Riverfront revival: Bill removes obstacle to redevelopment in Brownsville

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A proposed redevelopment of the Brownsville riverfront, as shown from Gateway International Bridge on July 19, 2023, has cleared another major obstacle with recent state legislation. (Steve Clark/The Brownsville Herald)

A change in state law necessary for a major proposed riverfront redevelopment project in Brownsville to move forward has come to pass in the form of House Bill 5012.

Approved during the recent legislative session and set to become law Sept. 1, H.B. 5012 authorizes the city to use state Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) revenue to build a hotel and convention center. LandGrant Development, the San Diego, Calif.-based developer that first proposed the “via Americas” mixed-use riverfront redevelopment project in the mid-2000s, had long sought the HOT authorization, which clears the way for next steps related to the project.

Plans for via Americas include the Hotel Rio Grande and Riverview Park, which LandGrant describes as an urban village atop an elevated boardwalk with retail and restaurants overlooking the river, comprising part of the project’s entertainment district.

Cameron County in July 2022 created a riverfront Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), providing another crucial element to the project. TIRZ, a state-offered tool that helps local governmental entities achieve big-ticket projects, works by reimbursing the developer for up-front investments in public infrastructure through eventual incremental increases in property taxes once the land within the TIRZ is developed.

LandGrant for years unsuccessfully lobbied the city commission to create the riverfront TIRZ. Further, in June 2020 former city manager Noel Bernal wrote in a letter to LandGrant President Sam Marasco that the city had determined the project to be unfeasible “without the participation of the State of Texas under its Hotel Financing Zone program which has not been secured” and, therefore, the city would cease further review of the project.

The county picked up the thread, however, and Bernal ultimately wound up giving Senate hearing testimony in support of the project. By securing the required “participation of the State of Texas,” H.B. 5012 addresses the issue Bernal raised.

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen Jr. described the legislation’s passage as a “big win” during a June 30 presentation to the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce.

“It really is another tool in our tool box,” he said. “We’ve talked about that project along the riverfront that’s been mentioned for a number of years. But also we can do that anywhere in the city, so it’s really an opportunity that we’re looking at to attract a hotel and convention center. I think that’s coming.”

This stretch of Sam Perl Boulevard between Gateway and B&M international bridges in Brownsville will undergo a massive redevelopment if a proposed riverfront makeover continues to move forward. (Steve Clark/The Brownsville Herald)

Cowen expressed gratitude to the city’s “legislative partners,” state Sen. Morgan LaMantia and state representatives Erin Gamez and Janie Lopez, who he said were instrumental in getting the law passed, and also to the Cameron County Commissioners Court for supporting the effort “100 percent.”

LandGrant President Sam Marasco likewise praised the commissioners court, county Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. and senior county administrators for taking “decisive actions” to keep the project on track, while also singling out retired state senator Eddie Lucio Jr. for his role.

“He delivered big time three times: during the 2021 legislative Session, during the off-year 2022 by delivering testimony at Senate hearings on the subject, and during the run-up to the 2023 legislative session by facilitating LandGrant getting the legislation accurately written for the Riverfront Redevelopment District,” Marasco said.

In doing so, Lucio paved the way for Gamez to file H.B. 5012 in the House in a timely manner in 2023, and for Lucio’s successor, LaMantia, to file companion legislation in the Senate, Marasco said. Those efforts, couple with supporting testimony from Trevino and City Manager Helen Ramirez to the House Ways and Means Committee, got the HOT legislation across the finish line, Marasco said.