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PHARR — The Pharr Economic Development Corporation bought, in 2018, 264 acres worth of land with a central amenity that can only be described as unique: a 35-stall, Hacienda-style equestrian facility.
That unique buy resulted over the past few weeks in the coalescence of some unique partnerships the city says are a significant step in the property’s development into an investment that will leverage it as an asset for the community.
An agreement OK’d Monday by the Pharr City Commission with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District lays the groundwork for new programs at the location.
Both entities say working out details is an ongoing process, but they have, in broad strokes, a vision for the parcel.
That vision includes equestrian therapy. It includes some sort of community garden, a walking trail and some sort of petting zoo.
The site already houses the Pharr Police Department’s mounted patrol unit. There’s also some hope of extending use to other law enforcement, theoretically Border Patrol.
Finally, involved partners intend to use the facility to augment a veterinary assistant apprenticeship program being forged between the school district and South Texas College, a program the college says is likely unique to South Texas and will introduce its first cohort of between 10 and 15 juniors in the fall.
Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez hopes one day the place can provide local veterinary care that addresses stray animals in the area.
“We’re currently working with PSJA and STC to see what kind of infrastructure we’re talking about,” he said. “Do we need to expand the equestrian center, modernize it, add classrooms? Obviously we’re going to be putting broadband in? Do we need another ag farm? Only PSJA can answer that question. How big? How many pens? The garden, the trail, what needs to be built out … So all that’s still in the works.”
It’s hard to imagine, even with significant development, the current scope of the project fully utilizing all 264 acres. Mostly undeveloped scrubland, that land sits generally near Main Floodway on the east side of South Jackson Road.
Hernandez is intentionally vague about complete long-term plans for all of that virgin land. He’s resistant to the city pigeonholing itself into a commitment so early in the process.
The mayor did say he sees it as being oriented toward quality of life, mental health and animals, and that PSJA ISD is in the driver’s seat for the current push toward those goals.
“Right now we’re in our infancy, that’s how I see it,” he said. “We’re barely building a foundation. And we may not have the end in sight, because there’s so much potential for it, but we’re certainly going to ask the experts to help us and guide us to help us get to the promised land.”
How did the city of Pharr find itself in the equestrian business? According to them, it was a bargain.
Hernandez said a disagreement between the previous owners of the facility — previously called El Cortijo Los Conquistadores — preceded the sale of the parcels. The EDC, he said, bought the land for about $1 million.
“We got ‘em very cheap. We got a good deal on them, believe me,” Pharr EDC CEO Victor Perez said.
Last year the city capitalized on the land for the first time, introducing a mounted patrol unit for its police force.
Senior officer Irving Segura was at the facility Thursday. He says it’s quite the stable. The lighting works well, he said, and there’s a massive covered arena behind the stables for working with horses. Above the stalls is the horse patrol’s little office, tidy and cool. The unit has a little grass pasture fenced off for its two horses, Bandit and Bullseye (both officers), to graze in.
Segura leads one of the horses into the arena, walking it in on a lead rope. After a circle, he flips the rope over the horse’s neck and holds his hand out, empty, in front of it, like he’s still holding the rope. He leads it in another circle, demonstrating the training and understanding he says underlies a unit that provides enhanced community outreach and patrolling capacity in rural areas to the department.
Segura is hopeful of expanding his unit, but Bandit and Bullseye do look a little lonely in that cavernous stable, and Segura says he’d be glad for more stakeholders.
“We can split that half and half, or whatever they want to work with,” he said. “We can use a wing for law enforcement and the rest of the property for something else. The nice part is that you do have law enforcement personnel within the premises.”
Segura was just a tad sheepish about having guests Thursday. The grass was getting a little long and Segura, who takes pride in his little mounted force, would have liked to have tidied up.
There is an awful lot to maintain at the stable, which is a little rough around the edges. A few of the ornaments on the big gaudy gate have rusted out and fallen off. The fountain, in a central courtyard between the stables, sits inert, half-filled with murky water. There’s a dilapidated building out front the city plans on demolishing, and the main stables generally appear to need some basic cosmetic repairs.
PSJA ISD School Board President Cynthia Gutierrez said the school district will address some of those concerns at a relatively low cost.
“We have our staff that does the grounds. They would be in charge of doing the grounds, keeping it up,” she said.
Gutierrez said the district isn’t currently planning on adding new construction, but says the district will outfit the facility so it’s serviceable for at least two purposes: therapy animals and animals suitable for hands-on experience for students.
Hernandez emphasized both of those points speaking to the PSJA school board last month.
“So the Hidalgo hospitals — I speak for Driscoll childrens, and we already committed that we will be using it,” he said, referring to equine therapy. “We’ll be bringing our students. We’re probably going to bring our resources down as well to enhance what you’re doing. Because we know the community needs it, from a psychological stress factor. We need it.”
Gutierrez said she sees a petting zoo at the facility filling a similar need, noting that donors are lined up for animals and a chicken coop.
“There are children who have anger management issues, or they have a speech impediment that they need to work on,” she said. “And petting animals, feeding animals, working with animals, research has shown it has a positive effect on their mental and also physical health. Through handling animals, they learn assertiveness, they learn trust.”
The location also seems likely to play a role in the district’s agriculture and FFA programs, which Gutierrez says include some 900 students.
Timelines, budgets and concrete details remain, Gutierrez said, to be determined.
The district’s agreement with STC, however, appears rather more full-fledged and is slated to begin in the fall.
Carlos Margo, the college’s dean of industry training and economic development at the college, said although the first cohort of students in the veterinary assistant program is slated to number 10 to 15 students, about 60 have expressed interest in the program and growth is likely.
“It is an apprenticeship program, which means that they will be working,” he said. “Those that qualify. Local veterinary clinics have already agreed to hire them on a part-time basis as paid apprentices, and that’s gonna give them the relevant work experience while they’re taking classes with us in partnership with PSJA.”
Students will learn at the district, Margo said, with STC-developed curriculum and instructors and district-provided consumables, textbooks and equipment.
Margo described the college’s two-year curriculum (its first veterinary endeavor) as more theoretical for the first year — courses on breeds of domestic animals, medical records, animal facility management and sanitation, and clinical procedures for small animals — with more clinical work in its second year.
Second-year students seem more apt to benefit from the stables on South Jackson.
“We’re gonna give them (the district) exactly what they’re needing,” Margo said. “My goal is just to get started with a strong, rigorous veterinary assistant program right now. If they need it to be modified later or augmented or added to, we’re taking their lead on this…If they have animals where we could have large animal practice, that would be great.”
Margo said the college is open to some kind of partnership with Texas A&M University, which is making veterinary investments of its own in McAllen, although the university said Friday it’s not a partner in the South Pharr project.
To see more, view Monitor photojournalist Delcia Lopez’s full photo gallery here: