De la Garza celebrates 50 years at Bahnman Realty

HARLINGEN — New Year’s Day marked 50 years since former mayor Connie de la Garza bought a stake in the commercial brokerage, Bahnman Realty, from Bonnie Bahnman.

It’s an easy day in the calendar to remember, given the fact Bahnman insisted on starting off each new year with an 8 a.m. partnership meeting on Jan. 1.

“First time in my life I’ve been in an office at 8 o’clock on New Year’s Day,” de la Garza recalled. “I said, why’s that? He said ‘Because every year at 8 o’clock on the morning I plan my year. Where I’m going on vacation, what I want to sell that year, what I want to list that year.’

“I said, Wow, very well-organized,” de la Garza said. “And he’s the one who taught me you’ll never get in trouble, Connie, if everything you do is morally, legally and ethically correct. And that’s been my motto ever since. And it works. It worked.”

De la Garza, a Raymondville native, was 30 years old in 1973. He had met Bahnman while both were on the Board of Equalization for the City of Harlingen.

De la Garza said he started his working life with the Raymondville School District, then worked a similar job in Pharr when one day he received a call from Harlingen Mayor George Young.

“He said, ‘Young man, don’t you know we have a position open of tax assessor/collector, the head man?’

“I said, ‘yessir.’”

“Then why haven’t you applied for it?” the mayor asked.

“For three reasons,” de la Garza recalls. “No. 1, I’m 24 years old. No. 2, I’m Hispanic, and No. 3, Harlingen doesn’t have a single Hispanic department head. And when I was a kid if I came to Harlingen, I couldn’t sit in the regular first floor of the theaters, I had to sit in the balcony. I was Hispanic. That was back in the 50s, OK. But it had the reputation.”

Connie de la Garza, of Bahnman Realty, Inc. is pictured Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, at his office in Harlingen.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Reputation or no, Mayor Young informed de la Garza that not only was he applying for the job, his interview was scheduled for 9 a.m. the next day.

He got the job the same day.

The job was a shared position between Harlingen schools and the city. De la Garza was tasked with straightening out the tax rolls because some prominent and connected citizens were getting some pretty sweet deals.

“You could look at the tax rolls and see who the real politicians were because they weren’t paying any taxes,” de la Garza recalls. “I’m not going to name names.

“I said, ‘Are y’all sure you want me to do this?’ And so I did it and they stood behind me and we equalized our taxes and dropped our tax rate in half. Because now everybody was paying their fair share.”

And that’s what caught Bonnie Bahnman’s attention.

He said, ‘I like the way you’re doing your job. Taxation’s got to be fair equal and uniform, period.’”

So when de la Garza heard Bahnman was ready to slow down, he made an offer for a share of the business, which was accepted.

“He still wanted to work,” de la Garza said. “His hobby was traveling. He was a pilot, he had his own plane, been over the whole world. The only man I know who’s been to the Fiji Islands, the Antarctic and the Arctic, and every country you could think of.”

Eventually, he bought Bahnman out entirely.

There have been a lot of deals over 50 years, and many of them had to be done working around his position as Harlingen city commissioner from 1974-76 and as mayor from 1998-2004.

One of his biggest deals was luring mega-retailer Target to Harlingen in the mid-1980s. At the time Target had no stores even near the Rio Grande Valley.

De la Garza noted that then, like now, most big companies looking for a foothold in the Valley go first to McAllen or Brownsville, and only after success in those locations do they look to Harlingen.

“I just took it on myself and I found the vice-president of real estate in Minneapolis-St. Paul,” de la Garza recalls. “I called him, a total stranger, and identified myself, and he said who are you?

“I said I’m real estate broker in Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.”

“Where’s that? he said. I said the southern tip of Texas along the Mexican border and you need to build a Target store in Harlingen because if you do and you’re successful in Harlingen, you’ll make a killing in McAllen and Brownsville.

Bahnman Realty, Inc. is pictured Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, in Harlingen.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“What do you mean by a ‘killing?’ he replied.

And the fish, as they say, was hooked.

De la Garza and his wife then booked a flight to Minnesota, in February, a show of commitment that also impressed the Target vice-president.

The Target deal was eventually consummated across the street from Valle Vista mall and Target still operates there today.

De la Garza also brokered deals for 17 McDonald’s franchises in South Texas, as well as deals for Harlingen Corners, where Kohl’s, Marshalls and Burlingtonnow have stores.

He also sold the first Valley location for Cricket wireless, which included a warehouse. The founder of the telecommunications firm left a jar of live crickets on de la Garza’s desk to remember him by.

He also brokered a deal for the first Church’s Fried Chicken franchise on Harrison Avenue.

So always be selling, and closing.

De la Garza’s latest project is an 88-unit apartment complex in the city’s medical district for Zimmerman Properties of Springfield, Missouri. That’s waiting on state approval after receiving the go-ahead from Harlingen’s City Commission.

“You always have to be working on something, so that every month something’s closing, or you’ve got to go into your savings to pay the overhead.”