Sunday, November 15, 2009

County holds off on Ocean Tower for the time being

County holds off on Ocean Tower for the time being
November 13, 2009 8:04 PM
By LAURA B. MARTINEZ, The Brownsville Herald

The Cameron County Commissioners’ Court has held off on providing a contractor with a temporary storage site for demolished construction material from South Padre Island’s Ocean Tower, which is scheduled for demolition.

Action on the site was tabled Thursday because the Commissioners’ Court needed additional information about the implosion of the structure, including whether there would be hazardous material involved and who would be in charge of removing the debris, County Judge Carlos H. Cascos said.

Costa Rica Food & Spirits Restaurant requested that it be allowed to store the remnants of Ocean Tower for about 45 days, while the steel and concrete is separated, said Cameron County Parks Director Javier Mendez.

Costa Rica Food & Spirits Restaurant is leasing its land from Cameron County.

Oceans Towers is a 31-story condominium scheduled to be demolished in early December.

Construction on the 151-unit luxury project was halted last summer year after it was determined it was sinking, which caused cracks in beams and columns.

Antun T. Domit, listed as the resident agent for Ocean Tower LP, sent out letters in November 2008 to people who had either expressed interest or had purchased one of the condo units, informing them that the high-rise project was cancelled.

The developers of Ocean Tower have filed a lawsuit against the two engineering firms contracted for the project.

Meanwhile, while discussing the Ocean Tower situation at Thursday’s meeting, commissioners learned that Ocean Tower LP owes the county about $40,000 in back taxes from 2008. Ocean Tower owes other taxing entities in the county an additional $40,000, officials said.

Tax attorney John Guevara, of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLP, on Friday said the law firm has filed a lawsuit against Ocean Tower on behalf of Cameron County for the 2008 back taxes.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this week.

Although past due tax notices were sent out beginning in July to Ocean Tower, the law firm has received no response, Guevara said.

Domit could not be reached for comment on Friday.

News of the owed taxes didn’t sit well with Precinct 3 County Commissioner David A. Garza, who said the county should consider filing an injunction against Ocean Tower.

An injunction would temporarily prohibit Ocean Tower from being demolished.

"I think we need to protect ourselves," Garza said. "It’s costing a lot for them (Ocean Tower) to do that. Maybe they’d be more apt to pay what they owe," if an injunction was filed.

However, Cascos said he didn’t believe asking for the delay would help the county collect the taxes.

Precinct 1 County Commissioner Sofia C.Benavides said since Ocean Tower has been selling some of the furnishings from the high-rise, the business should also make an attempt to pay the county money owed.

Advertisements have been placed in The Brownsville Herald stating that some of the furnishings, such as lighting, plumbing, interior fixtures, granite flooring and countertops, were for sale and priced below wholesale.

"If they’ve been selling all this stuff, they should be paying us," Benavides said.

Shovel-ready building sites in the Rio Grande Valley offer quick road to development

Shovel-ready building sites offer quick road to development

Photo: Delcia Lopez
Ramiro Garza, executive director of Edinburg Economic Development Corp., is seen recently with a map of the Edinburg North Industrial Park

The industrial park north of town was little more than empty land crawling with ants and snakes when Gerardo “Jerry” Nuñez set up shop there five years ago.

Nuñez, owner of Nu-Co Tool, a toolmaker for 35 categories of manufacturers, rented out his old building and moved into the park off U.S. 281 and Orange Avenue because he saw a chance to grow his business on the open land.

“The space was there and the opportunity of the unknown gets to me,” Nuñez said inside the 23,000-square-foot warehouse he built on the 8-acre plot of empty land he bought from the Edinburg Economic Development Corp. “I wanted to develop it from nothing.”

But in a fast-paced business world where time is money, Nuñez’s willingness to go it alone in an undeveloped area was a rarity.

Economic development officials in the Rio Grande Valley want to ensure they have everything already in place at a few select spots where they hope to land large employers.

By the end of this year, Hidalgo and Cameron counties will have four shovel-ready mega-sites, locations generally reserved for companies that plan to employ 500 or more people.

The designations are an effort by the Rio South Texas Economic Council, a group formed last year to market the region, to make the Valley appealing to large companies looking to set up shop here.

A Sharyland Plantation site for which McAllen and Mission economic development officials are seeking shovel-ready status is near the site the cities have talked about as a possible location for an auto manufacturer.

Hidalgo County’s other site is in the same park that is home to Nuñez’s Nu-Co Tool, next to where Brazilian denim manufacturer Santana Textiles plans to start construction next year.

Securing the shovel-ready designation requires extensive work to produce a thick binder filled with documents that show the site is ready for development, said Ramiro Garza, the executive director of Edinburg’s development corporation. To lure projects the size of Santana, which plans to employ 800 people by 2014, the old plan of building a sales pitch around an empty plot of land is no longer enough.

“When companies are looking for property, they want readily available sites,” Garza said. “They don’t want to wait for everything to be in place.”

When Austin Consulting certifies the Valley’s sites as shovel-ready, the firm says the locations will be the first in the state to receive the designation.

Most states — including Texas — have not adopted official criteria to designate a site as shovel-ready.

Instead, site location consultants that traditionally helped companies find a place to build provide the certification, placing their own stamp of approval on an area, said Frank Spano, a director with Austin Consulting, the firm hired by the economic council to review the Valley’s sites.

The shovel-ready designation grew out of a desire by companies that wanted to expand and governmental entities looking to land them as a way to speed the process along.

From start to finish, most companies spend nine months deciding where to expand or relocate their operations, Spano said. Having a site ready to go, with the property on the market, utilities extended and the permits in place, gives the company a better picture of what the site offers and how long until it can start operations there.

But getting the designation — since the companies that give them out put their own reputations on the line — isn’t easy.

To receive Austin’s shovel-ready designation, sites start with a comprehensive, 10-page form filled with questions, Spano said. By the time they complete the form’s requirements, the paperwork fills a 3-inch binder — the documents include everything from ownership information, aerial photographs and maps of the location, soil tests and environmental details, right-of way-plans and more.

But Spano said the designation makes the site appealing to companies looking to fast-track the development process.

“Shovel-ready sites are important because companies want to make a decision faster,” Spano said. “They want to have that information on hand. It certainly gives you a leg up on the other site.”

The Valley’s failed attempt to attract a Kia Motors Corp. manufacturing plant in 2006 provided the impetus for it to work toward the shovel-ready tags.

Automaker officials who looked at the area wanted to know why the Valley’s prospective site wasn’t certified by a South Carolina-consulting company with extensive experience in automotive site selection, said Pat Townsend, president of the Mission Economic Development Authority.

Kia eventually decided to put the plant in West Point, Ga., but the brief flirtation with the company showed local economic development officials the turnaround that the industry and others like it need.

Townsend said having the information ready is key even if there aren’t immediate prospects for the three subdivided plots off Shary Road that the economic council is designating as shovel-ready.

“We’re doing it with no immediate prospect identified,” he said. “The benefit is if we actually have a prospect identify it as a suitable location, we’re way down the road to answering what the company actually requires.”

The learning experience on what’s needed for the designation also gives local officials a better feel for what they need to compete for a major project, said Keith Patridge, president of the McAllen Economic Development Corp. With all the specific details on the site available, the companies can spend more time learning about the region, the labor force and other key factors in a decision.

Although the economic council is starting with four shovel-ready sites, the plan is to develop a revolving portfolio of sites to attract companies that create 500 jobs or more, Patridge said. The jury is still out on whether the shovel-ready sites help the Valley bring in companies but, with the rather exclusive nature of the process, “it can’t hurt,” Patridge said.

“It’s like another arrow in our quiver we have available to target manufacturers,” Patridge said. “It puts us in a great position to compete.”

Nuñez is still alone in the industrial park he moved into four years ago.

But with roads and utilities in place in the 160-acre site, it likely won’t be long before he sees a flurry of development around him.

Santana Textiles and two other manufacturers are under contract to build on 70 acres in the park — work the city expects to start next year. And the 25 acres left in the park will soon be designated as shovel-ready.

Nuñez, who builds tools primarily for the automotive industry, said he’s looking to expand on the plot he already owns.

“Five years from now, we’ll see this park full,” he said. “It’s got everything in place to take off.”

Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4424.