It was a long, hard road to build the McAllen Performing Arts Center, but since opening five months ago, this dynamic venue has already cemented itself as the premier entertainment facility and cultural arts hub in South Texas.
“We have a one-of-a-kind venue in Texas that will bring unforgettable experiences for the entire family. It’s symbolic that the Rio Grande Valley has arrived both in population and commerce and we are the entry point for both Mexico and the United States,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said.
While the ultramodern building was built to replace the McAllen Civic Center, the history and foundation laid there will never be forgotten. Local dance competitions, quiñcenearas and symposiums and signature international performances like “The Nutcracker,” are enduring memories of the facility built in 1960.
“It was quality of life and experience and the Civic Center will always be part of that legacy,” Omar Rodriguez, Director of Convention Facilities, said.
The history of the McAllen Performing Arts Center (MPAC) and the Convention Center District kicked off around 1977 when city leaders began to examine the future of the McAllen Civic Center. Often, shows with bigger production elements couldn’t be accommodated at the simple facility.
“This all started when the city felt that we had outgrown the McAllen Civic Center and started looking for other locations that could handle bigger events,” said Rodriguez.
City commissioners opted to purchase a 40-acre tract of land on Ware Road and Interstate 2, eyeing it for the future venue.
“The current site was chosen because it was the first large tract immediately west of the Civic Center. There were several owners involved and I was the city attorney at the time, so we had to piece those parcels together. And then the work really began,” Mayor Darling said.
After years of research, a series of studies and public debate, the City of McAllen moved ahead with the arduous process to replace the Civic Center with a new facility.
“The decision was made many years ago before the current administration was in place,” City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, P.E. said. “In fact, it was part of a referendum that was taken to the citizens of McAllen in 2002 when they elected to move the Convention Center, as well as build the Performing Arts Center.”
“It was a pretty good deal if you think about it. From a commercial standpoint, the area has developed into something even beyond what we expected,” said Mayor Darling.
Omar Rodriguez said the Convention Center helped the city’s efforts to build a quality community. Commercial development exploded in what is now referred to as the Convention Center Campus, with five signature hotels; major restaurants chains; dozens of retail shops that entice the entire family and a park featuring a pond that often sees paddle boats and outdoor community events taking place.
“Our McAllen Convention Center opened in 2007 and it takes care of the civic and meeting events. It is a great large space for banquets and conventions and now the McAllen Performing Arts Center brings in shows that have never been possible before in South Texas,” continued O. Rodriguez.
A 2-percent venue tax charged to hotel occupancy was authorized by voters in 2011 as a funding source to complete the performing arts center. The MPAC was also partly financed by a $15 million bond issue approved by voters in November 2013. Construction on the 1,828-seat, $44.9 million facility began July 24, 2014.
“It is incredible that in 1960, our city forefathers built an 1,800-seat theater for a population of maybe 30,000. That was unheard of, but the region filled it with over 50 years of experiences,” Omar Rodriguez said. “When our consultants came in to examine the possibilities for the McAllen Performing Arts Center, they said let’s keep it so our theater is extremely large, but it provides a more intimate experience.”
ERO Architects of McAllen designed the 93,000 square-foot building that features state-of-the-art equipment in acoustics, audio and lighting. The new venue offers unobstructed views and perfect sound with a magical house experience and stage presentation. The lobby features a grand wooden staircase and the colors and textures of the theater interior draws heavily from the Rio Grande River as it winds its way towards the Gulf of Mexico.
The rich, vibrant colors found in the seating materials and house curtain represent McAllen bougainvilleas. The mesquite millwork throughout the towering facility pays homage to mesquite trees throughout McAllen, as well as “pecky pecan,” a nod to the Texas state tree. There are restrooms at each of the four levels and elevators to the upper balconies. Quite impressive is the stage which is more than eight stories tall.
“The McAllen Performing Arts Center is a very complicated and technically advanced building. In constructing that type of facility, you will find many challenges due to its many facets and special design features,” Roy Rodriguez added. “It is easily one of the most complicated projects I have ever been involved in.”
The McAllen Civic Center was demolished in October of 2016. One month later, the MPAC officially opened with a diverse line-up of shows such as Annie, Elf, the Russian Ballet, Valley Symphony Orchestra and the coup that brought Mayor Darling to the stage: world-renowned crooner Tony Bennett. As he was presented with a Key to the City of McAllen, Bennet looked around and simply stated, “They don’t build them like this anymore. This is a beautiful theater.”
“It really has come full circle. Our original theater was a one-floor auditorium. We now have two balconies and a parterre and the audience experience at the MPAC is unmatched,” O. Rodriguez added. “You feel like you’re part of the event.”
The auditorium is equipped with adjustable acoustics to accommodate popular music to symphonic orchestra; a robust acoustical shell with a celestial ceiling; and four levels of seating, including 550 seats in the orchestra level, 500 seats in the parterre level, 400 seats in the first balcony level and 350 seats in the upper balcony, meeting Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
“I predict that this facility will win awards in the industry,” Roy Rodriguez said.
The stage house can fully accommodate the intricate sets of traveling Broadway shows.
“What the MPAC does for the region is attract entertainment and traveling tours. Shows touring through San Antonio and Houston can now come and perform here. We are equipped to handle some of the biggest shows in the nation like Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Lion King,” O. Rodriguez said.
The signature facility is anticipated to draw in more than 200 first class performances a year, featuring concert tours, comedy acts, symphonic orchestra, musicals and ballets, as well as popular family show tours.
“Our city leaders had the vision to see that the McAllen Civic Center would be outgrown, but the McAllen Performing Arts Center now allows the community to see these shows that they might never see,” O. Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t replace the Broadway experience, it brings the Broadway experience to McAllen.”
Perhaps Mayor Darling put it best: “People do not expect this to be in McAllen. But I tell them, this is exactly McAllen. We have arrived.”
By: Roxanne Lerma Casares, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reporter/Producer, Office of Communications, City of McAllen