Texas Border Business
Mohamed Sharaf stood amid a festive crowd gathered for a ribbon cutting of a business at an emerging Rio Grande Valley crossroads.
“We want to make this intersection one of the more dynamic ones in the Rio Grande Valley,’’ Sharaf said of the corner where Expressway 83 and Mile 2 E Road intersect in Mercedes. “Our goal, and the city’s goal, was for this project to kick start growth for the community and turn it into something bigger.’’
Mission accomplished it would appear from seeing the energy and goodwill generated at the Aug. 7 ribbon cutting for Sharaf’s Gateway Travel Center. The noontime event attracted hundreds of local residents and appreciative community leaders who see the travel center as the catalyst that’s sparking a surge of growth in Mercedes. The Mid-Valley community had longed for that one major investor who could see the opportunities Mercedes offers with open spaces along the expressway and its heart-of-the-Valley location.
Sharaf, the vice president of development for Victron Energy Corp., would turn out to be that developer. The Dallas-area businessman said it was Melissa Ramirez, the executive director of the Mercedes Economic Development Corporation, who detailed the possibilities for locating such a major project in the city.
“Melissa was the first person I met and she sold the vision of the city and what this corridor could become,’’ said Sharaf, whose family-owned company is one of the largest fuel distributors in the United States.
Three years after that initial visit, Victron’s 13,000-square-foot travel center with its store space for food, snacks and always clean and spacious bathrooms is up and prospering. A Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A are also key pieces of the development. The travel center has also become a major regional hub for commercial trucker drivers to gas up, eat, and rest in adjoining outsized parking lots built to accommodate their rigs.
The travel center had a soft opening this spring and celebrated a formal grand opening with the early August ribbon cutting. A few months into his new business enterprise has convinced Sharaf he made the right call in coming to Mercedes.
“We feel really blessed,’’ he said. “Sales have exceeded our expectations and they keep growing every month.
Making An Impact
Ruben Saldana, a city commissioner and the mayor pro-tem, described Sharaf as being the sort of entrepreneur who has the confidence to take a risk and be the first major investor in a community that had previously seen modest growth.
“You know he could have gone anywhere in the Valley with this project,’’ said Saldana, who was one of the speakers at the ribbon cutting ceremony. “There are innovators like him who have the vision and resources to do something like this. It inspires confidence and it’s having an effect.’’
The travel center’s grand opening comes at a time when Mercedes community leaders are poised to announce a major retail development with large anchor stores and new restaurants on a large tract of land immediately east of the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets. It’s Sharaf’s investment, city leaders said, that sparked the interest now being shown in Mercedes.
It’s as Sharaf intended with his belief in Mercedes. He sees himself as honoring his late father’s legacy in locating a significant business in Mercedes. Ali Sharaf grew up on a farm outside of a small town in Syria and began his American journey decades ago with a single convenience store. Victron has since grown into a company that today is a major retail and property developer in Texas in addition to supplying fuels to hundreds of retail outlets. Sharaf said his father was known for making investments in smaller communities and helping those markets grow.
“It’s always the hardest to go first,’’ Sharaf said of the investment that has generated new opportunities for Mercedes. “For us, it’s more than building a business. It’s about investing in a community like this one and making a positive impact.’’
The impact is there to see with more to come soon, city leaders said.
“Mohamed took a chance on Mercedes and it has just taken off,’’ said Fred Gonzalez, the president of the Mercedes Chamber of Commerce.
- Ric Cavazos