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RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – A $60 million retail development will help transform Rio Grande City, its mayor predicts.

Joel Villarreal spoke proudly about the project during his State of the City address, held at the South Texas College Starr County campus.

“Rio Grande City is in a prime position. We are on the cusp of transforming Rio Grande City, we are looking at million dollar investments, we are looking at economic forecasts that look very bright. It is incredible where we are at and where we are headed. It is incredible. This will be here soon,” Villarreal told the audience.

In an interview after his speech, Villarreal said his optimism was buoyed by a letter his city administration has just received from FEMA. The letter, he said, relates to revising a FEMA map so that the land where the retail development will go is no longer classified as being in a floodplain.

Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal
Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal

“The project entails a large commercial development worth tens of millions of dollars. Our job is to provide $1.7 million for infrastructure improvements,” Villarreal told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We did receive the letter from FEMA regarding map revisions. That is what we have been waiting for. The land, on the north side of U.S. 83, next to the FM 755 realignment, next to Walmart, has been in a floodplain. It would not be feasible to have that kind of development in a floodplain. There would have been insurance issues. With an EDA grant we can do the drainage to take the land out of the floodplain.”

Now that he has the FEMA letter, Villarreal says he plans to meet with representatives from St. Ives, the retail developers, in the coming weeks. He said the sort of sort of establishments that could be headed to Rio Grande City include Home Depot, Lowe’s, Chick-fill-A, and Starbucks. “We are talking about hundreds of retail jobs. We believe we will attract shoppers from Camargo, Miguel Aleman, Roma. Some people will come here from Monterrey because the waiting times on our bridge are much shorter than at other ports of entry.”

Villarreal then repeated what he said in his State of the City address. “Rio Grande City is on the cusp of being transformed into a municipality that has not been seen before. It is ripe for economic development and economic prosperity. We are on the cusp of becoming a great municipality.”

Dalinda Guillen, executive director of Rio Grande City Economic Development Corporation, also spoke at the State of the City address. In an interview after the event, Guillen provided additional information about the retail development project.

“The FEMA letter allows us to move one step forward with a huge retail development for Rio Grande City. We are going to be investing $1.7 million into this project, an infrastructure investment that will help this development grow. This is expected to bring 600 jobs and bring in about $61 million in private investment. We are really excited. It is going to transform the city,” Guillen told the Rio Grande Guardian.

In his State of the City address, Villarreal had disputed Census Bureau figures that show Rio Grande City’s population to be 14,000. Villarreal said it is closer to 25,000 or 30,000. Asked how the city can attract a $60 million retail development project with a population of 14,000, Guillen said: “One of the challenges we have across the Valley is not being accurately counted. We do not do enough to count the people who are here.”

Asked what the true population is for her city, Guillen said: “I have heard different numbers, 25,000 to 40,000. We really do not know. It is closer to the higher end. We have a gap analysis on how much is spent in Rio Grande City. There is great potential for business, that is why these private investors are looking at Rio Grande City.”

Asked about the FEMA letter, Guillen said: “We will have a conditional map revision. The land that is going to be developed is in a flood area. There is a creek running through it. We plan to do drainage improvement to clear the creek, the Arroyo Los Olmos, and bring up the elevation of the property.”

Asked how important the St. Ives retail development project is for her city, Guillen said: “At a recent forum there was a map on display showing the type of stores that would be coming. It got a lot of people excited. Our phones have been ringing off the hook ever since. People are asking, when are we getting this? Where do I apply for a job? This retail development is transformational. it is going to change the landscape of Rio Grande City as we know it.”

In other parts of his speech at the State of the City address, Mayor Villarreal praised TxDOT for investing $17 million in the FM 755 realignment, which provides an alternate route for traffic headed northbound out of the city.

Villarreal said the city administration’s operating budget is $13.7 million. Of this, 30 percent goes towards infrastructure, he said, 27 percent to public safety, 17 percent to economic development, with the remainder going to recreation and administration. He said property taxes, set at 51 cents per $100 valuation, have remained the same for three years.

On infrastructure projects, Villarreal said 200 new lights would be installed in city streets in 2016. He said $1.2 million is being spent to upgrade all water meters to a digital format. And, he said, a new $1.6 million water tower with a storage capacity of 500,000 gallons was under construction. “The work we do is for the next generation,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal also said it is important the city administration quickly corrects misinformation. He cited incorrect stories on TV that said the city’s water supply was unsafe. The water problem was in nearby Garciasville, he pointed out.

On the recreation front, Villarreal spoke about a recent mountain bike tournament that drew cyclists from as far away as Austin, San Antonio, Laredo and Corpus Christi. “It was amazing what they said afterwards. They said they were very impressed with our bike trails.”