Harlingen pulls $1.4M from tax zone to expand main trade corridor

A tanker heading south drives past the sign designating FM 509 Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Harlingen. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
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HARLINGEN — City leaders are pulling $1.4 million out of a tax-generating zone to help Cameron County expand one of the area’s main trade corridors.

After months of debate that drew some opposition to the plan, city commissioners are tapping into Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 1’s nest egg to extend East Grimes Avenue 1.9 miles to F.M. 509, while widening the two-lane stretch into a four-lane roadway.

The project will tie East Grimes Avenue to one of the area’s main trade corridors linking Valley International Airport and the Harlingen Industrial Park to the Port of Harlingen, city officials said.

As part of an agreement, Cameron County is setting aside $3.4 million to fund its share of the project, City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said.

In August, some residents opposed the plan, arguing part of the project lies outside the city limits, running into Cameron County.

About a one-mile stretch of the project lies within the city limits, Assistant City Manager Josh Ramirez said.

“A while back, we had citizens from this area that opposed this,” Commissioner Frank Morales said during a Wednesday meeting before casting the lone dissenting vote as commissioners agreed to fund the project.

During the meeting, Morales called on commissioners to earmark the tax zone’s $1.4 million to fund drainage projects in that area running along parts of the city’s northern side.

“We do have plenty of drainage issues and water and sewer issues,” he said, noting the WaterWorks System is launching a $107 million sewer overhaul. “I believe we need to use as much money as possible toward drainage and water issues.”

While Morales said the county’s share of the project requires most of the work, he argued the Grimes expansion wouldn’t directly tie into the trade corridor.

“This Grimes Road t’s at a dead end,” he told commissioners. “It doesn’t go all the way to the port. You still have to go either north or south to get to the Port of Harlingen.”

In response, Gonzalez, who said the tax zone’s account includes an additional $2 million, told Morales the project will also upgrade drainage along the roadway.

“The project itself will have some drainage component built into it,” he said. “The county’s going to build drainage within the road itself to actually drain that area and provide better drainage.”

Commercial and commuter traffic moves along FM 509 Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Harlingen. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Gonzalez noted Valley International Airport and the city’s Economic Development Corporation are standing behind the project.

“This actually connects 509 and 499 and it provides direct connectivity to the Port of Harlingen,” he told Morales. “Just having the availability of the road itself would lend itself to provide more traffic into the back part of the airport, which is what they were wanting for cargo.”

During discussion, Commissioner Michael Mezmar said the project will further develop the area’s trade corridor.

“This is a win-win,” he told commissioners. “We’re leveraging county money. It’s not a direct connector — there are a few bends in the road. You’ve got to put the infrastructure in to attract industry and commerce. This would provide a wider road that can handle heavier traffic to the port, to the airport and it can take it all the way up 499, up the loop to the interstate and to barges and everything in between.”

Mezmar said the project will also upgrade the area’s drainage.

“It’s important to drain the area because this touches EDC property that can attract commercial, industrial work,” he said. “It can help drain the airport, which is just a wonderful thing and it could drain out towards the Port of Harlingen.”

The project will help spur the city’s economic growth, Mayor Norma Sepulveda said.

“In order for us to grow, we have to put the infrastructure in place,” she told commissioners. “This is an eligible project and it is what the TIRZ is designed to do. I know this is in line with our plan with the EDC and the growth that we want to see out in the industrial park.”

The roadway expansion project marks the first time officials dip into tax zone revenue since 2016.

In 2006, city officials created three tax increment reinvestment zones aimed at generating property tax revenue earmarked for economic development.

Tax increment reinvestment zones are public financing tools used to help fund economic development projects in which properties’ assessed taxable values are frozen based on the theory those values will increase. The increased property taxes collected would make up the increment.

While Zone 1 stretches across 1,183 acres along the city’s northeast near FM 509, Zone 2 runs across 1,183 acres along the city’s northeast near FM 509, with Zone 3 making up 570 acres along the city’s west side near Interstate 69.

In 2016, the city’s past administration pulled $1.6 million from the city’s three zones to help fund the purchase of eight acres of land on which sits the Harlingen Convention Center and the Hilton Garden Inn.