Officials here say the new health clinic operated by the University of Texas Health Rio Grande Valley is just the beginning of a renaissance.

The eight-patient-room clinic opened for patients more than two months ago, and the town and the university will host an official grand opening on Wednesday at the clinic at 723 Santa Isabel Boulevard.

“We are under-served here, so it’s not just a health care issue for this community,” City Manger Rolando Vela said last week. “The fact that we’re located remotely from Harlingen, and San Benito, Brownsville, they have hospitals and a lot of clinics. It’s also a development issue. We have a high percentage of retirees, people in their 60s and 70s, and they just can’t readily drive 30 minutes.”

The medical clinic had been operated privately but the physician running the facility closed it and it was vacant for more than a year.

So Vela said the town and its 3,000 inhabitants went to work to entice the university to take over and operate the facility.

“We told the interim medical school dean, we happen to have a vacant clinic, the doctor was there less than a year, with eight waiting rooms,” Vela said. “All you have to do is put up your logo, turn on the electricity, hook up the Internet and you’re in.”

To make the property more attractive and to satisfy some of UTRGV’s concerns, the town agreed to put up $125,000 to enhance the clinic and to subsidize the first three years of the lease for about $84,000. After that, the clinic will be on its own, Vela said, and medical school officials have said they are in town long-term.

“It’s a win-win for everybody, it’s just a dream come true,” he said. “Since I’ve been here over nine years one of the things that was talked about is we need a clinic, and now it has become a reality.”

University jumped at chance

For UT Health RGV, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Linda Nelson, senior director of clinical operations, said being presented with a turn-key situation like the existing clinic in Laguna Vista doesn’t come often.

“Actually they selected us, would be more like it,” she said. “They really wanted to expand services for their citizens in their community, and also surrounding communities, but particularly their community.”

Nelson said establishing the clinic in Laguna Vista isn’t part of any strategic plan to establish a UT Health RGV presence in smaller communities, but it does fit under the broader umbrella of the school’s commitment to improving the health of all Valley residents.

The new clinic offers urgent or acute care treatment, treatment of chronic conditions, school and sports physicals, immunizations, flu shots and is establishing preventive health programs.

“I’m calling Wednesday a celebration,” she said of the planned clinic dedication. “It’s a grand opening but it’s a celebration of our partnership with the city and the university and UT Health RGV.”

Sales taxes, housing up

The town of Laguna Vista also has shown strongly positive retail sales numbers, as gauged by state sales tax allocations.

Outside of the South Padre Island Golf Club, where the owners have been investing heavily in the property, the town has little in the way of retail offerings.

Still, Vela notes the Office of the Texas Comptroller sales tax allocations have been far above last year, posting increases of 17.44 percent in April, 8.13 percent in May, 9.13 percent in June and 18.17 percent for July. All are year-over-year numbers.

Housing, too, is on the upswing in Laguna Vista. Since 2014, 75 new homes have been built, including 21 already this year.

“The first new subdivision was approved over a month ago by the council, and it’s going to be about 30 new residential lots,” Vela said.

Eco-tourism boost

Much of the economic development potential for the town lies along FM 100, which will be a key part of the second South Padre Island Causeway and provide a northern east-west corridor all the way to Hidalgo County.

Eco-tourism is where the real momentum is coming from these days.

Cameron County will site the South Texas Ecosystem Center on 23 acres in Laguna Vista along FM 100. The county-town partnership will build a new facility on 10 acres of the site.

“We just submitted a million-dollar grant application to the EDA (Economic Development Administration) to subsidize the infrastructure,” Vela said. “The county is investing $6 million, $7 million for the construction of this facility. We’re working with the county to leverage additional resources with those funds.”

Vela said the town sees the eco-tourism center as a catalyst for the entire FM 100 corridor.

“We’re going to be extending utilities from Stripes all the way to the end of the 23 acres west of it,” he said. “All of a sudden, property that currently doesn’t have water and sewer will have water and sewer.”

Vela said there has been interest among developers to build with mixed-use facilities in the area, including storefront properties, retail and apartments.

“We’re seeing this growth in new housing, the clinic here, the tourism center and you’re seeing the sales tax revenue increases,” Vela said.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer