Press & Media

Brownsville native relishes chance to make things better

BROWNSVILLE, Texas - Miriam Suarez almost went to business school.

She’d been managing an affordable-housing property for a couple of years, and so business, it seemed to her, presented a sensible career path. But then she changed her mind.

“Then I thought, no, I always wanted to have a career where you make a positive impact on your community, and I changed my major to public service,” Suarez said. “That’s what my degree is in.”

Now as Downtown District manager, she’s up to her elbows in the nuts of bolts of downtown revitalization. Suarez’s job title was Main Street manager until she also took over management of the Brownsville Border Film Commission. Suarez interned for the city’s planning department from 2012 to 2013 before being hired as housing coordinator for the office of grant management and community development.

Next came a stint with the planning department, during which time she put together Brownsville’s successful application for a “MainStreetCity” designation, a designation that entailed creation of a Main Street office and someone to manage it.

That someone is Suarez, who is busy trying to implement the Main Street model downtown and the “Downtown In Action” plan that the Main Street board adopted in May. Much of her work involves collecting information on downtown in terms of parking and property vacancies, and creating a business directory.

“Eventually what we want to do is we want anybody who’s interested in opening a business downtown to come to us, and we can walk them through the entire process,” Suarez said. “Not only the process of opening a business, but so they know the downtown demographic. We can help them with their market research and stuff like that.”

In a nutshell, the Main Street model is economic development through historic preservation, which means bringing in businesses that celebrate the city’s history and culture while preserving downtown’s valuable physical attributes, she said.

One of Main Street’s biggest projects to far has been a facade improvement program for properties surrounding Market Square. Suarez’s office won a $138,000 Community Development Block Grant to spruce up the facades of three properties: the FernandezBuilding, the OlveraBuilding and the space currently housing Los Reyes Cafe. Work on the OlveraBuilding is already complete, Suarez said.

The office also won a $24,000 grant from the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation to clean and paint the facades of vacant properties facing the square, she said. Unlike previous facade improvement initiatives downtown, Main Street’s program intentionally targeted the area around Market Square, Suarez said.

“That’s pretty much our starting point, leveraging that investment that the city’s already making to make a bigger impact,” she said. “Because the previous facade improvement program, although they had a good amount of participation, the buildings were scattered throughout downtown and the impact wasn’t seen. It wasn’t as impactful, I suppose.”

Suarez said the Main Street designation only applies to a small part of downtown, since the idea was to start small, though once a foundation is in place for the program she eventually wants to extend the boundaries. Also, the office is in the midst of retrofitting downtown’s historic street lamps with more energy-efficient LED lights, among other projects.

Suarez feels lucky as a Brownsville native to have the opportunity to help revitalize downtown and move the city forward in general.

“I feel like in this position I really get to do that,” she said. “I really love what I do. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very, very rewarding. That’s for sure.”

Source: The Brownsville Herald

Photography: Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald
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