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Incoming Mayor: Our vision is Make SPI a World-Class Resort

The next mayor of South Padre Island has a big vision for his town – to make it a world class tourist resort.

Dennis Stahl is currently SPI’s mayor pro-tem. He is also the only candidate on the November ballot to succeed Mayor Barry Patel, who decided not to seek re-election.

“There is confidence on the island, a lot of confidence in the leadership and the direction we are headed. We have a great city council,” Stahl said, in a recent interview with Ron Whitlock of Ron Whitlock Reports at Cafe Karma on South Padre Island.

“We recently improved Gulf Boulevard. We are in the process right now of spending over $9.2 million to make this a more pedestrian-friendly island, with concrete ADA-compatible sidewalks on both sides of Padre Boulevard and raised medians all the way. The vision is to make SPI a world class visitor resort and a great home for residents. We have a ways to go but we are making good progress.”

ADA stands for American Disability Act.

A crucial component in making South Padre Island a world-class beach resort, Stahl believes, is getting a second causeway built. The project is a top priority for Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority and environmental studies are underway.

“We recently had our 9/15 ceremony, to remember those who died when the Isabela Causeway collapsed back in 2001. “When the barge hit the causeway and we had the collapse, we were separated from the mainland. We were ferried back and forth. It caused irreparable harm,” Stahl said.

“We need a second causeway. Right now, the island is really only three and a half miles long by half a mile wide. We have a lot more opportunities and a lot more beautiful beach north of here we would eventually like the city to grow into. The second causeway would make it very easier to get to the northern end of South Padre Island.”

Whitlock pointed out that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz supports efforts to get President Trump to issue an executive order to grant environmental approval for a second causeway. Stahl said he supports Cruz’s efforts.

As Mayor Patel points out, South Padre Island relies a lot of tourists from Mexico. However, while some cities in the Rio Grande Valley have seen their sales tax revenues drop as a result of the impact the Peso’s devaluation has had on the spending power of Mexican visitors, SPI’s numbers have held up well.

Year to date, with ten months of reporting in, South Padre Island’s sales tax collections are up 5.95 percent. For the most recent month analyzed, August 2017, SPI’s sales tax revenues plunged 7.67 percent. This, Stahl said, was because of the fear of Hurricane Harvey hitting the island in the last week of August. Fortunately, SPI dodged a bullet and the hurricane made landfall further north. Stahl said he is confident South Padre will bounce back and the sales tax revenues will continue to go up.

“I am concerned about the August number, but due to our council’s approval of a $400,000 marketing budget inviting visitors from upstate Texas to come and experience our island, and a $100,000 marketing campaign in the Rio Grande Valley, we are reminding folks and asking them to tell their family and friends, that we were not affected by Harvey and are open for business,” Stahl told Whitlock.

“I’m confident that things will continue to rebound once people know the truth of the fact that Harvey did not hit, or cause any damage to SPI. Our message is, if you have not been here we would love to have you.”

Stahl said he had great sympathy for those living in the Coastal Bend that were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“There by the grace of God go we. I grew up in San Antonio and as a child, and even into adulthood, Port Aransas was my beach, Rockport was my fishing home. We have three dear friends who lost their homes in Rockport. And I never visited South Padre Island until I was 38 years old. To a degree we compete for visitors with Port Aransas and Rockport but I really feel they would come to our assistance as we are trying to do for them. We have raised money and truck loads of product to send to them. This is Texans supporting Texans.”

Asked if he would like to add any other comment, Stahl said: “If you have not been to South Padre Island, we would love to have you. We are working to make the visitor experience an outstanding experience for you.”


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Walk for Women Hosts Annual Fundraiser

South Padre Island Walk for Women (W4W), a non-profit organization that raises money to aid those affected by breast cancer, held their 14th weekend-long event on South Padre Island this past weekend.

Walk for Women started out as a small group of friends and neighbors who wanted to provide financial assistance to one local woman in need who was fighting breast cancer. It has since evolved into an all-volunteer dedicated non-profit organization that has raised and donated over $300,000 to help women battling cancer and for cancer research.

The weekend kicked off with a casino night at Louie’s Backyard, featuring a “Cowgirls Kicking Cancer” Western theme. Cheryl Hill, president of W4W for the past 7 years, surveyed the festivities at Louie’s, exclaiming “Take a look around, look at this community, everybody is having fun. They love contributing to W4W because we keep the money in the Rio Grande Valley and help women who need financial assistance. It’s all so worthwhile.”  When asked what her favorite part of W4W is, Hill thought for a moment, then quietly replied “Giving the checks to women who need it.”

Jane Adamson from Indianapolis, Indiana, watched her partner Cindy Debord gamble at one of the many game tables scattered throughout the venue. Debord is a breast cancer survivor, and Adamson described what it was like to go through her partner’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.

- Pamela Cody


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Sand Sculptors Work Around High Tides at Sandcastle Days

Thousands of visitors ebbed and flowed around the sand sculptures on display last weekend, undeterred by the high tides which had threatened to destroy the master sand sculptures early in the week.

Local sand artists Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga and Walter “Amazin’ Walter” McDonald created the event three decades ago, with Lucinda noting, “As far as I know, we’re the only ones who have been here for all 30.”

McDonald marveled at  the longevity of the event, saying, “Holy mackerel, how things have changed, what an event we still have here. Now we have sand sculptors from around the world, but we started out as just a bunch of fools on the beach having fun – 30 years later, it still works for us.”

But it was a 30th anniversary that almost wasn’t. A full harvest moon, along with a low pressure system created by Tropical Storm Nate in the Gulf of Mexico combined to form an abnormally high tide just as the master sand sculptors began to work on their sculptures. The rising waters began to undercut the mounds of sand, and soon, little of the beach behind Clayton’s Beach Bar was left.

The City of South Padre Island sprang into action, sending a work crew with heavy machinery to construct two large berms to carve out a strip of sand safe from the surf. “It was like a perfect storm for an incredibly high tide. And I have to tell you, I’m so impressed with the City and what they have done to mitigate the damage after the first day,” Wierenga said.

“It was a mess and they cleaned everything up.”

Sculptors must be invited in order to compete at Sandcastle Days. The sculptors themselves vote to determine first, second and third place winners, with the People’s Choice award determined by which sand artist garners the most tips throughout the event.

This year there were 12 master sculptors, with organizers adding a 13th sculptor who created a photo-op design that visitors could have their pictures taken with. Usually, each sand artist creates their own sand sculpture, but the event had to be altered this year, due to unusually high tides destroying the preliminary work done in the beginning of the competition. Due to time constraints, the sand artists worked in pairs to create team designs.

By PAMELA CODY


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City Greenlights Clayton’s Pier Rezoning

The South Padre Island City Council addressed issues related to the proposed Clayton’s Fishing Pier during their October 4 meeting.

Mayor Barry Patel recused himself from all the agenda items related to the pier and turned control of the meeting over to Mayor Pro-Tem Dennis Stahl.

First up regarding this issue was the City’s proposed annexation plan. As discussed in other meetings, 600 feet of the proposed pier extending out into the Gulf of Mexico would sit outside of the City’s current jurisdiction. Dr. Sungman Kim, director of development services, provided a presentation on the City’s proposed plan to annex the area in question.

Kim explained the process could be completed as soon as February 2018 if started now, and could be completed even sooner if Council is willing to hold special meetings in order to meet all the required steps. Council voted unanimously to approve the proposed annexation plan and agreed to an expedited meeting schedule.

Stahl then opened a public hearing on changing the zoning of the beach area around the proposed pier from its current designation of District B, Multi-family dwelling, apartment, motel, hotel, condominium, townhouse district, to District PBN (Padre Boulevard North) Character zone.

“I think this is just the perfect venue for South Padre Island. This is something that I would take all my kids to,” said the general manager of the Ramada Hotel, one of several community members who spoke in support of the pier and the related rezoning.

Island resident Shane Wilson questioned why the rezoning did not include beach areas farther south of the proposed pier in front of the Tiki Condominiums.

By KEVIN RICH


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2ND ANNUAL SOUTH PADRE ISLAND OPEN WATER FESTIVAL NOVEMBER 4-5

In just a few weeks the Triton Series swings back into South Texas for the 2nd Annual South Padre Island Open Water Festival. Hosted by Rowdy Gaines and directed by well known race director Gregg Cross, the SPI OWF is vibrant proof of the explosive growth that open water swimming and open water sports have experienced across the board in coastal South Texas.

“This island is so unique in the variety of opportunities it provides for training and racing. Our goal with this festival was to create an annual celebration of open water swimming and life by the water in general. It truly is a lifestyle unlike any other, and we are proud to help South Texas welcome the rest of the world to come check it out” explained Casey Taker, Triton Series C.O.O. in an interview last week. “This sport is all about community, we just want to provide an avenue for that community to connect and enjoy an amazing weekend in the water.”

Host Rowdy Gaines (photo: Mike Lewis, Ola Vista Photography)

The South Padre Island Open Water Festival features events including a Sunday November 5th TRITON ONE (1 mile) and TRITON SELECT (5k) in Laguna Madre Bay. Saturday November 4th activities will include a TRITON SPRINT event and other beach training opportunities on the ocean side of the island. All TRITON events will count towards the TRITON SERIES TEXAS CHAMPIONSHIP to be awarded at the end of the weekend. Championship categories include male, female and team categories.

With a focus on community, Triton is making team discounts available for groups of all sizes. In addition, there are event scholarships available to swimmers who were affected by Hurricane Harvey earlier this fall. Information on either of these opportunities can be obtained by emailing info@openwaterplanet.com.

The SPI Open Water Festival is one of many athletic events that has been added to the yearly South Padre Island calendar over the last few years. The island seems to be quickly developing into a tri-athlete and all around aquatic athlete destination powerhouse, and the Triton Series has even hinted at a goal of installing year around open water courses on the island over the next few years.

Register Now for the South Padre Island Open Water Festival! www.southpadreswim.com

About Open Water Planet

Open Water Planet (OWP) was created to provide the open water sports community a place to call their own.  We are spread all over the world but we are alike in so many ways.   We work hard, we play hard. There is always an excuse to travel and the thrills are all the reward  we need.  Our pools have no walls and the lanes are ever-changing. OWP spreads it’s core message of never fearing the unknown through the company’s series of open water events, clinics, swim travel, training programs and custom gear. All specifically aimed at helping those passionate about the water to get where they want to go.

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Island’s City Hall Set to Be Renamed

Mayor Barry Patel sent a message to the Paul Y. Cunningham Jr. family, asking for its permission to rename the South Padre Island city hall after its patriarch.

Cunningham could share stories about riding over to the Island and much, much more. He had stories about the planning of the Island and stories of when he defended the Island from being annexed to Port Isabel.

This week the Island will rename city hall after Cunningham for the leadership and guidance he provided to the city’s growth. He went on to become the Island’s first and only city attorney until his death earlier this year.

“Mr. Cunningham has been an instrumental part of the city for more than 40 years,” said Susan Guthrie, SPI city manager. “This building will serve as a permanent tribute to his service to our community.”

The City of South Padre Island invites the public to the building dedication ceremony in honor of Cunningham’s dedication and contribution to the city. The ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at city hall, located at, 4601 Padre Blvd.

“It’s our small way of showing our appreciation for all the work he has done for the City of South Padre Island,” Patel said. “He was an outstanding city attorney, and had guided the city through many trials and tribulations through the years.”

Cunningham served as the city attorney from South Padre Island’s incorporation in 1973 to February 2017. Cunningham, 74, died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was first diagnosed in October 2016.

He served on the planning and zoning board prior to becoming the city attorney, a post he held for more than 40 years.

“He was a one-of-a-kind man and attorney,” said Bob Pinkerton, former SPI mayor, in an earlier interview. “I served 22 years with him on the council.”

Pinkerton said there was no one better to help guide the city leaders.

“He knew how to put issues and problems into perspective,” Pinkerton said. “He’s going to be missed by many.”

By RAUL GARCIA Staff Writer


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Sandcastle Days Rescued with Extra Sand Barrier

When local sand sculptor Lucinda Wierenga stepped onto the beach by Clayton’s on Thursday morning, she felt terror.

The preparations she and her fellow sculptors had made the night before for Sandcastle Days were washed away by a high tide.

“This is not going to work at all, so what do we do?” Wierenga recalled thinking at the time.

Twelve sculptors, nine of whom are from other parts of the country and the world, had traveled for the competition. The free event offers many activities for families, and every year huge crowds turn out for Sandcastle Days, one of the most popular events on the Island.

Sculptors were busy at work on their creations yesterday, but not before some teamwork came together to make the event possible.

On Thursday, Adolfo Zamora, manager of Clayton’s, said his boss — Clayton Brashear — decided to make a call.

“A lot of people were saying it was going to be canceled because of the high tide, but my boss called the city right away,” Zamora said. “Everyone came to help.”

Brandon Hill, shoreline director for the City of South Padre Island, said that after receiving the call Thursday morning, city crews were on sight within 30 minutes to rectify the situation.

About 450 cubic yards of sand was brought in from Olmito Sand Pit LLC, and barriers were constructed Thursday and Friday to protect the sand sculptures from being washed away again.

“When it comes to things like Sandcastle Days, which is such a pivotal event for the Island, failure is never an option,” Hill said. “It wasn’t a question of were we going to help, but rather how can we help?”

At that point, it was not about the money or the competition anymore, Zamora said.

“We decided, let’s build something for the event, for everyone that’s going. We didn’t want to cancel, so we got (the sculptors) together to build six sand sculptures,” Zamora said.

The sculptors were split into teams of two and merged their ideas together to create something new.

“It’s really been a year of unity for everyone. The sculptors teamed up, the amateurs teamed up, everyone came together,” Hill said.


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Refuge Proposes Reopening Bayside Drive to Traffic

 A four-year hiatus for vehicle traffic on popular Bayside Drive at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge may be coming to an end.

In part to help counter a major decline in visitors since 2013, Laguna Atascosa officials are proposing to reopen the road with some significant changes in what would be a $4.015 million project.

The closure of the popular nature drive to vehicles came after two endangered ocelots were killed by cars on the road despite a 25-mph speed limit. A later ocelot fatality on nearby Buena Vista Road in 2009 sealed the fate of Bayside Drive and its vehicular traffic.

While it was a “tough call” then, refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde said the threat posed by vehicles to the refuge’s 15 or so endangered ocelots made it the right thing to do after trying things like lowering the speed limit to 15 mph.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife official said since that decision to close Bayside Drive, he and the staff at Laguna Atascosa have been trying to find a way to reach a better balance when it comes to visitor access to the refuge. Since 2013, Bayside Drive has only been open to bicyclists and hikers.

But Blihovde said re-opening Bayside Drive would provide an avenue for people who are physically unable to hike, or ride a 15-mile loop on a bicycle, to use the refuge, too.

“We can buy all the land we want and fence it off and say, ‘Nobody can come in here and enjoy this place,’” Blihovde said. “If we do that, we’re not going to get much support from the public, the folks that we work for, the U.S. citizen. Taxpayer dollars are what pay our salaries and buy the land, and we have a responsibility to not only protect wildlife but also give the public a chance to enjoy it.”

What would change

The new proposal would make Bayside Drive a two-way road instead of a 15-mile, one-way loop. It would be widened and opened to traffic over 8.2 miles with a turnaround to be built at the Redhead Ridge parking area.

The southern part of the route on Bayside Drive, where the two ocelots were killed eight years ago, would remain closed.

The proposed changes are laid out in a draft environmental assessment which also includes a number of improvements to the overall refuge, including paving roads and parking lots.

Blihovde encourages those interested in the proposal to help by giving feedback, either by writing a letter to him addressed to the refuge headquarters or via email at boyd_blihovde@fws.gov using EA/Bayside Wildlife Drive” in the subject line.

“This is the public’s chance to give us criticism, or to suggest something different,” he said. “If somebody has a suggestion or something that’s different from what we’ve looked at, we’d definitely take that into consideration and go back to the drawing board.”

The new road would become an out-and-back drive open to vehicles on Fridays and Saturdays, with Sundays and Mondays reserved for bicycle riders. Hikers and bicyclists have had access to the road since it was closed to vehicles in 2013.

How we got here

The closure of Bayside Drive was unpopular with many people, although most understood the importance of limiting the exposure of ocelots to vehicles.

But the refuge nonetheless saw a significant reduction in visitors, and the refuge’s environmental assessment says visits to the refuge are down 34 percent since Bayside Drive was closed to traffic.

Blihovde said despite the support the endangered ocelots have, his experience shows public backing for programs intended to protect endangered species can prove fickle.

“I’ve managed manatees, sea turtles and numerous endangered species, and I’ve seen the public turn against species that were protected because the agency had to do so much to protect them, like close properties, control the speed of boats for manatees and different things like that,” Blihovde said.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer


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Nature Group Purchase Major Stride in Plan for Bahia Grande

A major land acquisition by The Nature Conservancy represents the final piece of the puzzle in the restoration of the sprawling Bahia Grande wetland between Brownsville and the Laguna Madre.

TNC just closed on the purchase of 1,800 acres on the wetland’s north side, according to Boyd Blihovde, manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which in 2000 acquired the 21,700-acre “Bahia Grande Unit.” Both are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It sort of completes the acquisition for the Bahia Grande wetland,” he said. “The estuary system that is called Bahia Grande, we always were trying to get the whole wetland system, and to the north there was a big chunk that was left out.”

The Bahia Grande was a thriving wetland home to a number of species of fish and wildlife until the tidal flow between it and the Laguna Madre was cut off, starting in the 1930s with construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel and continuing in the 1950s when S.H. 100 was built.

Rancher and philanthropist Frank Yturria, whose family has placed 10,000 acres into wildlife conservation easements to protect the ocelot and aplomado falcon, and whose contributions were instrumental in the Bahia Grande’s resurrection, said he’s old enough to remember before the wetland dried up.

“When I was a kid my mother and father and friends, we’d go to the Bahia Grande to go crabbing.” he said. “There were so many crabs you could just go along the shoreline and scoop them up. You didn’t even need to put out bait.”

Yturria watched the Bahia Grande dry up until it was a desert, which is how it remained for 70 years, choking Laguna Madre communities with dust, until mounting calls to return the water to the Bahia Grande led to concerted action.

Twenty years ago, The Conservation Fund bought the original land tracts from Yturria that got the ball rolling on restoration. In 2005, a 50-foot-wide pilot channel was dug between the ship channel and the Bahia Grande to let the water back in. In 2007, two interior channels were cut connecting the Bahia Grande Basin, the wetland’s main body of water, with two smaller interior basins, the Laguna Larga and Little Laguna Madre, which restored tidal flow throughout the whole system.

Andy Jones, director of TCF’s Texas office, said it’s gratifying to see how far the Bahia Grande project has come.

“It’s absolutely satisfying to see it, and the rest of work we’ve been accomplishing, and to see all the restoration work,” he said. “The lakes were dry there forever. Fortunately now there’s flow. Now its wildlife haven full of fish and all the birds.”

Blihovde said Fish and Wildlife will work with The Nature Conservancy on fixing up the newly purchased 1,800 acres.

“We will have the ability, partnering with TNC, to conduct restoration activities on that northern section, including removing old levees and dikes, old oil platforms and things like that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the existing pilot channel is already silting in and needs to be cleaned out, widened and stabilized to provide an adequate flow of water, Blihovde said. General Land Office funding that was available dried up. Now the project partners are beating the bushes for other sources of funding, such as money from the BP oil spill settlement, Blihovde said.

“It’s a high priority for many partners down in the Valley,” he said. “There’s a lot of support for it. I’m sure it will be funded. It’s just a matter of when.”

One thing is clear: The Bahia Grande is coming back to life.

“It is well on its way back,” Blihovde said. “Not only is it not a dust bowl, but it is an important estuary for a number of species, including — believe it or not — for sea turtles. The green sea turtles go in and out of that pilot channel and the Bahia Grande and stay for varying lengths of time, because there’s sea grasses that are coming back in the interior of that wetland.”

The wetland also supports shrimp and other invertebrates that redfish, trout, flounder and other fish species depend on, he said.

“It’s a real important nursery for fisheries, and I think it will continue to be really important, and that in turn will make it a very sought after place for folks who want to go fishing and kayaking and other activities,” Blihovde said. “Fish and Wildlife is currently working on a visitors services plan that will take some to complete, but we’re hoping to open Bahia Grande to the public in stages.”

Jeff Francell, director of land protection for TNC’s Texas chapter, said that in addition to the 1,800 acres, TNC purchased 321 acres as a connector between the Laguna Atascosa refuge and the Bahia Grande. RESTORE Act funds from the BP oil disaster paid for all of it, three parcels in all at a cost of $5 million, he said. The land was purchased from descendents of the Garcia family.

“Protecting the land around the Bahia has been a longstanding conservation priority in Texas we wouldn’t have had the funding to do it without the RESTORE funds,” Francell said. “The (oil spill) was a terrible accident, but we have been able to do some good work with it in Texas. The restoration piece of the entire Laguna Madre system benefits the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the justification.”

TNC said the Bahia Grande is among the highest-priority and most biologically rich conservation areas in the state. The wetland supports about 1,200 plant species, more than 530 species of birds, more than 300 North American butterfly species, and 17 threatened of endangered species, according to TNC.

“We’re not done,” Francell said. “We’re still going to be working hard in trying to come up with funding to continue with acquisitions from willing sellers. Hopefully it’s a significant wildlife area and recreational resource for the Valley and its visitors for all time.”

By STEVE CLARK Staff Report


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Walk for Women Breast Cancer Benefit Kicks Off Today

For most involved, it is not just a fundraising effort for those battling breast cancer — it is a coming together of the community.

That’s how Cheryl Hill, the event’s coordinator, describes it.

This weekend will be full of activities, two that raise funds and a third that raises awareness for breast cancer.

“This is a cause that touches just about everybody,” Hill says about breast cancer. “This is a really great gathering of people that make Walk for Women. We are just part of a big community.”

That community comes together in a big way. Over the years, the organization has raised more than $300,000 and has given to more than 60 Valley women and their families.

It also has contributed $50,000 to the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation for mammograms.

Early in its 14-year history, some of the money also went to $14,500 to the Carolyn Fund for prosthesis, Baylor and MD Anderson.

The key to it all, helping those battling breast cancer right here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley area.

Hill says she wants to make sure those fighting breast cancer don’t have to choose between groceries or electricity versus paying a medical deductible.

“When it started, it was a friend of ours who had breast cancer and was in dire financial straights,” Hill said. “We rallied the community and held a fundraiser. That was 14 years ago. This is really a labor of love with a lot of people committed.”

The weekend will open with a casino night, Friday, at Louie’s Backyard. The event includes a live auction with fabulous items.

Then, Saturday, there will be the always-fun fishing tournament. Both of those are fundraising events along with personal donations as well as the sale of merchandise and more.

Sunday will end with the free Walk for Women. That is to honor those fighting the battle and is a remembrance of those who have lost their battle.

Hill, who has been involved with the Walk for Women event for the past eight years, said she expects to raise $60,000 to $70,000 this year.

Proceeds from other events throughout the year also are given to the Walk for Women organization, something Hill said she is extremely proud of and happy about.

“It is so rewarding when we give a check to someone and you can see the load that it lightens for that person,” she said. “That is what makes it all worthwhile.”


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