise these professionals could work in the Port of Brownsville or McAllen but they might take a look at us,” Gonzalez said.
“If you live in Mercedes you are 15 to 20 minutes from all the major hospitals in the Valley, from all the major shopping centers, from all three major airports. We are trying to maximize the location advantage we have. We are a small community that is reshaping our economy. We are becoming more attractive to a potential investor or home buyer. I tell the city commission and our board, the only limit to Mercedes is us. It is not an external threat. All we have to do is reinvest in ourselves and that is what we are doing.”
Gonzalez cited the case of a house builder from Tomball, Texas, who came to the Valley to repair homes damaged by a hurricane. “JW Turner is the company. They were looking for investment opportunities and said they were willing to roll the dice with us. Instead of building one house, they decided to build ten, in the Arroyo Palm Subdivision. Houses in the $125,000 to $140,000 price range, modestly priced, good construction, good finish. It gives us a product we don’t have. Half could be sold before they are finished,” Gonzalez said. “So, not only is the talent coming into the city new, so is the investment.”
One of the big attractions about Mercedes, Gonzalez said, is that residents are not fighting congestion but are close to the bigger Valley cities. Such as Harlingen, which has a large medical community.
“If we continue to reinvent Mercedes we have a future. There are a lot of communities in the Valley that are waiting for an external lifeline. It is not going to happen. Our brand is good. People like the energy we have here. You can find a jewel of a house. People love the location,” Gonzalez said.
“Think about it. If people have a positive and romantic view of the Valley, that view is not N. 10th in McAllen. For living, it could be Mercedes. We are still rural. There is a uniqueness about us. You can find some historic homes, some diamonds in the rough.”
Gonzalez also cited the case of a businessman from Monterrey who recently said that when he drives into Mercedes and his blood pressure drops ten points. “If we are not the best place to live, we are a good alternative. Look at what we offer. We have Formacio Pizzeria, Mercedes Donut Cafe, and the Smoking Oak, which has probably the best barbecue in the Valley, comparable to what you find in Central Texas.”
Gonzalez added: “Mercedes has a future in the changing nature of the Valley’s economy. We will have more than 150 healthcare professionals working next to the expressway, in either the Knapp family practice residency program or the Mid Valley Nursing & Rehabilitation Center right behind it. Healthcare is one of the major drivers of the Valley economy. These professionals may want to live here.”