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In pandemic’s grip, Harlingen EDC shifts its focus

HARLINGEN — The impact of the pandemic when it comes to jobs, employers, workers and their families is still playing out nearly one year later.

The Harlingen Economic Development Corp. responded to the economic hit local businesses and workers have taken with an unusual effort, one outside its normal focus of working to bring in big companies with loads of jobs.

Instead, with the support of its board and the mayor and city commission, the emphasis of the HEDC pivoted to attempt to ease the plight of already established small businesses in the community.

“We changed our focus in April-May of last year because of the pandemic,” said Raudel Garza, chief executive of the HEDC. “Our focus has already been on trying to recruit the larger companies, trying to go for the fences if you will if you’re into baseball.”

“Our organization is designed to go after the larger employer, not the small employer, not small business,” he added. “But because of the pandemic, we spent a lot of time and a lot of energy trying to help the small businesses.”

The HEDC, in this new role, set aside $1 million for qualifying businesses that applied, offering zero-interest loans of up to $10,000.

Some 51 local businesses took advantage of the Harlingen HELPS loans, at a total outlay of around $500,000.

“Not everybody got loans because not everybody applied, but we also put out a lot of resources and information that people were using to tap into either SBA (Small Business Administration) funding or PPP (Paycheck Protection Plan) or other things,” Garza said. “Some of them just needed to know just a little bit more about how to market themselves better. That’s how we changed our focus.”

The disruption caused by COVID-19 and the business shutdown and slowdowns that accompanied it, along with that urgent new focus on helping established business here, meant the HEDC found things difficult when it came to its traditional role of attracting big business investment.

Garza outlined his agency’s activities last week at an HEDC board meeting, and spoke about them in a subsequent interview.

“I think considering the pandemic we have done very well this year,” Garza said. “We helped a bunch of small businesses. We were still able to attract a very large company in TaskUs, and they have already started hiring 350 or so employees and they haven’t even opened their doors yet, so they’re all working remotely right now. But they’re on track to probably see 500 before the end of the year. So that’s a big deal.”

Garza believes that once the pandemic begins to eventually burn itself out, no doubt with the help of the vaccine, pent-up demand will see a burst of capital investment here and elsewhere.

“I was listening to a Dallas economist, and he was saying there’s so much money out there right now, when people start getting comfortable, there’s going to be a lot of capital to be able to do a bunch of projects,” he said.

“But I don’t know if we could have done any better than what we were doing,” he added.

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