McAllen State of the City 2020

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As originally published in Texas Border Business newsprint edition March 2020

On Monday, February 3, 2020, the City of McAllen celebrated its State of the City event at the McAllen Convention Center as Mayor Jim Darling gave the address.

Thank you, Colonel, for that great introduction. And thank you for your many years of service to your country and this community.  For those that don’t know, Colonel (Frank) Plummer is one of the driving forces behind the Veteran’s War Memorial, located right here on the campus of the McAllen Convention Center. His tireless work for all veterans has made that project a landmark, not only here in the McAllen, but also throughout the region and State. The colonel is one of the few veterans from the “Greatest Generation” – He served World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. One tough SOB.  And in a few minutes, we will have a very special announcement about the memorial.

I would like to give a special thanks to all our wonderful sponsors. Your support not only makes this event possible at no cost to the taxpayers, but you also help make McAllen a great city with all your support of the various charities here in our City.

And thank you all for coming!  Thanks to you, this event is once again sold out and all the net proceeds go, as they do each year, to local charities.

I want to thank everyone at the McAllen Convention Center and all the City departments that help with this great event. I also want to thank all the local, state, and federal elected officials here today. I would like to thank all these leaders and officials for their service and ask you to please stand and be recognized—all our elected officials in the audience.

A special thank you to the McAllen City Commissioners for all their work. I’m sure you all enjoyed the great updates on the projects going on in McAllen!

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Finally, I would like to thank all our City of McAllen administration, staff, and employees for making McAllen what it is, and especially thanks to the MCN crew for putting this State of the City event together.

As Mayor of the great City of McAllen, it is my honor to share with you the State of our City. This year, as we celebrate the “Culture of McAllen,” I can report to you that the State of our City is strong, vibrant, and ready to move forward into the new decade of the “roaring 20’s”!

McAllen “Culture”

I hope you enjoyed the entrance as we celebrated some of the various “cultures” in our city. We have representatives here today from many of the diverse cultures in our community– including the African American community, the Filipino community, the Korean community, our Native American community, our friends from India, and our Hispanic culture. These diverse cultures come together in McAllen to give us our own “McAllen” culture.

McAllen culture is not just based on ethnicity, but it’s based-on ingenuity, service, volunteerism, and entrepreneurship.

Today, as we celebrate the various “cultures” in McAllen, we also celebrate the culture of McAllen. McAllen has its own unique blend of cultures from around the world.

Two areas that demonstrate our amazing culture our dining and entertainment. As I have mentioned in the past McAllen is fortunate to have many great restaurants. Between our awesome food trucks and traditional restaurants, we have more than 1,300 active restaurant permits in McAllen.

We not only have all the major franchise restaurants, but we are especially fortunate to have great local cuisine. If you can’t find a great restaurant in McAllen to match your taste you’re simply not looking hard enough!

I encourage everyone to make a point of seeking out a local restaurant you haven’t tried yet this month. Not only will you enjoy yourself, you will be supporting a vital part of our local economy.

The same is true of local entertainment. We not only have great performances here at the McAllen Performing Arts Center, but we also have fantastic local, live music in dozens of venues around the city. We have two fine examples of our own homegrown performers here today. I appreciate the “Hot Rods” band playing here, and Tim Perez entertaining you all in the lobby as you came in.  These folks and dozens more like them bring us great entertainment around our city. I encourage you to seek out local artists for your events. There are events in McAllen at the library, a park, or somewhere virtually every weekend in our City.

I also encourage you to visit our great museum, the International Museum of Arts and Sciences.  The folks at IMAS do a great job and we appreciate this valuable resource here in McAllen.  If you haven’t been, or if you haven’t been in a while, take the family to IMAS.  You will have fun—and you will certainly learn something new!

Another example of the great entertainment we have for families was held right here in this room and right outside the doors this past holiday season.  We celebrated “40 days of Christmas in McAllen.”

The “Frio” Event provided a wonderful opportunity for families to enjoy the “South Pole of Texas” right here in McAllen. I hope you had an opportunity to enjoy this event and that you will take advantage of the many other entertainment opportunities McAllen offers.  Events like MXLAN, Fiesta de Palmas, the CarFest… and all the others.

Did you know (and you probably don’t!) that in 2019, the events here at the Convention Center campus sold more than 140,000 tickets, tickets with a face value of $5.6 million dollars?  And that’s not all – there were a total of more than 600,000 visitors to these events!  They also generated 27,166 “hotel nights” for our local hotels, and nearly $3 million dollars in state and local taxes.  We estimate that the total economic impact of the ‘entertainment and events’ here was nearly $60 million dollars! This is all part of what we call “tourism” economic development.

All these events, performances, live entertainment, and great food are up our unique McAllen culture.

Some of the events we have in McAllen are more somber, but certainly no less important. This year, we hosted an exhibit and solemn ceremony for remembrance of the Holocaust.  This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. With events like our own remembrance, we pledge “never again.”

And, while we are remembering, we also pause to remember one of our Valley’s own, who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedom.  Please join me in a moment of silence for Specialist Miguel Villalon who lost his life in the service of our country in Afghanistan last month. (A moment of silence was observed)

Culture of Achievement

Part of what makes up the culture of McAllen are the great achievements of our citizens and our City. In 2019, I’m happy to say, McAllen continued our great culture of achievement.  Pay attention to how many times I say “all time”—in the next few minutes!

For example, McAllen continues to be one of the safest cities not only in Texas but in the country. The Wall Street Journal website ranked McAllen as the 4th safest city in the United States. Of course, this is entirely different than what we sometimes see on the national media who are always talking about “danger on the border.”

In fact, this year’s crime rate statistics showed yet another decline in the overall crime rate in our great city. Our total crime rate was at an all-time low.

Auto thefts, burglary, and property crimes were down again this year. Unlike the “old” days, we had only about 28 auto thefts for the entire year.

And I’m pleased to share that the new, multi-level parking garage at the public safety building is nearly complete AND it was built with no taxpayer dollars. It is paid for completely by “forfeiture funds” that our McAllen Police Department receives when they help stop criminal activity in our area.

Special thanks to Chief Victor Rodriguez and all the hard-working men and women of the McAllen Police Department.

Our Fire Department continues to do an excellent job, as well, keeping our “fire safety” rating very low-in fact, an all-time low.  And that translates into savings for all of us through lower insurance rates.  Thanks, Chief Ralph Balderas and the McAllen Fire Department!

Besides the overall lower crime rate, the city of McAllen had several other notable achievements this past year. Unemployment continues to be extremely low in our city. After dropping as low as 3.5% during the year (and all time low since records have been kept), we ended the year in McAllen with a 4.4% unemployment rate, which was the lowest in the Valley. Approximately 1,300 new jobs were created in the McAllen MSA in December alone.

While a low unemployment rate is good, we need to continue to work with our partners to create new, higher paying jobs.

I applaud MEDC for working with the health care and technology sectors to do exactly that. Exciting announcements about these efforts are (literally) right around the corner.

The City of McAllen recently launched a “refresh” grant initiative for our local retailers to help spruce up and revitalize the storefronts in some of the older shopping areas of our City. We hope this will encourage both shop owners and customers to continue to “shop McAllen.”

Our local Economic Pulse—which measures a broad base of economic factors– continued to climb in 2019, continuing a steady upward trend for the last several years. The “pulse” reached its highest point of all-time last year.  Organizations like MEDC and the McAllen Chamber are working hard to be sure our economy stays strong!

On the residential front, McAllen continues to grow.  McAllen averaged about one new subdivision approval per week.  We issued a county leading 553 building permits for new, single family housing in 2019—and over 300 permits for multi-family units, such as apartments, duplexes, and the like.

Business is going strong, as well. The great business at our local shops means sales tax revenue is, in fact, at an all-time high. McAllen continues to have the highest per capital sales tax revenue in the State of Texas.

Remember, those sales tax revenues also directly reduce property taxes, so it truly is a “win-win” for McAllen.  Our City property taxes can remain low—in fact, one of the lowest rates for a city our size in Texas—and yet we can still provide excellent City services. This includes providing great parks, new hike and bike trails, and other vital city services, including, the best equipped and trained fire and police departments anywhere.

This past year, we had “McAllen days” in both Monterrey and Mexico City to encourage commerce between our great cities. We also created a partnership between our own EB5 program and the Houston “EB5” center to seek out and encourage foreign investment in our area.

I’ve mentioned MEDC and the McAllen Chamber a couple of times and I really want to say what a great job they are doing.  MEDC has re-aligned its focus and is actively encouraging and recruiting businesses in the “new technology” sectors.  Likewise, the Chamber has re-uped its commitment to projects like the creative incubator and entrepreneurial programs, while also sponsoring great events like MXLAN to ensure people know about, come to, and shop in McAllen. Thanks to Keith Patridge and Steve Ahlenius and your boards and staffs for all you do!

Collaboration and partnerships are something McAllen does best.

In one area in particular last year we had a great achievement. At last year’s speech, I called on local area leaders to come together as one body for regional transportation planning. I’m very happy to report they did exactly that!  This resulted in the creation of the new Rio Grande Valley “Metropolitan Planning Organization” or “MPO.” This new MPO combined the two MPO’s in Cameron County with the Hidalgo County MPO.  With the help of other local area mayors and County judges, the city of McAllen helped pave the way for this regional planning organization that will mean millions of extra dollars for transportation projects in our area. This is a great step forward and was many years in the making.

We look forward to working with our regional partners to ensure all our citizens benefit from these additional funds as we improve our transportation infrastructure in the Rio Grande Valley.

This MPO merger, along with the UT-RGV merger, shows how much more we can do for our citizens by working as a region.

We’ve again had our share of accolades or as I always call them “E.S.T.s” For example, the McAllen MSA is ranked as the 4th “healthiest diet” area in the country.  But, notwithstanding that, (or maybe because of it?) we were also ranked as one of the best cities in the country for – trick or treating!!

McAllen was ranked by Fox Business as the #4 best city for early retirement. We were also ranked #2 best city for retail workers. Reator.com ranked McAllen among the top 10 best cities in the country to raise a family—without going broke!!

Last year, I reported that McAllen was one of the top “happiest” cities in the country. Well, here’s a number we should be proud of. In just the fourth quarter of 2019, McAllen’s sales tax on alcoholic beverage sales was more than $276,000!   Just for some perspective, that’s more than all the other cities in Hidalgo County combined!  But we know you can do better!!

Seriously, however, while you enjoy those beverages, please don’t drink and drive.

It’s also important that, while enjoying ourselves, we also make sure we stay healthy! And we have—McAllen, for the second year in a row, also won the “It’s Time Texas” challenge for the “large city” category by earning the most points of any city in the State of Texas! We certainly showed the rest of the state we can get involved in healthy lifestyle activities. The challenge is going on again this year, so sign up today!

And speaking of achievement, the city continues to partner with all our local educational institutions to increase the level of educational attainment in our city. This includes our ongoing partnership with UT-RGV, the UT-RGV Medical school, and all our great local public and private schools.

I want to give a special shout-out to one of the newest schools in McAllen—Sharyland Pioneer.  A great school and last year, their baseball team was the first Valley team to make the state tournament in almost 15 years.   Congrats!

As predicted, UT-RGV has been a game changer for our young people. The new “no tuition” program to award innovation and expand opportunities means the future is very bright for our area students.

I’m especially pleased to announce that one of our longtime partners, South Texas College, has launched its four-year degree program for educating future nurses. This will help fill a much-needed demand for these vital health care workers in McAllen and the region. A noted industry website recently found that McAllen was, in fact, one of the “best” cities in the country, overall for Registered Nurses.

One of our other educational partners, and two brand-new “Aggies,” achieved a milestone this year as well. The new Texas A&M campus here in McAllen graduated the first students to both start and finish at this campus!

Now, you may be thinking the campus has barely been open long enough for anyone to graduate, but these great students, thanks to early enrollment and diligent studies, graduated as Aggies at the McAllen campus of Texas A&M.

These students are with us here today. Please welcome the very first two McAllen campus graduates of Texas A&M: Valeria Quintanilla and Michelle Vargas.

Both young ladies are from the Valley. Valeria is a graduate of PSJA – Early College High School and Michelle is a 2017 Graduate of McAllen ISD’s Achieve Early College High School.)  As a Baylor grad here is a sentence, I never thought I’d say: “Gig ‘em, Aggies!”

Culture of Progress

The culture of McAllen is also progress. And 2019 was certainly a year of progress. We continue to be ranked, for example, by “wallet hub” as one of the fastest growing cities in America.

To sustain that growth, we started or completed several great projects, some of which you saw earlier during the Commissioners’ tour. These projects, like the baseball and softball complexes, include new facilities and are also part of our “sports tourism” economic development efforts. These fields have already hosted tournaments drawing hundreds of participants and thousands of visitors to our city.

Our commitment to make sure everyone mattes here in McAllen was affirmed with the opening of the new “miracle field,” an all-inclusive facility, at the baseball complex that is accessible to those in our community with special needs.

The new UT-RGV Research Center on Dove Avenue near the medical school also opened this past year in partnership with the City of McAllen.  We awarded our second “million-dollar check” to support that project. Tremendous research on, among other things, pancreatic cancer is happening at this new center. We look forward to hearing about amazing breakthroughs from this nationally renowned Research Center.

Work also continues on Quinta Mazatlán, with the new urban ecology center plans well underway. The City recently bought some additional property there, so that beautiful place can expand over time.

We can’t do this ourselves and we appreciate the sponsors who have—and those who will—contribute to make Quinta a special place for our Valley.

The City continues its progress by upgrading and establishing other natural resource locations. This included upgrades at Cascade Park, Bill Schupp park, and completing Lantana Hill at the McAllen Nature Center, just to name a few. The City invested over $5 million dollars on Park improvements during 2019.

Progress also continues on major transportation improvements within the City. With assistance from TX-DOT (under the leadership of Pete Diaz), and using previously approved bond funds, we have addressed north south traffic with the extension of 29th Street to Highway 107, the extension of Bicentennial from Trenton Rd to 107, and the Ware Road widening to 5-mile. Along with cooperation from the City of Mission, we’ve also widening Taylor Road to mile 2.  All this will provide significant relief for traffic in the rapidly growing northwest corridor of our city.

In addition, other major transportation projects were completed or launched in 2019. Wisconsin from 10th Street to North Main Street was recently opened. We will continue to address “East / West” traffic issues as we go forward.

These projects, along with intersection improvements and signal light elimination in less congested areas, will improve traffic flow in our city. In total, the City invested $9.5 million dollars in streets and traffic construction and improvements last year.

We also invested about $5.2 million dollars in drainage improvements in 2019. These improvements included voter approved bond projects as well as grant funds and other projects. We have committed to an expedited engineering and construction schedule on these projects, and we are well on our way—in fact ahead of schedule. We are also working closely with the County Drainage District to make sure we tackle this issue at a regional level.

To be sure our Mexican neighbors can travel easily to McAllen, we have made significant improvements, such as the addition of two new car lanes, to both the Hidalgo and Anzalduas bridges.  Of major importance was the awarding of the engineering contract that will lead to the construction of commercial lanes and traffic at Anzalduas, with construction to start later this year.

Improvements were also made at the McAllen International Airport. With 51% of all airline traffic, McAllen is the busiest airport in the Valley. Improvements to the baggage handling equipment and other terminal areas were done.  On the “air side,” taxiways were improved, and safety features enhanced.

McAllen is committed to continuing its culture of progress. You can discover much more about our City projects and progress in our Annual Report – you have a copy on the “flash” drive at your seat. Take it and enjoy!

Culture of Service

Another important part of the City of McAllen’s success is our culture of service. In this room today are many people who have committed themselves to serving their community. I’m thinking of the many board members, volunteers, and other public minded citizens of McAllen who give of their time and resources to make this a great city.

I want to add a special thanks to all of you that volunteer or dedicate yourself to public service. Your commitment to service makes a difference here in McAllen and our Valley.  It adds so much to our lives.

In McAllen, we have more than 20 advisory boards that include more than 180 citizen volunteers! In addition, our citizens serve on the boards of groups like Easter Seals, the McAllen Boys and Girls club, local churches, United Way, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Food Bank, and so many others. You are really the fabric of this great City and its culture of service.

In fact, I want to recognize you here today.  If you are currently serving, or have served, on a City Advisory Board or committee please stand and be recognized.

Now let’s add to that all our local charities, churches and other volunteer organizations. If you serve, or have served, on a board or committee for one of our great local charities or religious groups, please stand and let us thank you!

And, of course, serving the public as an elected official is also very important.  I know I recognized you all at the beginning, but if you would please stand and be recognized again, let us thank you all. You see, McAllen is truly a City that believes in service!

And, also speaking of Public Service, our partners at the McAllen Public Utility Board are another great example of service to our community. The PUB, and the entire McAllen Public Utility staff work hard to provide us with the best, safest water and waste-water systems anywhere—and with the lowest possible rates—one of the lowest rates in the State! They truly are stewards of one of our most precious resources. Let’s hear from the PUB (A video was shown) Thanks!

The cultures “in” McAllen are only a part of the culture “of” McAllen. This diverse culture, exemplified by the folks we have seen today, is not limited to the traditional definitions of culture, but also by achievement, a desire to move forward, and a culture of public service. That is what makes McAllen great!

I want to take a moment to also suggest one very important way you all can serve your community—get involved in encouraging everyone to participate in the 2020 Census!  This ‘once a decade’ count is so vitally important to funding, representation, and so many other important projects for McAllen, Hidalgo County, and the entire Rio Grande Valley, so please, encourage your employees, family members, customers, everyone to participate in the Census! You can respond online for the first time ever, starting next month. Help make McAllen Count!

Before we conclude, there is another exciting announcement I want to make. In the spirit of McAllen’s culture of service, this year, for the first time, I am awarding one outstanding McAllen citizen the “Mayor’s Citizenship Award.” This award is for a person who has gone above and beyond in giving back to the City in the area of involvement and citizenship. This will be an award that, going forward, will recognize special citizenship and service.  Not necessarily every year, but when a deserving citizen demonstrates the kind of commitment to the community that this year’s recipient has, that person will be recognized. I hope the award, and the honoree, will inspire others to be great citizens.

Let’s watch this video for a special presentation of this year’s award. (A video was shown)

Surprise! Come on up Nedra. (She was presented a Citizenship Award.)

But, as they say on TV, “there’s more!!” Because of her great example of how to be involved in the community (do you all know she even comes to every budget meeting?), and because of her unwavering support of the great City of McAllen, Dr. Nedra Kenerk is not only our first Citizenship Award winner, but going forward, this award will actually be given in her name!  This award will be called the Nedra Kenerk McAllen Citizenship award.

There is one more person that we want to recognize for their service.  I’m going to ask Michael Wilson to come up for a special recognition.

Michael’s wife, Christina Wilson, is currently serving our country in Afghanistan. So, while she can’t be here, we can certainly thank you on her behalf.

You recall I mentioned that Colonel Plummer served on the War Memorial advisory board and he needs some new volunteers.  So, we found one: Sergeant Christina Wilson has been added to the War Memorial Advisory Board. She has served three tours and is currently deployed, as I mentioned, to Afghanistan.

Although she could not be here today, thanks to a special arrangement, maybe we can sort of thank her personally.  Are we ready with the phone call?” (The mayor then exchanged a few comments with Sergeant Wilson.)  Please come back safe and do us the honor of serving on the War Memorial Advisory Board.

The Mayor concluded the McAllen State of the City address as he said, “See you next year!”

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