A nearly 40,000-square-foot Junior’s Supermarket looms over its much smaller predecessor on the corner of State Highway 107 and Main Avenue in Alton.
Next door, a McDonald’s sees a steady stream of traffic, and down the street a Domino’s sign flashes open. It’s all evidence of the growth the community has seen in recent years.
Alton has tripled in population since the turn of the century from more than 4,000 in 2000 to an estimated 15,000 today.
Because of the activity, the city has lowered its property tax rate each year for the past six years as new businesses bring in increased property tax and sales tax figures.
Tuesday, the city council agreed to borrow $2 million for a long list of projects administrators believe will help the community keep up with the growth. The money will be used to increase the size of the fire department, improve technology, expand the police station and fix drainage on Main Avenue, and City Manager Jorge Arcaute hopes to stretch the money to encompass some items on his wish list, like road and park improvements.
With the additional funding, Arcaute hopes to make the Fire Department, which is currently under construction, two stories. Arcaute also said the city may be able to install fire hydrants.
The additional space would allow the city to include more recreation space, a library or a study area for firefighters. Also, he said the police department is handling several major cases and needs more room for storage.
“We need some money to move forward,” Mayor Salvador Vela Vela said. “If the city’s growing, we will grow. That’s the only way; you can’t spend outside your means.”
The city can borrow the money and pay it back without raising taxes, Arcaute said, adding that a major portion of debt was paid off earlier this year, giving the city some room to borrow.
Also, he said, the city will use increased revenue from its tax increment reinvestment zone. Just four or five years ago, the land now holding Junior’s and McDonald’s was vacant land. Because the property is in the TIRZ, the county’s portion of the taxes garnered because of the increased property value will go toward paying off the debt for the projects.
“We think we’re ready for a lot more commercial growth now that we have so many rooftops, but you need the infrastructure to catch that commercial growth,” Arcaute said. “It’s a little bit of a bet, but the way things are growing and where we sit–west of McAllen and north of Mission–with this 107 corridor, it’s a pretty easy bet to make.”
The city commission agreed to sell the City of Alton Development Corporation three lots in the city’s business park at Tuesday’s meeting. Steve Peña, executive director of the corporation, said there’s a lot of momentum toward retail in the area and he hopes to capitalize on it.
“In the next two to three years, we need to focus on retail to increase our sales tax,” Peña said.
The corporation can sell land below market value, while the city can’t, he said, which allows the CADC to offer incentives to businesses it wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. The CADC can work out deals with businesses based on the number of employees hired and the amount of sales tax produced. If a business doesn’t meet the agreement, the CADC has the option of buying back the land at a loss to the business, Peña said.
But, he added, that hasn’t happened. In fact, a business in the oil field industry bought lot 5 in the business park and had already met its obligations in three years.
“We move very fast,” Peña said. “He was being sought after by the other towns, and little old us, we don’t have very much, so the little that we have, we had to move very fast on it.”
Two real estate brokers have been hired to help the city sell several more plots. And Peña said that’ll be his focus for the rest of the year. Several credit unions have shown interest, but what Peña would like to see in Alton is a full-service bank.
He’s working on it.
Junior’s, Arcaute said, has gotten everybody’s attention. He expects others will be coming.
“This corridor is about to change pretty dramatically, we feel, and it’s because the rooftops are there now,” Arcaute said. “It becomes a pretty easy place to invest in. We’re practically in Mission and McAllen without those kinds of property values.”