San Benito is One of 19 New Texas Cities Given State Authority to Finance Convention Center-Hotel Projects
Feature Photo (above): The veteran’s war memorial at South Sam Houston Boulevard and West Rowson Street in San Benito. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
San Benito (Cameron County) — City officials in this small Rio Grande Valley community are in negotiations with a developer that wants to build a 170-acre entertainment planned development that would include a convention center-hotel, minor league baseball stadium and a Schlitterbahn-style water park, according to a report in the Valley Morning Star.
The Harlingen newspaper unveiled details of the project Saturday based on statements made by San Benito Mayor Ben Gomez and City Manager Manuel De La Rosa. The developers were not identified at their insistence.
De La Rosa told the Morning Star that a development team first approach the city with a concept in December 2017. However, the project was dependent on the city obtaining rights from the Texas Legislature to use hotel occupancy taxes for economic development. That became a reality in the spring session when the Legislature passed HB 4347.
The Texas Hotel & Lodging Association (THLA) reported in its June 20 legislative report that HB 4347 added 19 cities to those already vested with rights to use hotel occupancy taxes for certain types of economic development.
The Texas municipalities granted first-time authority to use hotel occupancy tax incentives to partner with developers.
Another three cities–Arlington, Fredericksburg and Kemah–received expansions or a special exemption to their existing authority. This brings to 59 the total number of cities that may partner with developers using HOT revenue.
In its report, the THLA said, “In addition to making 22 cities eligible for the program, HB 4347 made a number of changes to ensure the continued viability of the convention center hotel project program and to codify Texas Comptroller rules addressing project eligibility.”
The changes include:
Removing the Sept. 1, 2019 ‘sunset’ date for the convention center hotel project program; a number of previously authorized Texas cities are close to finalizing plans to engage in a project.
Limit eligibility of ‘ancillary facilities’ to those located within 1,000 feet of a qualifying convention center facility, and requiring said facilities be directly related.
Limit cities with a population of less than 175,000 to one convention center hotel project being eligible for state tax rebates.
Restrict definition of a qualifying convention center facility to a building primarily used for conventions, with at least 10,000 square feet of meeting space, owned by the municipality, and located in a separate structure from the convention center hotel.
In San Benito’s case, the Morning Star reported that city officials offered the place the project on city-owned land, but the developers instead put under contract a 140-acre site that is located next to U.S. 83, northwest of San Benito proper. In addition, the developers are trying to get an additional 30 acres adjacent to what they already have under contract.
There is very little undeveloped land between San Benito and Harlingen, its larger neighbor to the northwest. This means the most likely location is in the vicinity of the U.S. 83 and FM 509 intersection.
Land within the area in pink is under consideration for a 170-acre entertainment planned development. Image: Google Maps.
City officials have described the proposed stadium as a multi-use facility that would be primarily dedicated to baseball during the sports season and available for concerts and other events year-round.
There is a lack of minor league baseball in the Rio Grande Valley. The McAllen Thunder folded in 2013 after four years of operation, and the Rio Grande Valley Whitewings of Harlingen folded in 2014 after 20 years of operation.
San Benito has always been an economically distressed community. Its population of 24,500 subsists on a median household income of $24,027. However, it sits between Harlingen and Brownsville, both cities that have seen healthy growth in recent years. Cameron County has a population of more then 424,000.
De La Rosa told the Morning Star they hope to have a pre-development agreement in place by October. If this materializes, a Memorandum of Understanding will be presented to City Council for approval.
The MOU will allow the developers 12 months to come back with a finalized plan. De La Rosa noted that the city has already seen preliminary site plans that have 100 acres laid out.
De La Rosa said the city is not investing its own funds in the project, but he added that the city will have to upgrade and expand infrastructure in the development zone. This would include improvements to water, sewer and road systems.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.