Butterflies Mean Big Business in Valley

The Rio Grande Valley is a respected destination for butterfly enthusiasts, who travel to South Texas in droves each year for a chance to find species that cannot be spotted anywhere else in the nation.

From South Padre Island to Starr County, the geography differs enough to make drives from one end of the Valley to another worthwhile for many eco-tourists, who might be able to spot a different species in Brownsville than in McAllen, for example.

Because of this, the NationalButterflyCenter in Mission organizes an annual Texas Butterfly Festival, which concludes today but has featured guided nature tours to a number of refuges and hotspots—including some “secret gardens” on private lands.

“It’s peak butterfly season now,” said Marianna Treviño Wright, the center’s executive director. “And it could continue for months if we don’t have ‘winter,’ which we frequently do not in the Rio GrandeValley. So we’re busy planting, we’re counting butterflies. We’re assessing the volume of species. We have a lot of butterflies.”

Through the course of the year, approximately 350 species of butterflies that can be found in the Valley’s four counties—which is “really unprecedented on the American landscape,” she said.

“We have more butterflies in Deep South Texas than anywhere in North America,” she added.

That’s the driving reason the North American Butterfly Association founded its National Butterfly Center in Mission—and why it has long-term plans to continue building and investing in the 100-acre property not far from the Rio Grande.

The butterfly diversity in the Valley still might surprise some residents, who may seldom see many varieties inside city limits in areas not cultivated with butterfly friendly plants.

“A lot of that is because as we develop we remove a lot of the weeds and native plants,” Treviño Wright said. “And I hate to say ‘weeds.’ We want those. Butterflies want it wild and weedy, and all of those native plants that grow on the roadsides and the wild places.”

Many popular landscaping plants—though beautiful to people—do little to attract or feed butterflies and caterpillars.

“Butterflies need food, but they need two types of food,” Treviño Wright said.

Caterpillars need host plants to devour leaves and foliage, which will grow back. Butterflies need flowering plants, which provide nectar and might also attract hummingbirds.

Plants are so vital to the mission of the NationalButterflyCenter that NABA continues to devote acres of its property to important plants. The NBC recently planted on 4 1/2 acres to grow a federally endangered plant found growing wild in few places in the United States—all in the Valley. The Tamaulipan kidney petal is a shrub with only three known populations left in the wild.

“We are cultivating this land specifically for butterflies,” Treviño Wright said.

The plantings help the environment beyond butterflies, such as helping birds and other wildlife. Also, the impact should help the local economy.

“Every year, we get tens of thousands of eco-tourists,” she said. “The economic impact has been calculated at over $460 million a year, just for our four-county region.”

By RYAN HENRY Staff Writer

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Food Stars: Network Crew Comes to Town to Film Shrimp Cook-off

“Bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp with jalapeño and cream cheese,” announced Jordan Nall.

She was introducing a new recipe from Señor Donkey on South Padre Island where she works as a hostess.

The restaurant had sent one of 15 teams to compete in the 24th Annual World’s Championship Shrimp Cook-Off held yesterday at Sutherland’s Express store in Port Isabel.

Everyone was especially excited by the presence of three film crews creating a segment for the Food Network.

The crew from Pink Sneakers Productions had been hired to produce the segment for the popular show.

This was a first for the cook-off, said Betty Wells, director of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce, which presented the festival.

“We were excited when they called and said they wanted to do a show for the Food Network,” Wells said.

Everyone else seemed excited, too. Visitors packed the parking lot sampling shrimp recipes from Dirty Al’s, Señor Donkey, H-E-B and other businesses. They’d journeyed from all parts of the Valley.

Camera crews busily filmed the preparation and tasting of various culinary concoctions.

“Raise it up,” said a cameraman to Casey Barfield, manager of White Sands Restaurant and Bar.

She and other employees of the Port Isabel restaurant were serving samples of two shrimp prepared with cream cheese, jalapeño and bacon. A toothpick held them together over a rice pilaf.

She smiled as the cameraman from Pink Sneakers Productions took close-up footage of the tantalizing dish, excited by the idea she and the restaurant might appear on the Food Network.

“This is our first time in the shrimp festival and we are being filmed,” Barfield said as she sold another sample. While for many it was a main course, it’s actually an appetizer on the menu.

“That’s going to be $6,” she said as she sold two more.

Pink Sneakers Productions conducts extensive research to generate ideas for submission to the Food Network, said April Vargas, post production supervisor.

“The Food Network hires us to do their shows,” she said.

Pink Sneakers has been traveling the country recently filming different food festivals. They’ve already filmed a mac and cheese festival and a pizza festival, and the Food Network also accepted the idea for the shrimp festival.

“Shrimp has so many different dishes,” she said as a band played “Pretty Woman.”

She speculated the show might air in January but couldn’t say for sure.

The festival had provided plenty of fodder for an interesting show, said Adrian Davila, supervising producer.

“We are having a lot of fun,” said Davila. “Some are using Malibu rum in their recipes.”

He stopped to consider before adding, “I don’t think I have seen anything crazy.”

He also referred to the production crew’s trips to various venues throughout the country filming segments for the Food Network. He was enjoying his time in the Port Isabel, more specifically South Padre.

“I used to come here with my family,” he said. “It’s been 10 years. It’s really cool.”

Meanwhile, visitors continued to taste the goods.

Visitors sampled shrimp saturated with bacon, cilantro and other flavors while a live band played “Cupid, Draw Back your Bow…” A woman stood with friends and washed it all down with a Michelob while enjoying the afternoon.

“This is the first time we moved it from Sunday to Saturday,” Wells said.

“We thought there would be more traffic through the area,” she said. “I think we have seen more.”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been here,” said Sandy Melville, 75, who’d traveled from Alamo.

“It’s been great,” she continued. “I think I like the coconut shrimp best.”

John Harris served a recipe from a stand set up by H-E-B.

“We are excited to be in this, just being in the Food Network,” he said.


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Artificial Reef in the Works North of SPI

We take a look at the proposed artificial reef miles north of South Padre Island.

According to its creators, Friends of RGV Reef, they plan to make an industrial scale artificial nursery reef, something that has never been seen on Texas coasts.

It’s a project that started with a simple idea, to attract more fish.

Gary Glick, President Friends of RGV Reef tells News Center 23 that this project began almost 3 years ago. He states, “My brother and I just thought that we needed a little bit more fishing area in state waters. Everything that we wanted to do to improve fishing was going to be a felony unless we got permits.”

Through collaborations, permits, and donations the artificial reef is slowly becoming one of the largest artificial nursery reefs. They are looking for the highly sought after red snapper, a fish commonly associated with reefs. It’s a type of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico, but in Texas Waters they not be as common due to how flat the sea floor can be. Visit your local restaurant and you will find red snapper selling for 40 to 50 dollars a pound.

“The bottom of the gulf is just as flat as it can be,” says Glick. “What we want to do is put down small rocks that these little fish can dodge around.”

Their hope is that those small fish have a chance to grow and survive to adulthood, thus  increasing their population.

Friends of RGV Reef has already sunk boats and debris. The reef is located about 14 miles north of the South Padre Island Jetties. We had a special opportunity to witness the first phases.

As the reef project got larger, so did the number of partners. As of the first phase, an estimated 400,000 thousand dollars have been invested in this project. From what we’ve seen, partners help in any way they can… such as donating debris or even helping with research.

UTRGV Environmental Marine Sciences Assistant Professor Dr. Richard Kline tells us, “We’ve had other reefs on the Texas coast, but we have never had a chance to engineer and put down things in an experimental design as we have with this one, for the benefit of juvenile reef fish.”

In this expedition in late June, they sink over 50 concrete pyramids. Each is about 10 feet tall and each goes down according to mapped out location. Dr. Kline tells us this is the largest artificial reef located on the Texas Coast at 1.2 square miles.

Kline believes this project will benefit research on reefs of this magnitude. He says, “We’re testing different hypotheses for what type of material to put out to give us more fish for the amount of material put out.”

Since our trip earlier this year, Friends of RGV reef has placed over 200 tons of debris into Texas waters.

“What we want is for little boys and girls to be able to catch. For them to be able to catch there has to be a lot of fish,” says Glick.  

-Alfredo Cuadros

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SpaceX: Progress Ongoing at Boca Chica Site, Second Antenna Added

SpaceX has finished installing a second ground station antenna at its future Boca Chica spaceport for the purpose of tracking Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station beginning in 2018.

Crew Dragon is the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s seven-seat spacecraft designed to carry humans to the ISS and other destinations. A SpaceX spokesman said the antennas will also be used to track flights from Boca Chica once they’re underway.

The company acquired the 86-ton antennas from NASA’s KennedySpaceCenter at Cape Canaveral and transported them to Boca Chica via semitrailer. The first antenna was installed this summer.

The Boca Chica site broke ground in September 2014. Later, 310,000 cubic yards of soil were trucked in over a period of months to stabilize the area. No concrete has been poured other than the antenna bases and no structures have been erected, though the STARGATE Technology Park, a public-private partnership between the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SpaceX, is under construction across State Hwy. 4. No date has been set for the first launch from Boca Chica.

The company said it has completed 16 launches so far in 2017, including Monday’s launch of a Korean commercial communications satellite from KennedySpaceCenter.

“While SpaceX’s launch cadence has never been higher, and even as our teams have worked to modernize and improve our other launch complexes, we have continued to make progress on building the first-ever orbital commercial spaceport in South Texas,” said the spokesman.

Meanwhile, the company is at work developing its Interplanetary Transportation System, nicknamed “BFR,” which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk plans to use to transport humans to Mars for the purposes of colonization. BFR, which stands for “Big F— Rocket,” would feature 31 main engines propelling a spacecraft capable of carrying about 100 people.

Musk gave an update of his Mars plans at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress on Sept. 29 in Australia, during which he said the company plans to launch its first non-crewed flights to Mars by 2022. If all goes well, the first crewed flights to Mars would take place in 2024, he said.


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5 Things To Do This Week

1.    Boo at the Zoo

The Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville will hold its 28th annual Boo at the Zoo celebration tonight and tomorrow night. The event runs from 6 to 9 p.m. each night. There will be a trick-or-treating experience for kids, teens and adults alike with more than 50 treat and game stations located throughout the zoo. There also will be a haunted house and mermaid show.

2.    Designing for a cure

One of the most unique and fun experiences you will have. Colorful, creative and innovative table settings will pack Casa de Amistad, 1204 Fair Park Boulevard, on Thursday, Nov. 2, all with the goal in mind to raise money to battle cancer. Now, the night event is already sold out, but you can see all the table settings and enjoy some great food during a special daytime preview from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The cost is $25 and funds raised goes to the American Cancer Society.

3.    Dia de los Muertos

It’s a traditional Mexican celebration of the memories of friends and loved ones who have passed away. This event, at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage museum, 2425 Boxwood, features altars designed by people of the community. Music will be provided by Grupo Americantos ad a dance drama by Matachine Dancers. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday, Nov. 2 through Nov. 12.

4.    Fall Festival and BBQ Cookoff “Que For Kids”

The first annual Harlingen Area Educational Foundation Fall Festival and BBQ cookoff “Que for Kids will be held Saturday, Nov. 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Lon C. Hill Park. This free event is open to the public and will have games, food, music and a guaranteed payout to the winners.

5.    SPI Open Water Festival

Open Water Plant returns to South Padre Island this upcoming weekend. Challenge yourself to conquer the Laguna Madre with a variety of distances. There is a full weekend of activities that will allow you to enjoy the island and nature.

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South Padre Island Looking to Attract More Rio Grande Valley Residents

The city is going to spend big bucks to advertise the Island state and Valley wide.

A $2.8 million contract with the Atkins Group, a San Antonio advertising agency, was agreed upon by city officials to continue marketing the Island recently.

The Atkins Group takes care of marketing the Island in the state’s largest cities, airports and Mexico with a multimedia strategy.

They also work on the city website and adverting campaigns with the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But it was found that only 3 percent of last year’s marketing budget went to advertising the Island to the Valley.

“We haven’t been spending as much as we should be in the Rio Grande Valley but we are working on that and trying to improve it,” said Dennis Stahl, SPI mayor-elect.

City leaders were recently introduced to the idea of owning the 100-mile area.

To help the city own the area, it has set aside another $150,000 to advertise the Island to the Valley.

“They don’t have to drive seven hours in a car,” Stahl said. “They can get here this weekend if they wanted to.”

Stahl recalls when people from McAllen would drive here for dinner.

“But, they are just not doing that anymore,” Stahl said. “They have lots of choices, but only one beach.”

The city approved a consulting partnership with Berkeley Young Consulting.

Young Strategies has worked with more than 100 destinations in 27 states since 2004.

“We want to continue to remind them that we welcome them to their closest Island,” Stahl said. “We want as many people to come to the Island as possible.”

Stahl said Berkeley Young is helping the Island improve knowing “who our customers are and who we should be targeting.”

“We are trying to make sure the Rio Grande Valley knows about us,” Stahl said. “They can go to Main Event or all the other places, and we’re in competition for those dollars.”


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SPI Fishing Days Expo Kicks Off This Weekend

Do you love fishing?

Need some new lures, a fishing pole, or maybe even a big ticket item such as a boat?

The place for you to be this weekend is at the South Padre Island Convention Center for the first Fishing Days expo.

“We have had hunting expos, but this is the first time for a boat and fishing show like this,” said Convention Center Business Development Director Michael Flores.

South Padre Island Fishing Days is the Island’s official fishing & boat expo where there will be six local boat dealers, all-things fishing and much more.

There will be 30,000 square feet of the convention center filled with everything fishing as well as music and food.

It is expected to be a good time for the entire family.

Show producer, Harlingen’s Angie Juarez, with 26point2 Consulting Group LLC, said the idea for the show came up about six months ago.

They have been planning heavily for the past three months.

Initially, the idea was for a boat show. But Juarez, who also works on the All Valley Boat Show, suggested more of a fishing theme.

She said a boat show is a specific target niche and is focused. So, she suggested not limiting the show to just boats.

“You don’t want to push away the idea that all year you can fish,” she said. “This show is casting the net. We want everybody.”

Teamed with the city, the event has become a reality this fall.

And it has many people quite excited because it is for fishing and boaters.

“October is a great fishing month,” Flores said. “You can fish for different types of species every day of the month.”

Both agreed October was a good time to hold an event such as this.

“It’s the technical off-season for what people think of for fishing,” Juarez said. “We wanted to go off season for the island and what they think it is for fishing. But, you will see people here fishing all the time — whether or not it’s raining, cloudy or a hurricane is coming. That is the beauty of celebrating fishing on SPI.”

Flores said it is cooler in October and the weather can be better for fishing, with cloudy skies.

“This is just going to be a great weekend for a lot of folks to come out,” he said. “It is the kick start of all and kickoff of the sport fishing season.”

But, this isn’t just for competitive fishermen. It is for hobbyists as well as families and children.

“I love to see the kids come out and watch families grow into a sport like this,” Flores said.

There will be face painting and games for the kids.

There also will be great door prizes and plenty to do at the event.

Juarez said she hopes to reach at least 1,000 attendees, but she said as many as 2,000 to 4,000 could attend.

“It’s the first one and that will have an effect on how to do the show in the future,” she said. “If it works well, we can do it again.”

What she will watch for are the looks on the faces upon entering the Convention Center.

“My biggest joy is when you see people come through the door and they are interacting and having fun,” Juarez said. “There are times when you just watch the flow of people and when everyone is happy, that is good."


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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.


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