HARLINGEN — The coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop the city from drawing businesses planning to create more than 1,500 jobs amid a growing economy, Mayor Chris Boswell said Friday during his annual State of the City address.

On the Harlingen Convention Center’s stage, Boswell spoke before a ballroom packed with government officials from across the Rio Grande Valley at the annual event sponsored by the Rotary Club of Harlingen.

“The year 2020 will indeed go down in history as famous — if not infamous,” Boswell said before one of the city’s largest audiences gathered since the pandemic’s outbreak in March 2020.

“We mourn for those we lost to the virus and recognize those who have suffered and survived it,” he said. “But we also recognize the extraordinary efforts made by so many and draw hope and inspiration from them. The fight is not finished but we are going to finish the fight, and so, yet despite all the difficulties and turmoil of this last year, our city has continued its path of growth and progress. The city as a whole has prospered. Yes, the state of the city is strong.”

Pandemic response

As part of the city’s response to the pandemic, officials teamed up with Brownsville, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the National Guard to offer residents COVID-19 testing.

“The city was proactive from the start to meet the challenges presented by pandemic,” Boswell said.

As a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases pushed hospitals over capacity, city leaders tapped federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, funding to buy oxygen concentrators to help hospitals discharge patients to free beds.

Meanwhile, the state turned the Casa de Amistad conference hall into a COVID-19 recovery center before opening it up as a treatment center whose infusion of monoclonal antibody helped 1,300 COVID-19 patients avoid hospitalization.

“This was one of the more successful programs in the entire nation,” Boswell said of the infusion center.

Meanwhile, city officials earmarked $336,131 in CARES funding to help 177 families pay their utility bills, rents and mortgages while the city’s Economic Development Corporation set aside $489,000 to help 53 local businesses with zero-interest, deferred loans.

This year, the city also held nine COVID-19 vaccination clinics, administering more than 11,986 vaccine doses.

Despite the pandemic’s national slowdown, the city’s general fund generated $52.6 million, Boswell said, noting its budget stood at $46.5 million.

Meanwhile, the city’s cash reserve, fueled by $3.7 million in CARES funding, grew to an historic $26.1 million, enough to operate the city for 199 days in case of an emergency.

“This is the largest fund balance in the history of the city,” Boswell said.

Amid the economic slowdown, the city’s sales tax collection held up, dropping 1.2 percent from the previous year’s mark, he said.

“In other words, COVID-19 does not appear to have affected our finances and we are as financially strong as ever,” Boswell said.

First responders were among the guests who attended the City of Harlingen State of the City Address Friday at the Harlingen Convention Center. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

New businesses plan 1,578 new jobs

The year of the pandemic also drew businesses planning to create 1,578 jobs, Boswell said.

In December, TASKUS picked Harlingen as its third Texas expansion site, creating 500 jobs with plans to open 500 more from its local offices at Valle Vista Mall.

Meanwhile, Prime Healthcare plans to create 200 jobs within two years while Marc Jones Construction, or Sunpro, is bringing 100 jobs to town, he said.

Boswell also pointed to a 34-percent jump in housing starts.

“New residential construction is one of the leading indicators of economic strength and Harlingen is certainly showing how strong our economy is with this growth,” he said, noting the city issued 759 building permits with an overall construction value of more than $70.7 million.

Institute of Neuroscience develops

As part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine, the Institute of Neuroscience continues to develop, Boswell said.

Now, the $30 million, 32,570-square-foot building is nearing completion off Haine Street, he said, noting the EDC donated 35 acres for the project.

“This is a huge milestone for the UTRGV School of Medicine campus here in Harlingen,” Boswell said.

“As the departments of neurology, psychiatry and neurosciences at UTRGV School of Medicine grow, the facility will house clinics and diagnostic centers for numerous neuropsychiatric and aging disorders while also leading the way forward in clinical and laboratory research for the Rio Grande Valley,” he said of the project marking the first of as many as three phases expected to develop across 60,000 square feet.

“The facility will serve as an incubator to train neurologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists of the future. In summary, the Institute for Neuroscience facility will serve as a world-class clinical and research site for neuroscience. The facility will be a state-of-the-art space where clinicians and scientists can interact to develop and test new ideas for behavioral health and neurological care.”

Last September, city leaders joined Harlingen school district officials to break ground on the district’s joint project with UTRGV to develop an Early College High School.

“This campus will allow high school students to participate in dual enrollment high school classes and then complete a four-year degree in their hometown,” Boswell said, adding the city donated the land. “This is another great example of what partnerships do to enhance the quality of life for our citizens — and we’re getting good at it.”

Hilton Garden Inn opens

During the year of the pandemic, BC Lynd Hospitality opened its $30 million, five-story Hilton Garden Inn, the city’s biggest hotel attached to the convention center, which the San Antonio-based developer operates.

“This new investment in the city of Harlingen brings a 150-room upper-upscale hotel property to our city,” Boswell said. “This is the city’s largest hotel by a wide margin and gives us hospitality and tourism capability which we simply did not have before. This is the only hotel to adjoin a convention center in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Drainage ‘a top priority’

After near-record June storms flooded many homes here, Boswell described drainage upgrades as “a top priority.”

During the last five years, the city has pumped $63 million into public works and infrastructure projects, he said.

As part of 2019’s street program, the city completed 8.3 miles of upgrades, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the city is using a $53.9 million state grant to build 13.2 miles of sidewalks.

Last year, the WaterWorks system replaced 17,500 feet of water mains as part of a Treasure Hills project while purchasing 170-acre-feet of water rights “to further ensure water availability for the city’s growth,” Boswell said.

“There are very few things as important to the overall health of a community than safe and sanitary drinking water and wastewater,” he said.

Crime rate drops

Along with the pandemic came an 18-percent drop in the city’s crime rate, Boswell said.

“The safety of our community is always at the very top of our list of priorities,” he said.

While violent crime dropped 11 percent, property crime fell 20 percent with drug, fraud and forgery cases down 12 percent, he said.

Amid the national call for police reform stemming from the killing of George Floyd, Boswell hailed the city’s police department.

“In a year in which police practices around the nation have been scrutinized, I can tell you that the Harlingen Police Department has for many years now already engaged in the best practices advocated by so many in the wake of the George Floyd case,” he said. “You can be proud that you have a best-practices department.”

Parks system expands

Last year, the city continued expanding its parks system.

As the year drew to a close, officials were putting the final touches on the multimillion-dollar project to turn Lon C. Hill Park into “a true destination park,” Boswell said, adding State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, helped land a $1 million Texas Parks and Wildlife grant to help fund the park’s $3.3 million first phase.

At Hunter Park, the city tapped federal Community Development Block Grant funding to open its sixth all-inclusive playground aimed at special needs children, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, city crews are working to overhaul the H-E-B Tennis Center to feature a new pro shop and spectator area at Pendleton Park.

On the Arroyo Hike and Bike Trial, officials are using a $1.2 million Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation grant to help fund a 1.6-mile extension to run from Arroyo Park to Dixieland Road, he said.