Edinburg’s SPARC program ignites local economy, Census response rate

EDINBURG — The city’s innovative business recovery program pumped $50,000 directly into local businesses on a daily basis for about two months and pushed the 2020 Census response rate to new heights, Edinburg City Manager Ron Garza said last week.

“We are right in the midst of one of the most innovative and one of the most productive business stimulus and economic recovery programs that I’ve ever seen a city do. And I’m not just saying that because I am part of the city, but it needs to be recognized as just completely successful,” Garza said about the city’s SPARC program.

Known by its acronym, the Stimulus Program Aimed at Recovery from COVID-19 was a two-tiered effort that involved businesses and residents alike.

“It’s an amazing, amazing program, and it really is transforming the recovery here with our local businesses,” Garza said last week.

In July, Edinburg began to distribute $2,000 grants to small businesses throughout the city. Then, it began to distribute nearly 10,000 gift cards, each with $100 that residents could only use at businesses that had received a grant.

The way the program was structured ensured that the $2 million the city of Edinburg spent in federal virus relief money to launch the program would stay in Edinburg, thereby sparking the local economy, Garza said.

“So, it was a way to create a cycle of economic recovery and stimulus directly to our city. So 100% of those funds stayed here,” Garza said. “When you do a traditional business grant program, the reality is people can spend that in all different kinds of ways, maybe get their supplies on Amazon or an online vendor. But this program here, it keeps the money cycled within the city.”

For Erica and Robert Ysaguirre, the owners of Anita’s Cafe, the program was a “blessing.”

The Ysaguirres decided to shut down both of their Edinburg locations after the pandemic hit the Rio Grande Valley, concerned about their health because Robert has diabetes, Erica said.

“We heard that it was attacking people with diabetes and stuff like that. So we were really, really scared,” she said.

But after about a month, the couple decided to open their Monte Cristo location. It’s smaller, has a drive-thru window and takes fewer staff members to operate, she said.

At that point, the Ysaguirres decided to apply for the city’s business recovery program and received a $2,000 grant.

“I wasn’t even aware about the card that they were going to go ahead and give (out). And then later on, that’s when I found out,” Erica said. “And, we got so many people come in and use it at the location, and it helped out so, so much. It really did.”

At first, the restaurant was averaging between $400 and $500 a day in SPARC sales, but that average ballooned to about $1,000 per day.

“Sometimes we got up to like 100 people coming in for the card,” Erica said.

The process was a bit tedious, but worth the effort, she added.

“It did take a little time to input all the numbers (into the application) … especially during lunch time. It was a hard process. But we did it. And it just helped out so, so much.”

Such was the response that the couple decided to open their second location.

“It just was a blessing in disguise because we got people that had never been to the restaurant, too,” she said.

That’s another form of stimulating the local economy, Garza noted.

“Every single one of those businesses talks about how this has been a game changer for keeping them afloat. So we’re injecting about $50,000 per day into the local economy by these kinds of cycle programs,” he said. “The great story that they always share is that this is bringing a new customer base of people who never knew that that restaurant or business was there.”

Garza also found a way to stimulate the city’s Census response rate by offering the $100 gift cards to those who filled out the decennial questionnaire at the city’s Census Self-Response Center.

Edinburg had been lagging in the self-response (rate) for the state of Texas by about 5-6 percentage points last month, with a “stagnant” rate of about 55%, Garza said.

That all changed after the city opened the self-response center.

“Number one, we surpassed the state self-response (rate)… We’re the only largest city in the Rio Grande Valley to do so,” Garza said. “And then it looks like we’re gonna hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 62%, which outweighs our complete response to the 2010 Census, and it is …directly attributed to this SPARC program and the way it was designed.”

The city stopped issuing gift cards Monday, but some businesses will still be receiving $2,000 grants, Garza added.

“Even though residents did benefit from actually having this $100, the ultimate beneficiary for all of this, for all $2 million, was our business community,” Garza said.

And others are taking notice.

“We have cities from across the state and even across the nation — because this CARES Act funding was done federally — asking us about the model,” the city manager said. “And we haven’t been tracking this, but I know other cities are actually modeling this after what we’re doing. So, yeah, it’s been really successful.”

And as far as the Ysaguirres, they’ll be keeping a close eye on sales this month.

“Sales might be a little bit down, but I’m hoping that’s not going to be so bad. I’m hoping that the people that have had SPARC and visited our restaurant come back,” Erica said.