Harlingen’s Small Business Haven

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Downtown Harlingen looks a lot different than it did 30 years ago. Many businesses left the district in the 1970s and early 1980s to relocate to shopping malls, but today it is once again a thriving, vibrant economic community with many unique businesses.

The change started in 1988 when the City partnered with the Texas Main Street Program to create a Public Improvement District. In 1989, property owners voted to approve a special assessment tax for matching grants toward improvements. Nicole Valdez, a retail rental agent in the district, said that the grants have made downtown’s buildings more attractive to tenants, attracting more businesses downtown.

“The community really appreciates their help with improving our businesses and their appeal to our customers,” Valdez said.

The district is comprised of government offices, professional services, sip and dine, retail, and residential.

Many of the businesses along Jackson Street are unique shops owned and operated by residents. El Coyote Custom Leather makes and sells leather products, including purses, gun holders, koozies, and wine bottle holders. They are also a dealer of Knife Ranch hand-crafted knives.

MeVale Creations, on the next block, contains many Mexican-style crafts, from stickers to apparel. Inspired by the art supplies she inherited from her grandmother, artist and owner Sarah Soria creates all the items in-house.

Harlingen Bazaar is an indoor market with more than 40 vendors that is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The vendors are local small business owners offering everything from fishing lures, food, Tupperware, jewelry, clothing, and art lessons.

The Vanity Lash Hair and BlowOut Bar specializes in a holistic approach to enhancing natural beauty. Their services include makeup, facials, lash extensions, and bridal and quinceañera packages.

Downtown Director Alexis Riojas referred to Harlingen as the “Antique Capital of the Valley,” with at least eight Downtown shops that sell antiques. Jackson Street Antiques is located in the oldest brick building in Harlingen. Built in 1909, the Letzerich Building was originally the Harlingen Pharmacy on the first floor and doctor offices on the second. The metal ceiling and other architectural features of the building still exist. The building’s exterior displays one of Downtown Harlingen’s 21 murals, a mural of Harlingen’s history and life in the Valley.

Directly across the street is Lozano Plaza, a green space that is home to the unique “Harlingen” sign from sculpture artist Alexander Comminos, which is made up of recycled materials. Lozano Plaza was once the location of a general store built in 1906 by Santos Lozano. It is now utilized as a venue for some of Harlingen’s popular events featuring live music and local vendors.

Continuing down Jackson Street and across the railroad tracks and Commerce, the scenery changes to blighted, vacant buildings. Renovations have yet to start, but this part of downtown was added to the Improvement District in 2020 and represents how the program helps the district.

“As recently as eight to 10 years ago, Jackson Street had a lot of vacant buildings,” said Riojas. “Now they are 98.6% occupied.”

The Van Buren Street area, also known as “La Placita,” was added to the Improvement District in 2018, and renovations are underway on many of the buildings. La Placita includes the downtown post office and two banks. Sir’s Martini Lounge is located in La Placita, a family-owned business with two different bars and an outdoor patio. Along with food and alcohol, Sir’s sells the artwork on their walls.

Downtown Harlingen has three monthly events to attract customers to the district. “Downtown at Sundown,” on the third Saturday, features 60 plus local vendors, food trucks, and live music at Lozano Plaza. “Market Days” feature over 100 local vendors on Jackson Street and Centennial Park on the first Saturday of each month. “Harlingen Art Night,” held the last Friday of the month, features local artists and galleries. Downtown businesses have extended hours during these events.

“We are not just Harlingen’s downtown,” said Bill DeBrooke, who owns several downtown properties.

“We are the Valley’s downtown. We are very much like a 1950s downtown where you can eat lunch, shop, and go home. We get a lot of business from the rest of the Valley and tourists.”

Joanney Uthe