Downtown Harlingen, a Public Improvement District, was established in 1989 to foster economic growth and redevelopment in Harlingen’s once vital and thriving central business district. Harlingen’s downtown revitalization program has been a public/private partnership since its beginning. In addition to funding provided by the City, downtown property owners have voted six times to tax themselves through an annual assessment to generate revenue for improvements including landscaping, signage, promotions, and storefront enhancements. A seven-member Board of Directors appointed by the Mayor and City Commission oversees the expenditures of assessment funds. The City provides additional financial support from its property tax, hotel/motel tax, and sales tax revenues. A small staff comprised of a Downtown Manager, Redevelopment Specialist, and Maintenance Coordinator coordinate daily operations with other city departments, volunteers, property owners, and businesses managers.
Economic growth, creation of new jobs, historic preservation, and development of community pride are among the goals of the revitalization program. After many years of concerted efforts, there now is a healthy mix of retail and service businesses, government and nonprofit offices, financial institutions and restaurants operating in the historic city center. Ultimately, the goal is for Downtown Harlingen to be a thriving and vibrant area of economically viable and unique businesses with activities that attract local citizens and visitors. Progress is being made toward developing an attractive streetscape, renovating buildings of diverse architectural styles, and populating the district with an appealing mix of restaurants, shops, offices, and housing that entices more residents and businesses to invest in the historic city center.
Harlingen, Texas, is a city of approximately 75,000 located in Cameron County, 25 miles north of the large border city of Brownsville and 37 miles west of the Gulf resort of South Padre Island. Harlingen long has been a crossroads for trade and transportation in the region known as the Rio Grande Valley. Located at the junction of I69E & I2, it also is the home of Valley International Airport, the region’s largest and busiest airport. An international bridge thirteen miles from downtown Harlingen makes the city easily accessible to large population centers in northern Mexico.
Like many cities in Texas and across the nation, Downtown Harlingen experienced a general decline in the 1970s and early 1980s, as merchants relocated to new retail centers. The downtown, which had been a thriving and vital central business district since the city’s establishment in 1910, began to show a general look of neglect. There were increasing vacancies, broken and boarded windows, peeling paint, signs in disrepair, broken and weedy sidewalks, vagrancy, and illegal activity in the area.
Concern began to grow among residents and elected leaders about the situation, and in the 1980s, the City undertook a concerted downtown revitalization program, in partnership with the Texas Main Street Program. Based on input from numerous citizens and City staff, formation of a public improvement district (PID) was recommended. The first formal City of Harlingen Downtown Revitalization Plan was adopted as a concept by the City Commission on May 4, 1988 and a PID Committee appointed. Subsequently a majority of the downtown property owners petitioned the City Commission to establish the PID in May 1989, and implementation of the plan got underway.
Since then, the revitalization plan has continued to be diligently executed, through the hard work and involvement of numerous private individuals and groups, government officials, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and media partners. The downtown property owners have petitioned the City Commission five additional times to continue the revitalization effort, including taxing themselves through an annual assessment to generate revenue for improvements including landscaping, signage, promotions, and storefront enhancements. Each time the district has been renewed, the process has involved public notices and public hearings, in accordance with Chapter 372 of the Texas Local Government Code authorizing the creation of public improvement districts.
The downtown revitalization plan was reaffirmed with the re-establishment of the PID for another five-year term in 2015. At that time, it was noted that while there has been a great deal of progress in revitalization of the historic city center, it is advisable that the redevelopment efforts continue to achieve the goal of a fully revitalized, thriving, and vibrant downtown. An updated Downtown Harlingen Service Plan was adopted, to guide the revitalization efforts from 2015 through 2020. The service plan sets forth four areas of emphasis, along with 21 short-range, 11 medium-range, and 6 long-range goals. The resolution by which this plan was adopted includes the boundaries of the district, the estimated costs of the services and improvements, the sources of funds to support the plan and the apportionment of costs. It also outlines administrative matters such as oversight of the PID by a Board of Directors and day-to-day implementation of the Service Plan by City staff in conjunction with elected and appointed officials, and other partners.
Downtown Harlingen continues to be an active participant in the Texas Main Street Program administered by the Texas Historical Commission and is affiliated with the National Main Street Center, which is a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2016, for the 10th year in a row, Harlingen received National Recognition and Accreditation from the National Main Street Center for its successful downtown improvement program and having made measurable annual progress toward achieving its revitalization goals.
Based on the monthly, quarterly, and annual reports the Harlingen Downtown Office has submitted to the Texas Historical Commission since 1994, Downtown Harlingen has realized overall reinvestment of more than $24 million, and net creation of more than 600 jobs and 130 small businesses. Additionally, more than 20,000 volunteer hours have been contributed in support of the downtown revitalization program.
III. Revitalization Strategy/The Main Street Approach
The Main Street Four-Point Approach that guides Downtown Harlingen is a comprehensive revitalization strategy. Staff and volunteers work to implement projects in four key areas, based on a model established by the National Main Street Center. The four elements are: Design, Economic Restructuring, and Organization, each of which is briefly described here. It descriptions below are verbatim from the Texas Historical Commission Main Street Program Information Packet.
Design takes advantage of the visual opportunities inherent in downtown by directing attention to all of its physical elements: public and private buildings, storefronts, signs, public spaces, landscaping, merchandising, displays and promotional materials. Its aim is to street the importance of design quality in all of these areas, to educate people about design quality and to expedite improvements in the downtown.
Promotion takes many forms, but the aim is to create a positive image in order to rekindle community pride in the downtown. Promotion seeks to improve retail sales events and festivals and to create a positive public image of the downtown in order to attract investors, developers, and new businesses.
Economic Restructuring strengthens downtown’s existing economic assets while diversifying its economic base. This is accomplished by retaining and expanding existing businesses to provide a balanced commercial mix; by converting unused or underutilized space into productive property; and by sharpening the competitiveness and merchandising skills of downtown business people.
Organization establishes consensus and cooperation by building partnerships among the various groups that have a stake in downtown. This allows the Main Street revitalization program to provide effective, ongoing management and advocacy of the downtown. Diverse groups from the public and private sectors (city and county governments, local bankers, merchants, the chamber of commerce, property owners, community leaders and others) must work together to create and maintain a successful program.
While the Main Street Approach provides the format for successful revitalization, implementation of the four– point approach is based on eight principles that pertain to all areas of the revitalization effort. These eight principles are:
- Downtown revitalization is a complex progress and cannot be accomplished through a single project. For successful long-term revitalization, a comprehensive approach must be used.
- Small projects and simple activities lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the revitalization process and help develop skills; therefore, more complex problems can be addressed and more ambitious projects undertaken.
- Self-Help. Local leaders must have th desire and the will to make the project successful. The National Main Street Center and the state Main Street Programs provide direction ideas and training; however, continued and long-term success depends upon the involvement and commitment of the community.
- Public/Private Partnership. Both the public and private sectors have a vital interest in the economic health and physical viability f the downtown. Each sector has a role to play, and each must understand the other’s strengths and limitation so an effective partnership can be forged.
- Identifying and Capitalizing on Existing Assets. Business districts must capitalize on the assets that make them unique. Every district has unique qualities – distinctive buildings and human scale that give people a sense of belonging. These local assets must serve as the foundation for all aspects of the revitalization program.
- Quality must be emphasized in every aspect of the revitalization program. This applies equally to each element of the program – from storefront design to promotional campaigns to educational programs.
- Changes in attitude and practice are necessary to improve current economic conditions. Public support for change will build as the program grows.
- Implementation-Oriented Activity creates confidence in the program and ever-greater levels o participation. Frequent, visible changes are a reminder that the revitalization effort is under way. Small projects at the beginning of the program pave the way for larger activities as the revitalization effort matures.
- Benefits of the Downtown Improvement District
In response to questions from prospective property or business owners, the Downtown Harlingen office has prepared a short list of benefits of the revitalization program. Among these are:
- Daily cleaning of litter and debris on streets and sidewalks in the district (weekdays only), far beyond what the City provides in other parts of Harlingen
- Ongoing maintenance to achieve a manicured appearance within the district, including pulling weeds, trimming corner beds, applying herbicide, etc.
- Free assistance from architects and design professionals at the Texas Historical Commission Main Street Program, including building investigation and preservation consultation, façade renderings, color consultations, design of signs and graphics for business branding.
- Fire Safety Enhancement Grants of up to $15,000 available to downtown property and business owners for installation of sprinkler systems, fire walls, or other improvements to enhance building egress and meet City requirements.
- Storefront Grants of up to $6,000 available to downtown property and business owners for awnings, new windows, doors, or exterior painting.
- Sign Grants of up to $2,500 available to downtown property and business owners to create and install new or upgraded signs to attract customers.
- Security Enhancement Grants of up to $2,000 available to downtown property owners to install surveillance systems.
- Promotion of the district through broadcast, print, online, and social media, as well as various public relations efforts, to create top-of-mind awareness of Downtown Harlingen.
- Creation and distribution of brochures, maps, and other promotional materials about Downtown Harlingen, including attractions and activities.
- Free assistance with marketing of downtown property available for lease or for sale.
V. Geographic Boundaries of the District
The boundaries of the area in which the revitalization plan will be implemented from 2015-2020 are as displayed on the map marked as Exhibit “A” and described as follows: from Fourth Street at the alley immediately north of Harrison Avenue, west to the railroad tracks, then south along the railroad tracks to the centerline of Harrison Avenue, then west on Harrison Avenue to the centerline of West Street, then north to the centerline of Jackson Avenue, then east to the railroad tracks, then north along the railroad tracks to the alley immediately north of Monroe Avenue, then east to the centerline of Commerce Street, then north to the centerline of Madison Avenue, then east to the centerline of First Street, then south 130 feet, then east 60 feet, then south 50 feet to the alley immediately north of Monroe Avenue, then east along the alley to the centerline of Fourth Street, then south to the alley immediately north of Harrison Avenue.
VI. Short, Medium, and Long-Range Goals
The Downtown Harlingen Service Plan adopted by the City Commission in August 2015 includes a combination of short, medium, and long-range revitalization goals. These are as follows:
- Maintain corner landscape beds and Gordon Hill Park; address issues with electric, irrigiation, insects
- Regularly paint/maintain distinctive vintage light poles and trash receptacles provided for visitors
- Regularly pick up and dispose of litter, trash, and debris on sidewalks and in streets and alleys
- Clean drains to facilitate water flow and deter flooding
- Regularly trim trees in the district and remove debris
- Address graffiti and other forms of vandalism
- Work with city departments and property owners to maintain alleys and discourage illegal dumping
- Maintain existing public parking lots in the district
- Develop ways to help property owners upgrade and improve off-street parking lots, to encourage usage and enhance their appearance and security
- Coordinate promotions and marketing initiatives to enhance the image of the district and help drive traffic to activities, attractions, and businesses
- Market and promote the district to attract new investors, businesses, and residents
- Produce maps and guides to promote the district
- Partner with businesses and volunteers to develop programs, tours, and events that attract visitors
- Develop and implement financial incentives for both new and expanding businesses
- Encourage property owner compliance with city codes with regard to structural and appearance issues, to enhance safety and discourage blight
- Develop strategies, designs, and incentives to help property owners improve the appearance of downtown buildings and enhance the public realm
- Develop activities to enhance public awareness of local history and encourage historic preservation
- Continue to promote murals as an attraction
- Develop a strategy for creation of new murals
- Develop a plan for regular maintenance of murals
- Develop a plan to enhance and identify “A” Street as an art corridor, with public art installations and activities that enhance the visitor experience
- Identify locations where trees and plants might be added; develop plans to install and maintain
- Create/install better signage to attract visitors, welcome them, direct them to off-street parking
- Partner with property owners and businesses to improve the quality of signage in the district to reduce clutter, be more effective, and enhance the overall appearance of the area
- Assess need for additional handicapped ramps and parking spaces and develop plans to address
- Develop a parking plan to address long-term needs of downtown businesses and residents
- Develop strategies to promote downtown living and incentives to encourage property upgrades
- Partner with property owners to develop “pocket park” opportunities in the district
- Identify possible locations and plan for bike racks
- Work with city officials to upgrade downtown design standards and associated ordinances to facilitate redevelopment of existing buildings in ways that preserve distinctive historic features, enhance the pedestrian streetscape, and create quality places that will attract visitors and investors
- Partner with local business resource groups to offer trainings that help foster business growth
- Develop plan for public restrooms, from possible locations and costs to property acquisition and construction, operation, maintenance, and security
- Identify a location and develop a plan for an off-street public space for the weekly farmers market
- Develop plans an secure funding to repair and/or replace deteriorated sidewalks and alleys
- Consider ways to improve lighting in the district to enhance security and develop a plan for regular maintenance of distinctive lights outlingin buildings
- Develop plans to periodically clean sidewalks in the district to removal gum and other residue
- Work with partners to acquire property for future off-street parking facility; develop plan for funding, construction, and maintenance of multi-story facility
- Consider upgrading public trash containers and implementing a more frequent trash collection plan
- Consider ways to enhance existing parks and open spaces to better serve the public and assess the possibilities for developing more places to gather
- Work with partners to improve mass transportation facilities to enhance safety and encourage usage