RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – Troy Bathman, the owner of St. Ives Realty, Inc., says the second phase of the Rio Grande Village development in Rio Grande City will be light industrial.
Along with his business partner, Jim Gissler, Bathman was present for a groundbreaking ceremony last Monday for the first 20 acres, across from Walmart on Highway 83, which will focus on retail, restaurants, a hotel and a new convention center.
“The first phase is 20 acres. The second phase, all inclusive, is 95 acres,” Bathman told the Rio Grande Guardian, in an exclusive interview. “There is a total of 150 acres that was part of the flood plain and what is coming out is approximately 90 acres. The remainder is the expansion of the flood zone to take this land out of the flood plain.”
Asked about the first 20 acres of development, Bathman said: “The first 20 acres is going to be retail, a hotel, and a city convention center and restaurants.” Asked about the timeframe, he said: “We expect next April or May for completion of phase one and for those retailers and restaurants to start work.”
Asked which retail stores and restaurants are coming to Rio Grande Village, Bathman said: “I cannot totally name who is coming but Buffalo Wings is one, Whataburger is relocating, Blue Wave car wash, and the prospects they mentioned are the people we are talking to.”
This last comment was in reference to some names Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal mentioned in his remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Asked when construction of phase two might begin, Bathman said: “We will be working on the second phase as we go. What this community lacks is industrial, with the border crossing, it needs industrial, it needs that long term job base.”
St. Ives Realty has been developing projects in Rio Grande City as far back as 1999. That is when it brought some stores next to Walmart. “We are committed to bringing new retail development here, as throughout the Valley.”
Asked what is special about Rio Grande City, Bathman said: “It is the passion of the community. Starting in 1999, when we saw a void in the market; ever since then the community leaders have continued to have passion to grow this community and to push development and we like that.”
That said, Bathman acknowledged, like many of the community leaders that spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony, that a lot of hurdles needed to be jumped. Most notably, agreement to move the flood plain and raise the development out of the floodplain, and relocate a railroad and rail yard.
“It has been a very complicated property to develop, with a floodplain, and other things. The landowner was very cooperative. He spent time with us and gave us the time to make this happen. And all the city officials were instrumental. We could not have done it without the whole group,” Bathman said.
Biggest retail investment ever
The list of speakers at the Rio Grande Village groundbreaking ceremony read like a Who’s Who of community leaders. Among them were Mayor Villarreal, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, Rio Grande City Economic Development Corporation President Rey Ramirez, and Starr-Camargo Bridge Company President Sam Vale.
The emcee was Rose Benavidez, executive director of Starr County Industrial Foundation.
“The county of Starr’s friendly approach to attracting new investment has been crucial in our efforts. That is how we have been able to attract our current businesses,” Benavidez said, opening the proceedings.
In his remarks, Judge Vera said the Rio Grande Village project was historic. “This project is the biggest retail investment that we have ever had in the county of Starr,” Vera said.
Noting that the project has taken over seven years to get to this point, Vera said the slow process led many people in the city to no longer believe it was happening.
“We started letting people know we were working on this project. It got to the point that any time I went anywhere they would say, it is never going to happen, it is all pie in the sky. It got to the point where I told Rose, they don’t believe us. But, never did I have a doubt this would happen. With the quality of people that were working on this project, there was never a doubt this project was going to happen,” Vera said.
Speaking of the developers, Vera said: “Thank you for believing in us, for having the vision that you have and trusting our community. This project certainly would not be happening if it were not for these gentlemen. St. Ives Reality, and Rio Grande Village, LLC, you have our commitment that this project will be a total success.”
Benavidez agreed with Vera that there were many doubters.
“They told us to stop talking about it because people were starting to lose hope that this project would ever happen. So, it is kind of fitting that happened during Dia del Muertos, because we resuscitated this project, probably about 20 times in the last few years.”
Benavidez acknowledged there were a lot of sleepless nights.
“There were conference calls on holidays, on weekends, time away from families. We were meetings late at night at city hall, meeting at the site, doing all we could.”
Benavidez was fulsome in her praise of Starr-Camargo bridge owner Vale.
“Years after we were able to receive authorization for the realignment and construction of FM 755, which you see and use daily, we were finally able to persuade the owners of the property to sell. Then it was, please persuade a business owner to uproot and relocate and rebuild his border Pacific Railroad operation, for the greater good, no less.”
In his remarks, Vale said if there was one word to use to describe how the project came to be, he said it would be cooperation.
“It was hard cooperation,” Vale said, noting that the project team went through seven banks before finally getting funding with Compass Bank.
Vale in turn praised Benavidez. “She has the skill sets to listen to everybody and try to work their interests in. Rose is a special lady and we are very lucky to have her,” he said.
Indeed, Vale urged Judge Vera to take a closer look at Benavidez’s salary because many engineering firms would like to prise her away by doubling her salary.
Benavidez responded by joking that she had found her agent.
In his remarks, Rio Grande City EDC leader Ramirez said: “Our city is growing. We have the lowest unemployment rate. Starr County stands to gain plenty of jobs and further investment because of this project.”
In his remarks, Rep. Guillen said: “Today is a great day for our home town. This groundbreaking represents years of planning and years of hard work and years of negotiations.”
(Editor’s Note: Click here to read Guillen’s remarks from the podium in full.)
In his remarks, Congressman Cuellar said the project has been a team effort. “Not only from the public sector but also from the private sector. From the developers, to the folks with the land, to the contractors, to the engineers.”
Cuellar said there are two things that are game changers in a community, education and jobs. He said those two things that will drive a community. “South Texas College was a game changer and today we have the largest commercial investment in the history of Rio Grande and Starr County. To all of you, I have to say congratulations.”
Cuellar praised FEMA for taking the land out of a flood zone and EDA for the grant it donated. And he said that more wealth will be created in the community as a result of the project.
“It is a tax base that is going to grow. More money for schools, infrastructure, community,” Cuellar said, predicting that 500 to 700 new jobs will be created.
“Think about what this means for our neighbors to the south. Every year there is over 18 million Mexicanos that come over to the United States to spend over $19 billion. At the stores, at the restaurants. Those dollars circulate through our economy,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar then urged passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which he called NAFTA 2.0.
“We understand one thing here, that the Rio Grande or the Rio Bravo does not divide us as two cities or two countries or two states but actually unites us. So this vision that you all have is bigger than what it means for Rio Grande. It is something bigger for both sides of the Rio Grande.”
Before introducing Mayor Villarreal, Benavidez likened the Rio Grande Village project to the Titanic.
“It was a a titanic of transactions. What do you do when you have a willing seller, a willing buyer, investors lined up, deals sealed? What can possible go wrong with this titanic of transactions? Don’t ask. Just think icebergs.”
Benavidez then praised Humberto Perez, Rio Grande City’s manager. “He guided us through countless obstacles and challenges,” she said.
When there are a lot of speakers at an event, Mayor Villarreal often closes proceedings because no one wishes to follow his flamboyant delivery. In his remarks, Villarreal said the cost of living in his city is below the national average by a staggering 24 percent.
“Our unemployment rate has declined dramatically. Our business community is booming. New investments and property valuations in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Our medical community is expanding. Higher access to specialized medicine. We have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure dollars to sustain and support this,” Villarreal said.
Interviewed before the groundbreaking ceremony began, Villarreal said the Rio Grande Village project will transform his community.
“This project is regional in perspective, we are talking international. That is why we are inviting Hidalgo County, Zapata County, we are inviting our friends from Mexico, from the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. The whole idea is to have more people come through this area,” Villarreal told the Rio Grande Guardian.
Asked how much leakage there is from Rio Grande City to McAllen, Villarreal said: “$1 billion a year.” By leakage he was referring to how much business, such as purchasing goods at retail stores and eating at restaurants, that could be transacted in Rio Grande City but instead is occurring in McAllen. “I want to recover all of it. More than half, for sure,” he said.
Judge Vera was interviewed after the groundbreaking ceremony. He told the Rio Grande Guardian that the Rio Grande Village project was “huge” for his county.
“It is huge and it is historic. We have been working on unemployment for years, and we finally got it to single digits. If we can get the 500 to 600 jobs, once it is all complete, that will lower our unemployment drastically. We are really excited,” Vera said.
“It is something we have been working on for a longtime. I never had any doubts because everybody was pushing for it, everyone was willing to work. So, I knew it was going to happen. I did not know when but we are here and that is what matters.”
Asked how big the retail development would be in dollars, Vera said: “Forty to eighty million dollars will be invested and it will create anywhere re from 500 to 800 jobs once it is all done. It will be done in phases. For us, it is enormous.”
Vera added: “We are excited. We are glad to have got this far. Now we want to see it finished. Like the mayor said, this is not the end. We need to continue working and growing. I think Starr County has a lot of potential and I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Editor’s Note: The above news story is the second in a three-part series on the Rio Grande Village project. Click here for Part One.
Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian reporter Jesus Perez contributed to this story from Rio Grande City.