February 7, 2005: Headlines: Urban Renewal: The Monitor: RPCV Fabio Angell helps restore downtown Pharr, Texas to its former glory

Peace Corps Online: State: Texas: February 8, 2005: Index: PCOL Exclusive: Texas : February 7, 2005: Headlines: Urban Renewal: The Monitor: RPCV Fabio Angell helps restore downtown Pharr, Texas to its former glory

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RPCV Fabio Angell helps restore downtown Pharr, Texas to its former glory

RPCV Fabio Angell helps restore downtown Pharr, Texas to its former glory

RPCV Fabio Angell helps restore downtown Pharr, Texas to its former glory

Sweeping renovations could restore downtown Pharr to its former glory
February 07,2005
James Osborne
The Monitor


PHARR — According to the artist’s rendering, the city’s downtown will one day be a haven of open-air cafés bustling with people and gleaming yet historic storefronts, housing upmarket gift shops and book stores.

But where the purveyor of authentic Tex-Mex antiques will supposedly reside is an abandoned storefront still fitted with the dilapidated sign of a retail medical supply store that went out of business more than five years ago.

There are no tourists, but across the street a new bronze historical marker waits to inform them Pharr used to be the hub of the Rio Grande Valley.

Most of the businesses that helped form the city’s boom years left decades ago, and in 2001 the city set out on a plan to revitalize its ailing center.

The City Council hired a downtown planner and approved a historical preservation ordinance, as well as application to the Texas Main Street Program, in which cities with populations of less than 50,000 can apply for state assistance in turning their drab downtowns into heritage tourism meccas.

Pharr was accepted into the program last year, and a historical survey of the area was recently completed, but otherwise progress has been slow in coming.

The matter came to a head at Tuesday’s City Council meeting when Commissioner Raul Martinez and Mayor Leo Palacios openly criticized the Main Street Program as planning heavy.

"When are we going to start seeing real change? We can make all the presentations we want," Martinez said.

Visibly angry, Fernando Flores, the coordinator of Pharr’s City Development Block Grant Department replied from the floor.

"All we get is criticism," he said. "What we’re doing takes time. What we need is a better plan."

Infighting aside, the present plan involves restoring the storefronts along and around Cage Boulevard to their original designs.

The city will likely apply for status as a historical district this year based on the downtown’s turn-of-the-century roots. But first they need the businesses to comply.

According to Fabio Angell, downtown planner and project catalyst, close to 20 of the 60 businesses along Main Street have made or agreed to make the recommended changes to their storefonts. But the majority have not, leaving an ugly face on the project.

Assuming a business meets certain conditions, it can get up to $4,500 in city funding toward the work. The amount is less if they rent instead of own, but either way, many business owners are not interested in the paperwork and restrictions the money brings with it.

"I wanted to put up an awning but that wasn’t allowed. I could have gotten money for a sign but I could only bolt through the mortar and not the brick. There were just too many hoops to jump through," said Melly Moroles, who opened up Samantha’s gift shop with her family five months ago but has not signed on to the Main Street program. To make matters worse, the county reappraised property values last year, doubling taxes for most businesses.

"You can imagine how much they’re going to go up if you fix the front," said Patty Lopez, who is holding out on refurbishing the store fronts of the flower shop and furniture supplier she owns with her husband.

"They’ll help you with the costs but your taxes will go up for years and years."

Nonetheless, Angell sees the project as a gradual progression and is confident everyone will join in eventually. A veteran of the U.S. Peace Corps, the Colombia native maintains a seemingly boundless optimism about the project, envisioning what he calls an urban village where residents and businesses come together in a harmonious communion of commerce and pleasure.

"It’s Greenwich Village all over again. What do you see there? It’s the people; it’s the chaos, the sidewalks and the vibrant healthy businesses buying and selling," Angell said.

"I’m the Peace Corps guy. I’m used to working with passion and ideas. We’re pioneers, we have limited resources, but we just do it."

For many owners, even those like Moroles who haven’t joined up, the idea of a more centralised pedestrian friendly downtown is wonderful in theory. They just aren’t sure if it will work.

"It’s like everyone’s decided we’re going to have this downtown district with the nice restaurants and the ambience and that’s great, but what about slowing down the traffic and everything else that needs to be done?"Moroles said.

"You have to retrain people to shop Pharr because for a long time there haven’t been businesses where you can buy nice things."

It remains to be seen whether the city will even go along with Angell’s idealised plans.

When this story was posted in February 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: The Monitor

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