MERCEDES, RGV – Mercedes is soon to get a new 85-room hotel with a national flag that is completely new to the Rio Grande Valley, along with three or four new restaurants, says the city’s economic development leader.

Hernan Gonzalez, executive director of the Development Corporation of Mercedes, said the hotel and restaurants will be on the north side of Expressway 83, right across from the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets on I-2/Expressway 83. The hotel will include a meeting room/small conference center.

In another sign of Mercedes rebranding itself, the city will also be getting a component of a residency program allied to the UT-RGV School of Medicine, Gonzalez said, proudly.

Hernan Gonzalez
Hernan Gonzalez

“I cannot tell you who yet but I can tell you there is going to be a new hotel with a national flag that is not in this market, yet, with a modest meeting facility or convention center. It will be right across the expressway from the Outlets, with construction in the next six months or less. In ten days we might be able to say who the developer is,” Gonzalez said.

“Obviously, that would not work unless we had three or four restaurants. So, another developer is working on that. We have two simultaneously focused developers working on two different aspects. They are not related but there is a lot of synergy. It is going to change the face of Mercedes.”

The Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets has really put Mercedes on the map. It has features 140 designer outlet stores and attracts six to seven million visitors a year. Naturally enough, the presence of Premium Outlets in Mercedes helped Gonzalez secure the new hotel.

“Six to seven million visitors a year, that is what made it attractive to have a hotel and conference center. When I was talking to the developer he told me that when the Embassy Suites was built outside of San Marcos in no man’s land, people thought the company was crazy. Now it has become a meeting place for Central Texas. It is because it is in the middle, conveniently located. They think this facility, a nice hotel with a little conference center will have a regional draw also. It is an easy commute from Brownsville on the expressway and an easy commute from McAllen. I think people are going to say, let’s meet there. And there is no congestion on the expressway.”

Gonzalez confirmed the new hotel will have at least 85 rooms, possibly more. “If you host something Valley-wide in Brownsville a lot of people from McAllen won’t go. It’s the same thing with Brownsville folks if you host it McAllen. Here it is neutral ground. Fifteen, 20 minutes, you are there. Once you get on the expressway everything moves fairly well.”

Regarding the residency program, Gonzalez said: “We are working on maybe getting a component of one of the residency programs with UT-RGV School of Medicine. It makes sense. A small component of a huge medical school but it would be very visible. It appeals to the sponsoring entity.” Residents have to have a healthcare facility to work in. So, does that mean Mercedes would be getting such a facility, Gonzalez was asked. “Yes,” he replied.

One of the key projects along Expressway 83 that Gonzalez has been working on does not involve a new development but, nonetheless, could be just as impactful.

“One of the things we have done is clear the old H&H plant. It was a 17-acre site that had a lot of debris in the middle of a very complicated bankruptcy. Our board of directors felt it important that we cleaned it up. Sixty to seventy thousand cars go by there a day. Our mental image of Mercedes was not this wonderful, international shopping destination called the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets. All anyone remembers is the debris. So, that is gone. That gets Mercedes noticed because I get calls from regional players saying, what is going to go on there. They see the potential.”

Although the hotel and restaurants are on the frontage of the expressway, Gonzalez said much of his work is centered on revitalizing the heart of Mercedes. He said he is having success on that front also.

“We have had the relocation of VIDA and this is part of getting more activity and re-inventing our core. They needed a bigger facility and they wanted to own a facility. We are also trying to get someone to buy the old Mercedes Hotel. That person may be interested because there is a new energy here now. VIDA was the first to take a fresh look at Mercedes. People know Mercedes is affordable, two or three minutes from the expressway, and that it is small and congestion free.”

Gonzalez also teased another potential relocation. “I am working with a very small group that you write about often in the Rio Grande Guardian. but I cannot tell you who. They are considering Mercedes. I asked, why Mercedes? Apart from the location they said, you have the best pizza in the Valley in Formazio Pizzeria.”

Gonzales said his goal of rebranding Mercedes is going well.

“You are going to start seeing some in-fill of our central business district. We have had an architect move into town from Harlingen. He said he liked the old buildings in Mercedes. He could have been in some fancy place but he liked the local flavor. What Mercedes represents is the best image of what the Valley was. That warm and fuzzy feeling is not North 10th in McAllen. That is Anywhere USA. It is congestion. It is hard to maneuver. It has some kind of nerve-racking energy, just to get from one end to the other.”

Gonzalez said the Association of Architects for Cameron and Hidalgo counties has also moved to town. Again, this organization liked Mercedes because of its central location in the Valley right on the expressway.

“You have got to have a sense of place in your central business district. If not, you do not have a community. The expressway is going to be Anywhere USA. You have JC Penny, Lowe’s, T.J. Maxx and then a few miles down the road you have JC Penny, Lowe’s, T.J. Maxx. That is okay but people like the birders that come here want to experience the heart and soul. They want to go to the hole in the wall. They want the local flavor, they want to know where are the best enchiladas are.”

Gonzalez said there is another group of investors who are looking at building new apartments. “They like the location. The location has not changed but the energy about Mercedes has. We are trying to create to a new look.”

Gonzalez then told the tale of Mexican investor from Monterrey who was interested in what he found in Mercedes. “We went to this property on one acre of land. It had a hacienda-look with a detached maid’s quarters or private apartment, a tennis court, lush grounds. It cost around $240,000 or $250,000. The same house in McAllen is over half a million dollars. To the people of Monterrey, all of Hidalgo County is McAllen. The guy said, ‘We are very clannish; a lot of us come here for security. But if we come for security why are we all bunched up in the same place in Cimarron or Sharyland?’ He told his son to look at Mercedes. You can have a more normal life here, be part of the community without being in a cluster from Monterrey. He said, ‘Being clustered here it is not like in Monterrey where we all like each other.’ They had driven ten minutes and only ten cars had passed by. That appealed to them.”

Gonzalez said one of the few things Mercedes lacks is a good Mexican restaurant with a bar. He said the fact that a hotel is coming could spur action on that front. “It is not a big leap to say, hey, there is a good opportunity here. The Outlets, the hotel, it (opening a good Mexican restaurant) is a good opportunity. You would draw from a big area.”

Gonzalez acknowledged what a reporter had observed, that there is no MacDonald’s in Mercedes. He said there is also no Walmart, which many local residents would like to see come in.

“We have what we have. I tell the (city) commission and the board, you have a very good community and you just have to work with the blessings you do have. Don’t worry about what’s not here. Let’s celebrate what we do have and work very hard to get other things. But, if Mercedes cannot position itself to get new people to live here, you are dying on the vine, and that is the same for a lot of small communities in the region.”

Gonzalez concluded his interview with a recap on recent events.

“The pieces are varied but you have a hotel conference center and some restaurants being built in the next six months. You have a residency program under construction inside a year. Then the landscape starts to change. Then you have a community in the middle of this market with investment opportunities.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the City of Mercedes’ efforts to re-brand itself. Part two will be posted next week.