Bookings to begin Tuesday: Reservations to open for coastal parks

Coastal park visitors who are eager to claim summer spots at Isla Blanca, Andy Bowie and Adolph Thomae Jr. parks will get their chance starting Tuesday.

That’s when the Cameron County Parks and Recreation Department will begin accepting reservations online, in person and over the phone for dates in April through September. Visitors who use the online system can start making reservations at midnight, and park offices will take reservations during regular business hours.

This will be the first time visitors can claim their summer RV and camping sites through the park website. Hundreds of people in January 2018 camped overnight outside the park department’s South Padre Island office to make their summer reservations.

“We hope that our guests will use the online reservation system because it’s going to be a lot more convenient for them to make reservations,” Parks Director Joe Vega said.

He encouraged those who plan to pay for their spots online to familiarize themselves before summer reservations open Tuesday. Winter reservations will open April 20, according to a parks department news release.

Vega said some Isla Blanca Park construction will be wrapping up when guests arrive in early summer - weather permitting. The reconstruction of Sandpiper Pavilion will be completed late March or early April, he said, and the new DJ Lerma Pavilion will be finished in late April or early May.

The parks department also is making upgrades to the Isla Blanca RV restrooms and showers, Vega added.

“During our peak summer months in June and July, we should not have any construction at that time,” he said.

Office hours for coastal parks are:

>> 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Isla Blanca Park, (956) 761-5493, (956) 761-5494 or (956) 761-3475

>> 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Andy Bowie Park, (956) 761-3704

>> 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park, (956) 748-2044

The online reservation system can be accessed via 

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo Staff writer

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Retro Rocket: SpaceX rocket now complete at Boca Chica

It’s not the first time the world has heard of Boca Chica Beach, Texas.

The sleepy seaside spot 24 miles east of Brownsville came to the attention of space geeks the world round in 2011 when Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies announced it was a contender, along with Florida and Puerto Rico, for the world’s first commercial rocket launch site.

The spotlight grew in intensity when Texas beat out the competition and especially on Sept. 22, 2014, when Elon Musk, SpaceX’s visionary CEO and chief designer, showed up for a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site alongside then governor Rick Perry.

Suddenly, Boca Chica has become the most interesting place in the world for space watchers as a gleaming, silver rocket towers above the scrub after being assembled on an accelerated timeline in full view of the public right off State Highway 4.

The stainless-steel-clad vehicle, with a decidedly retro look, is an experimental prototype for SpaceX’s “Starship” (formerly Big Falcon Spaceship), which the company plans to fly around the moon and eventually to Mars with humans aboard.

Until about six weeks ago, the Boca Chica site contained a temporary hangar, fuel tanks, tracking antennas and a solar array — but no rockets in evidence. On Dec. 23, Musk began tweeting photos of the prototype pre-assembly, then on Jan. 5 tweeted that the company was shooting for the first “hopper” test flight in four weeks, though eight weeks was probably more like it “due to unforeseen issues.”

On Jan. 10, Musk tweeted photos of the finished prototype, dubbed “Starship Hopper,” and noted that it will be used for non-orbital vertical takeoff and landing tests similar to SpaceX’s Grasshopper VTOL program, which took place in 2012 and 2013 at the company’s McGregor test facility. Hopper tests entail launching the rocket to an altitude of hundreds of thousands of feet, then, ideally, landing it again intact.

Musk also tweeted that the first orbital version, which will be taller and with a thicker skin and smoother nose curve, should be completed “around June.”

The Starship Hopper to be tested at Boca Chica is powered by three liquid-oxygen/methane powered Raptor engines developed by SpaceX. The actual Starship will be pushed into orbit by 31 Raptor engines making up the Super Heavy booster (formerly Big Falcon Rocket). The Starship and Super Heavy together will be 387 feet tall, about the height of a 31-story building, and both stages will be reusable.

SpaceX plans to send unmanned Starships to Mars as soon as 2022 and manned ships to the Red Planet possibly by 2024. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked passage aboard a Starship for a trip around the Moon in 2024.

Starship Hopper isn’t 387 feet tall, but it’s still huge, and makes for an astonishing sight pointed skyward a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico, waiting for someone to light the match.

“It needed to be made real,” Musk tweeted on Jan. 11, while noting that future versions of the ship “must be more pointy.”

Gil Salinas, former executive vice president of the now-defunct Brownsville Economic Development Council, first met with Elon Musk and the SpaceX team in 2011, and was part of negotiations to bring the company to the Rio Grande Valley. At the time, it was still in “startup mode” and had launched only two or three rockets successfully, Salinas said.

“Nobody at the time saw what SpaceX would be today — one of the greatest innovators of our time,” he said.

Salinas said that during multiple meetings with Musk he observed how well SpaceX’s chief communicated his vision and led his team despite considerable challenges to the project at the time. The fact that it’s resulted in a spaceship prototype — a cool-looking one at that — at Boca Chica he described as “amazing and incredible.”

“This is a big win for Texas and the Rio Grande Valley,” Salinas said. “To know that Brownsville will be a part of making history in this era of ‘new space,’ that I had the opportunity to work on the project from its inception in my community and my Boca Chica Beach, is something I will hold close to my heart for a long, long time.”

By STEVE CLARK Staff Writer

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Laguna Vista seeks new retail concepts for eco-tourism center

Laguna Vista is setting its sights on not just new businesses, but a new type of business.

The Laguna Vista Town Council has authorized City Manager Rolando Vela to seek requests from developers to bring the right kind of retail into the town’s 13-acre portion of the South Texas Eco-Tourism Center.

In partnership with the county, the $8 million center along FM 100 consists of 23 acres, and the town is seeking to bring in what it calls “experiential businesses” on its portion of the project.

“ We envision on these 23 acres, the 10 acres where the center will be built and the 13 acres which we’re going to offer for proposals, is that whatever is built on those 13 acres needs to complement the center and the center needs to complement these businesses,” Vela said. “So when you drive by, we hope that you will stop and partake in this experience.

“ We see the eco-tourism center as a major catalyst to jump-start retail development on this highway 100 corridor,” he added.

Laguna Vista and its 3,000 inhabitants have very little retail operating within town limits now. Town leaders believe the eco-tourism center will kick-start a much broader development phase.


Experiential retail


Just what defines the “experiential retail” concept the town is pursuing for its 13 acres on the eco-tourism center site is a bit vague.

Proponents of the concept say it is often tech-driven and interactive, and is seen as a fight-back against e-commerce or online shopping.

“ You and I can go online and purchase from wherever but you don’t get an experience shopping on Amazon,” Vela said. “You simply place the order and they send it to you.

“ In an experiential retail business, you walk in and they may have some activities, so you’re going into this experience, and that’s the future of retail business,” he added.

Some have called it buying a memory.


‘ A certain style’


Vela said town leaders in Laguna Vista are emphatic in wanting the right kind of development in the community on the shores of the Laguna Madre.

To ensure development takes the right direction, Vela said he is preparing an ordinance which will mandate certain features in any potential site anywhere in the town, not just around the eco-tourism center.

“ I will be bringing to the council next month or the following month a scenic overlay district ordinance,” Vela said. “What that means is 300 feet from one side of the city limits to the other end, 300 feet from the right-of-way on each side, we’re going to require certain standards, certain landscaping, certain types of signage and certain types of lighting.

“ We’re not going to allow you to put this fluorescent signage that everybody else puts up,” he added. “So that when you drive into Laguna Vista, you’re driving into an experience, a certain style.”

Having a certain style may be a component, but drawing tourists off the highway is at the core of the effort.

“ We are literally trying to bring the future to the present,” Vela said. “To the point where you’re driving by toward the Island and you’re saying, wait a minute, let’s either stop now or let’s stop on the way back.

“ We want it to be such that if you stop even to say hi, you spend hours,” Vela added. “And when you spend hours, you spend money.”

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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Study: Billions of birds migrate over Gulf Coast

It's no secret that the Gulf Coast has a special allure for birders.

But just how many birds migrate every year across the Gulf Coast? With coastlines spanning from Brownsville and South Padre Island along multiple states of coastline to Key West, Florida, anyone wanting to discover the answer to that question would have a lot of territory to cover — and a lot of birds to count.

In fact, it turns out, they'd have billions of birds to count.

A recently published study that includes data from radar and bird watchers has revealed details about spring migrations along the Gulf Coast. The study drew upon the work of citizen scientists and weather radar stations and the conclusions were published this month in the journal Global Change Biology.“We looked at data from thousands of eBird observers and 11 weather radar stations along the Gulf Coast from 1995 to 2015,” says lead author Kyle Horton, an Edward W. Rose Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We calculated that an average of 2.1 billion birds crosses the entire length the Gulf Coast each spring as they head north to their breeding grounds. Until now, we could only guess at the overall numbers from surveys done along small portions of the shoreline.”

Researchers wanted to know about more than how many birds were migrating along the coast. They also wanted to examine how these journeys may be affected by climate change. Findings on the timing, location, and intensity of these bird movements were published in the study's report.Data from citizen scientists came from an app called eBird, which is the Cornell Lab’s worldwide online database for bird observation reports. Sightings from bird watchers helped researchers translate their radar data into estimates of bird numbers. Weather radar detects birds in the atmosphere in a standardized way over time and over a large geographical area. 

The radar data reveal when birds migrate and what routes they take. The timing of peak spring migration was consistent over 20 years along the 1,680-mile coastline. But the researchers found that the 18-day period from April 19 to May 7 was the busiest — approximately one billion birds passed over the Gulf Coast in that time span. Not all locations were equally busy, with key hotspots showing significantly higher levels of activity.

And Texas birders could probably guess that the Rio Grande Valley is a reliable hotspot for activity.

“The highest activity, with 26,000 birds per kilometer of airspace each night, was found along the west Texas Gulf Coast,” says Horton. “That region had 5.4 times the number of migrants detected compared with the central and eastern Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.”

The data show Corpus Christi and Brownsville as having the highest level of migration traffic along the western coast of Texas.

Scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the University of Oxford, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the University of Delaware, and the University of Oklahoma conducted this research.

Funding for this project was provided by the Rose Postdoctoral Fellowship, Leon Levy Foundation, National Science Foundation, and Southern Company through their partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.


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South Padre Island Cruise Ship Update

The City of South Padre Island is looking to attract cruise line ships in order to attract more visitors. Efforts continue to bring a cruise line industry to South Padre Island. A public briefing on the progress was held this morning.

It's an initiative South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl has been passionately advocating for, researching, and soon negotiating. The reason is that SPI has what is commonly referred to as the "Off Season"; a slow season between the end of summer and March.

Mayor Stahl says, “November and December which were terrible months for us, are peak cruising months. But I would like to reduce seasonality.” 

Don't expect to see a cruise ship on local beaches anytime soon. The city has not released an official timeline on when we can expect the first ship. In part, it has to do with location. The city's recommendation: Isla Blanca Park. Not city property. 

“We started this with the county. There is city property available, but it would require significantly more dredging.” Says Mayor Stahl. 

The four companies are looking to settle in SPI are Carnival, Caribbean, Disney, and Norwegian. When asked the mayor says the cruise line industry is interested in what the area has to offer. Community members and business owners show support of the initiative, even if they may not directly benefit from cruises. 

Courtney Hayden – Island Cinema, “I'm not going to get these cruise passengers to get off a ship and come to a movie. But it would be so nice for the whole community to see some traffic, people moving around.” 

Gayle Hood – RE/MAX Elite, “They may not spend a huge amount of money or stay in the hotels when they're first here. They will come back.” 

The mayor says it's up to county leaders now. The Cameron County Judge has expressed support for the initiative. The mayor says that some of the top attractions pointed out by cruise line representatives include: Sea Turtle, Inc., SPI Birding Center, the Port Isabel Lighthouse, and Gladys Porter Zoo

Alfredo Cuadros

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Valley International passenger numbers up 12.5 percent in 2018

Late last Friday, anyone looking up may have noticed airline passenger jets, one right after the other, stacking up over the city to make their final approaches to land at Valley International Airport.

By around 4 p.m., airport passengers, flight crews and airport workers witnessed all five of VIA’s jetways in simultaneous use as passengers either boarded or departed those planes.

The packed jetways used to transition passengers from terminal to plane or vice versa seem to be an indicator that Valley International’s 12.5 percent increase in passenger enplanements in 2018 is set to rise again this year.

The Harlingen airport offers passenger service on Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Sun Country Airlines and Frontier Airlines, which began offering direct flights to Denver and Chicago in November. In March, American Airlines will be added to the passenger carrier mix.

“ Once American starts up, that number will significantly increase,” Bryan Wren, assistant director of aviation at Valley International, said yesterday.

Wren said all five gates were in use Friday due to scheduled flights, two on Southwest, and the others on Delta, Sun Country and United, and were not merely stacking up due to weather-related delays. In fact, a casino charter also was near the gates at the time.

“ It’s a great thing not only for us but the entire Valley,” Wren added. “With six air carriers, we envision that this is eventually going to lower the cost of airfare for people in the Valley because now there are going to be six airlines all competing at one airport.”

McAllen International airport has four passenger air carriers — Aeromar, American, United and Allegiant Air. Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport offers flights with carriers American and United.

Wren said his airport is “well within” its capacity to handle even more passenger traffic, but the airport is planning for the long-term once American’s flights begin.

“ We are in the planning stages right now of adding a sixth jetway, which would be Gate 1,” he said. “We’re going to start the design and planning immediately, and we’re going to actually open bids on that.

“ We’re going to add Jetway 1 and then remove and replace Jetways 2 and 4 depending on how the numbers come in,” Wren added. “Regardless, we’re definitely going to add Jetway 1 because we need that sixth bridge. That gives us a lot more options and increases our capacity at the terminal.”

In addition to more passenger traffic, Valley International is improving its profile nationally as an air cargo hub.

The airport now ranks around 76 th for air cargo in the country. Wren has said by the end of the current fiscal year, Valley International will rank in the high 50s, or on a par with airports like McCarran International in St. Louis.

This year FedEx announced it moved some flights from Laredo to Harlingen and between FedEx and DHL there are currently five flights per day in and out of VIA hauling cargo across the nation.

The airport also has embarked on a plan to lengthen its longest runway, 17R/35L, which already is the longest in the Rio Grande Valley. The runway will be lengthened from 8,301 feet to 9,400 feet to accommodate larger, wide-body jets.

In May, airport officials announced the airport’s biggest project since 1990, a $15.5 million upgrade to replace 1930s-era concrete on taxiways and aircraft parking areas. The project will replace those to a depth of three feet and should be completed in January 2020.

Also in May, the airport opened a state-of-the-art, $3.8 million aircraft fire and rescue facility.

The airport also added new air chillers and fan coil units, a new HVAC system and new LED lighting, which have combined to cut utility costs by 30 percent.

The airport is currently replacing its 1980s-era ceramic tile with blue and gray epoxy terrazzo at a cost of $2.1 million.

VIA also plans to replace the flat roof on the terminal building and then work on replacing the dome over the terminal lobby.

Last year the airport added about 500 feet of usable runway area to Runway 17R/35L with construction work that improved the turning angle for pilots at the south end.

Most of the funding for the projects has been provided by the FAA, Airport Improvement Program grants or funds from the facility fee the airport charges each passenger.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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Reunited: Sea Turtle Inc. releases Loggerhead patient back to the ocean

 A mere seconds after placing a live crab into Mystogan’s tank a few days ago, the 97-pound loggerhead began hunting the salty snack.

That’s when Sea Turtle Inc. staff knew their patient was ready to leave.

After three months of rehabilitation, Mystogan recovered from multiple issues and was released back into the ocean Friday at Isla Blanca Park, in front of hundreds of mesmerized spectators.

Upon the arrival of Sea Turtle Inc.’s truck, observers pulled out their phones and cameras to capture the exact moment when Mystogan reunited with the Gulf of Mexico.

After being taken out of the truck and placed on the sand by staff members, Mystogan took its time kicking the sand from underneath it’s large body and slowly moved closer to the ocean’s tide until taking a final dip into the current.

In September, Sea Turtle Inc. personnel rescued Mystogan at 4 a.m. near the Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier after accidentally getting hooked by a fisherman.

“Normally, when fishermen accidently hook turtles, they often will just cut the line,” said Sea Turtle Inc. Licensed Veterinary Technician Nina Nahvi. “So,I’m really glad they didn’t because in this particular case, Mystogan had a hook embedded in its esophagus, a hook in its shoulder, and a hook at the tip of its left front flipper.”

If the fisherman had just cut the line and let Mystogan go instead of calling Sea Turtle Inc., the turtle probably would have died because the hook would have rusted and caused an infection.

Therefore, Sea Turtle Inc. staff highly recommends people call their 24/7 emergency stranding hotline when they hook a turtle or come across any in distress.

Laguna Vista resident Mary Volz witnessed her first sea turtle release and described it as a very emotional experience.

“It’s sad that we have to do this because of people polluting our waters with things that hurt the turtles, but I think Sea Turtle Inc. is doing a wonderful job at monitoring and helping the turtles,” Volz said.

In addition to rehabilitating sea turtles, Nahvi believes spreading public education is also a really important part of Sea Turtle Inc.’s job.

“Educating and informing the public is really going to make long-term benefits for the turtles here on the Island,” she said. “So, it’s always really nice when we see a lot of people come out to take a look at our turtles.”

According to Nahvi, the number one way people can help protect sea turtles, is by picking up trash on the beach.

“Almost every turtle that has come in to Sea Turtle Inc., has ingested plastic at some point or another, she explained. “So, picking up any trash you see prevents it from getting washed out into the ocean and will help not just help sea turtles, but everything else.”

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A ferris wheel on SPI? Plans move forward for new attraction

A plan is in the works to add a new outdoor amusement amenity within the Island’s “entertainment district.”

Soon visitors will be able to take a ride on a six-story tall, lighted ferris wheel that will be placed within a closed portion of West Ling Street.

“It will be right next to or just north of what’s called Gravity Park on Ling Street in front of Louie’s Backyard,” South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl explained in a phone interview. “So, it will give people another exciting option to entertain themselves on South Padre Island.”

City officials have been working on the project for about four months.

A handful of Island business owners expressed their opinions of the proposed Ferris Wheel project during several city council meetings held this past week.

Franchise partner with Perspective Hospitality Raj Patel expressed his support for the project.

“I’ve been here since 1999 and I’ve seen the Island grow as more attractions come into the Island,” he said. “This is another attraction that I would like to see because it would be great for the Island, our hotels and other businesses as well.”

Casa Mariposa Venue and Villas owner Sherrie Gomez said the ferris wheel would be a “great asset that will bring more families to the Island.”

Dairy Queen franchise owner Robert Lozano also spoke in favor of the Island’s idea.

“I think this would be good for the area and the city, and will attract more people,” he said. “And hopefully, I’ll sell an extra ice cream cone, no doubt.”

According to Stahl, the internal goal is to have the ferris wheel up in March.


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City of South Padre Island Recognized by Department of Homeland Security

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas - The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has awarded the City of South Padre Island Police Department the 2018 IACP Leadership in Homeland Security Award.

The IACP Leadership in Homeland Security Award honors excellence and significant contributions to overcoming homeland security challenges.  This award recognizes single agencies and multi-agency collaborative efforts that have made meaningful contributions to both their communities and law enforcement as a whole.  

“I am very proud of the department for their commitment to work together as a team and contribute resources to advance community policing, ” said Randy Smith, Police chief.  “This partnership represents a central component of public safety enhancement efforts.”

The South Padre Island Police Department is a member of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Border Enforcement Security Task Force in Brownsville, Texas.

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Airport officially welcomes Frontier flights

The water cannon treatment always makes it official.

Valley International Airport hosted a ribbon-cutting for Frontier Airlines yesterday morning, greeting its Airbus A320 with twin geysers of water upon its arrival from Denver at 9:35 a.m.

“Congratulations to Marv Esterly and the staff who worked very hard to bring Frontier Airlines to our community,” Mayor Chris Boswell said of the airport’s director of aviation.

Frontier Airlines becomes the fifth passenger air carrier to fly in and out of VIA, joining Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines and Sun Country Airlines. Valley International also is an air cargo hub for DHL, Fedex and Southwest Cargo.

McAllen International airport has four passenger air carriers — Aeromex, American, United and Allegiant Air. South Padre Island/Brownsville International Airport offers flights with carriers American and United.

“We sincerely value the partnership and we’re glad to have Frontier coming here,” said Dennis Stahl, South Padre Island’s mayor. “This flight is a celebration of the growing interest in Texas tourism.

“Valley International Airport and the City of South Padre Island have a longstanding partnership in destination development,” he added. “We’re ecstatic to be making another step toward spreading the word about Texas’ best beach.”

Frontier actually began its flights into and out of Valley International last Wednesday, but yesterday was the official ribbon-cutting.

Frontier will offer direct flights to and from Harlingen to Denver International Airport and Chicago O’Hare Airport. So far, bookings for the flights appear to be strong, airport officials say.

Kelsy Hustead, manager of corporate communications for Frontier, said there is the possibility Frontier will add additional flights to the current Denver and Chicago routes depending on customer demand.

“We’re always looking at new opportunities, so really the best way for us to reach that is by voting for us and buying tickets,” she said.

Esterly said last week the early indications are that the Chicago flight is the more popular route, although he said he expected demand for the Denver flights will grow since the Frontier hub there opens up the entire West Coast for travelers.

He said last week the airport already was seeing families from as far away as Roma, Rio Grande City and Corpus Christi arriving with reservations for the new Frontier flights.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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