Brownsville mayor optimistic during ‘State of City’ address

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen Jr. delivers his “State of the City” address Wednesday, May 8, 2024, at the Texas Southmost Performing Arts Center in Brownsville. (Courtesy: City of Brownsville/Facebook)
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Brownsville Mayor John Cowen Jr., during his State of the City address Wednesday at the Texas Southmost College Performing Arts Center, broke the news that the city is getting a new, full-service hotel: Embassy Suites by Hilton, to be constructed off I-69E near Springmart and Pablo Kisel boulevards.

The 160 all-suite hotel, which will feature a Bar Louie restaurant/bar and rooftop area for launch viewing, will help meet Brownsville’s “definite need for more investment in hospitality,” he said, adding that the city saw a 5.1% increase in sale tax revenue between fiscal years 2022 and 2023, largely due to “thousands of new jobs being created.”

In fact, the Brownsville-Harlingen Metropolitan Statistical Area had the highest percentage of job growth among the state’s 25 MSAs in 2023, according to the Dallas Reserve Bank of Dallas 2024 statewide outlook, Cowen said. SpaceX, which has invested over $3 billion at its Boca Chica/Starbase complex, has more a workforce of more than 2,100 now, he said, adding that NextDecade’s $18.4 billion Rio Grande LNG project and anticipated $4 billion Texas LNG plant at the Port of Brownsville will create more than 8,000 jobs during construction.

SpaceX continues to invest in expansion and is currently building a $100 million “Starfactory” for building Starships and housing offices at Starbase, Cowen said. The company also plans to build a $15 million shopping center that will feature a restaurant, retail shops, grocery store and an outdoor deck overlooking the Rio Grande, he said.

Cowen, whose talks was titled “People, Purpose and Projects,” said Brownsville’s population is fast approaching 200,000, noting that “when we factor in our close ties with Matamoros, our retail capture area extends to more than 1.2 million people.”

The mayor also touted the public-private partnership that is making it possible to install an “affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service” network in the city, crediting the Brownsville Public Utilities Board for the success of that partnership, which also involves the Brownsville Independent School District and the Port of Brownsville. Lit Fiber BTX, whose parent company is Lit Communities, is the internet service provider, and recently opened a demonstration center downtown.

Cowen, who was sworn in as mayor just under year ago, said the Lit Fiber initiative will elevate Brownsville from being the country’s least connected city (according to a 2014 ranking) to a top-tier connected city “as we progress toward becoming a 5G city.”

Lit Communities and its partners have committed $70 million to build out the $90 million high-speed network, while the city is kicking in the remainder thanks to federal funds received through the American Rescue Plan Act, he said. The network’s “middle mile” is already finished, and the next step is to provide more than 190,000 residents and businesses with the new service, Cowen said.

The project should be complete in 2025, he said, adding that it aligns with the city’s goal of attracting high-tech industry and offering better public services through technology. Meanwhile, downtown Brownsville’s renaissance continues to flower, most recently with the opening of two French restaurants, Cowen said.

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen Jr. delivers his “State of the City” address Wednesday, May 8, 2024, at the Texas Southmost Performing Arts Center in Brownsville. (Courtesy: City of Brownsville/Facebook)

The surge in new restaurants and other businesses downtown has been accompanied by more than $100 million in public and private investment in the old heart of the city, attracting tourists as well as local residents, he said. Another major boon for downtown was the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s announcement earlier this year that it had purchased the old Majestic Theater and will invest $46 million renovating it to be the new UTRGV Brownsville Performing Arts Center, Cowen said.

That project not only preserves a historic landmark but also adds an important cultural center downtown, he said.

As it was when he began his tenure as mayor, projects that combine economic development and quality of life continue to be a priority, he said, noting that the city recently mandated that 50% of sales tax revenues that support Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation be used for quality-of-life projects.

The State of the City address included video presentations by city commissioners Pedro Cardenas, Dr. Rose Gowen, Roy De los Santos, Linda Macias, Bryan Martinez and Tino Villarreal Jr., as well as a presentation by TSC President Jesus Roberto Rodriguez.

Cowen likewise touted the port, which he said is thriving thanks to legacy companies and will soon be home to Forza Steel, a $60 million manufacturing plant at the port. The mayor also praised Texas A&M’s commitment to building a $30 million advanced manufacturing workforce training center at the port. That project, which will help address the growing need for skilled workforce in Brownsville and the region, held a ceremonial groundbreaking April 2 at the port.

Cowen also cited Rich Products’ $114 million expansion of its food manufacturing and distribution plant in Brownsville as evidence of the city’s economic progress. That project will add more than 130 new jobs, bringing Rich’s total workforce to nearly 450, he said.

As for the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, it’s getting a full-service restaurant-bar called Las Calacas, Macias announced in her video.

The airport itself, meanwhile, may actually be international again, Cowen hinted.

“Our team is working to bring more airline services to Brownsville,” he said. “Stay tuned for exciting news about a new international flight departing Brownsville’s very soon.”