Restore Act - Eco-Tourism Center North

The project will protect a variety of rare habitats on the island, most critically, nearly 22 acres of algal and cyanobacteria intertidal flats which provide some of the highest primary productivity for the island and provide feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for a great variety of fish, shellfish, birds, and other wildlife. The conservation lands also include:

2 acres of brackish pond
6 acres of Black Mangrove forest
5 acres of wind-tidal flats
5 acres of cyanobacteria habitat (algal flats)
4 acres of mud and sand flats
5 acres of estuarine/intertidal wetlands


The public access, recreation and education improvements include:

Elevated boardwalk connecting the existing causeway trail network from the Nature center
Educational signage covering coastal habitat and conservation
One kayak launch
Birding/Fishing Platform
Observation/University Education Deck
2 Parking Areas

The project is complimentary to the adjoining Sea Turtle Inc. facility, Ocean Trust Native Plant Center and the SPI Birding & Nature Center. Taken together, these “environmental education” facilities preserve more than 200 acres of Laguna Madre-fronting lands and will provide great eco-tourism, education and public access facilities for the community and visitors. The City has obtained documentation of willing sellers for the five parcels proposed for acquisition.

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Mexican tourists travel through dangerous routes to spend Easter in Texas

While Spring Break may be over for most people across the country, that doesn’t mean tourism in South Padre Island is slowing down. With Easter week in full swing, the city expects about 13,000 vehicles coming in a day, many of which are coming from Mexico.

Cars with Mexican license plates are a sign that, despite the potentially dangerous journey, it’s still worth bringing the family on a vacation in the U.S. for many Mexicans.

For 23-year-old Estefani Carreon, it’s a family tradition, especially during holy week.

“We have an aunt who lives in McAllen and, when we come to visit, we all go to the island,” Carreon said.

For Mexican families to enjoy a vacation on the Texas coast means assuming certain risks, risks Guillermo Rocha and his family are fully aware of.

“Of course, we’re exposing ourselves,” Rocha said. “But if we don’t do it, we’re just going to stay at home behind closed doors.”

That’s no longer an option for many families tired of living in fear due to cartel violence.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department updated the “do not travel” list of Mexican states. Tamaulipas, which borders the southern tip of Texas, often sees kidnappings and shootouts between police and cartels.

Mexican families like the Rocha’s are always looking for the quickest and safest way to the U.S. border.

“As soon as I cross over and set foot on U.S. soil, I feel relaxed, calm, safe more than anything,” Rocha admitted.

Taking a peaceful trip isn’t a luxury many in Mexico can afford. At the same time, these are tourists the Texas economy can't afford to lose.

Author: Oscar Margain

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Barry Patel Inducted into 2018 RGV Walk of Fame

Each year nominations are received from chambers of commerce and cities across the Rio Grande Valley for recognition in the Rio Grande Valley Walk of Fame at State Farm Arena, sponsored by the City of Hidalgo in conjunction with BorderFest.

Nominees are considered for induction based on their life achievements and significant civic contributions.

The South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce nominated longtime chamber member and Island business owner Barry Patel to the RGV Walk of Fame for 2018. Patel was selected for this great honor and was recognized at the official induction ceremonies last month at State Farm Arena.

The building of seven hotels on South Padre Island, and a total of 22 in the Valley by Barry Patel has resulted in a $400 million economic impact, and the employment of 500 to 600 people in the ongoing operation of the hotels.

In addition to being a widely recognized leading hotel developer and respected businessman, Patel is a dedicated South Padre Island community leader serving on numerous committees over the years including the past three years as Mayor for South Padre Island.

He continues to share his vision for the future of South Padre, and is currently constructing a new Marriot Hotel on the Island.

The economic impact of Patel’s hotel developments has been extraordinary, and as public servant he has initiated and carried out a significant number of projects important to the continuing development of South Padre Island as a premier tourism destination, and as home to Island residents.

During his public service to South Padre Island, Patel has accomplished and/or laid the ground Convention Centre renovation; Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge boardwalk repairs; sidewalks on Padre Blvd.; Gulf Blvd reconstruction and improvements; extension of the Padre Blvd. median project; establishment of a venue tax and proposed improvement projects; legislation to generate tax funds earmarked to improve Laguna Madre Bay accessibility; received three major grants for parks, Padre Blvd. and Corral Street ramps; 1st phase construction of Tompkins Park; improvement plan and start of improvements to all side streets with curbs and gutters; improved working relationship with Cameron County Commissioners; and helped win approval of the TERS designation for South Padre.

While serving on the SPI Convention and Visitors Authority, Patel was instrumental in crafting legislation, and advocating with State legislators and State Tourism Officials, for a half percent increase in the hotel tax specifically for Island beach renourishment.

Because of these efforts, monies for maintaining the beautiful South Padre Island beaches are secured for the foreseeable future.

Barry Patel has consistently been committed in his support of local non-profit organizations, community events and public organizations, including South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce, South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Sea Turtle Inc, Friends of Animal Rescue, U.S. Border Patrol, El Paseo Arts Foundation, and most all area events from walks, runs, fishing tournaments, Laguna Madre Education Foundation Scholarships, hospital fundraisers, and the list goes on. Without hesitation, Patel offers financial support, venues, support services and his personal time and energy for the benefit of our community.

Patel currently serves as Chairman on the Cameron County Beach & Dune Protection Committee and is an active member of the Asian American Hotel Owner’s Association. His past service on South Padre Island includes: Convention and Visitors Authority; Shoreline Taskforce; Chamber of Commerce; City Council; and City Mayor. For Cameron County he has served on the Appraisal Review Board, and on the Appraisal District Board of Directors.

Patel has been recognized by the RGV Hispanic Chamber; Indian Association of the RGV; Gujarati Samaj RGV; South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce as a Community Partner; and by the RGV Partnership.

With Bachelors Degree in Pharmacy from the University of Bradford in England and from Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Patel began his career as a pharmacist, and was registered in Texas, Florida and New York.

Patel’s family includes five brothers and one sister, all in Texas. Together they have 11 children and six grand children. Barry is married to Jayshree Patel.

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More Island Upgrades Underway

Cameron County is making headway with an overhaul of gulfside amenities at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island.

Parks Director Joe Vega said Friday that construction crews began demolishing the Sandpiper Pavilion, marking the start of $17 million in renovations that he said will improve accessibility and the overall visitor experience at the park.

“We’re very exited this project has begun,” he said. “(These are) some beautiful pavilions that we’re going to construct out there.”

The Sandpiper and D.J. Lerma pavilions will be reconstructed 200 feet inland from their original sites. They will be outfitted with new dune walkovers, picnic tables, restrooms and other amenities.

The parks department will connect the pavilions with a boardwalk that will have shaded seating and environmentally sensitive LED lights.

The gulfside area of Isla Blanca Parks also will gain an additional 280 parking spaces with more spots that meet ADA accessibility guidelines.

“We are making the necessary improvements to one of the premier parks on the Texas Gulf Coast so that families can continue enjoying Isla Blanca Park for many years to come,” County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said in a news release. “We ask for your patience as we continue to make enhancements to our Coastal Parks.”

Cameron County is getting help on the construction from two universities. Texas A&M University-Kingsville is leading dune mitigation and preservation by harvesting vegetation that will be later transplanted to new dunes at the park.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will provide management and oversight of construction for the new dune system. They are surveying the areas where existing dunes will be removed and where future dunes will be constructed, Vega said.


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Refuge Renews Push to Sow ‘Ocelot Acreage’

What once was a plot of land is turning into a plantation.

Building on the success of a 34-acre planting last year at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are back again with another 34-acre plot as they continue to restore native Tamaulipan thorn scrub for ocelot habitat.

“We wanted to plant it earlier in the year but we weren’t able to get out here as soon as I had hoped, so it’s a little bit on the tail end of our planting season,” said Kim Wahl, plant biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But other than that, it’s getting a great planting crew, it’s getting the tree protectors, it’s getting initial watering, and then it will get grass control afterwards, so it’s getting everything that we can give it to give that high success rate.”

Last year, using innovative white plastic tree tubes to protect delicate seedlings from browsing animals like white-tailed deer and nilgai, the planting recorded a survival rate of 93 percent. Successful reforestation efforts without the tubes can be as low as 20 percent, or even zero percent.

The goal of the restoration efforts is to remove the dominant mesquite and non-native guinea grass to replicate the variety of fauna found in the Rio GrandeValley prior to the advent of major agricultural production during the early 1900s.

Beneficiaries will be the endangered Texas subspecies of ocelot, along with hundreds of other mammal, reptile and bird species in the Rio GrandeValley.

Some of the 34,000 native plants to be sown on the second 34-acre plot, like snake eyes or devil queen, Texas torchwood, crucita, trixis, lantana, Berlandier croton and Manzanita, are benefiting from another innovative planting/protection method called a cocoon.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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Port Isabel Hands Yacht Club Restoration to New Buyer

Port Isabel officials’ plans to rehabilitate the historic Yacht Club Hotel came to a close in February, when the city sold the building to a local family.

Laura Martinez said she, her parents and two brothers don’t yet have final plans on what they will do with the property but were moved to purchase and restore it.

“I can tell you what we do is going to benefit the city of Port Isabel and the community,” she said. “We’re passionate people and we’re all very busy, but we feel deeply about the yacht club.”

While it’s the beginning of the revitalization process for the Martinez family, the sale marked the end of about four years of work by city and economic development corporation officials with similar ideas of returning the dilapidated building into a semblance of its former glory.

Ultimately, the city spent about $2.5 million in loan funds and returned grant money meant to help it establish a culinary arts institute that never materialized. The yacht club revitalization is the subject of a forensic audit, expected to be presented to the City Commission this week, that was requested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which awarded the city a grant for the project.

The two-story Spanish Colonial Renaissance building was constructed in 1926 and counted President Warren G. Harding, gangster Al Capone and famed pilot Amelia Earhart as guests during its heyday.

Hopes were high when Port Isabel purchased the Yacht Club Hotel on Yturria Street in 2014 for $750,000 with a vision to turn the crumbling building into a culinary arts institute. Consultant Teresa Fonseca of STAR Consulting projected the development would require a total budget of $5 million.

“This was for the future of the city,” said Joe Vega, mayor at the time. “There are a lot of kids in the area that can’t even afford to drive (to local colleges).”

That same year, the Texas Leverage Fund awarded the Port Isabel Economic Development Council a $2.5 million loan for the project, and the city won a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration.

FormerCity Manager Edward Meza was ousted by the City Commission in May 2015.

When Jared Hockema joined the city administration as interim city manager, he noticed the yacht club plan’s shortcomings. Time constraints attached to the federal grant required Port Isabel to break ground on Yacht Club Hotel renovations in the fall.

There wasn’t a permanent funding source, Hockema said, and construction plans hadn’t been drawn up. While the city had been in talks with TexasStateTechnicalCollege about renting the planned culinary institute, there weren’t tenants lined up before it purchased the property.

An independent review of the restoration plan projected the cost of getting the yacht club even minimally ready for tenants at nearly $6.8 million. The February 2015 report from EMC International states, “Based on our 30 years of experience in construction … these values substantially exceed what could be considered a commercially viable project.”

Hockema said he was informed by consultant Petra Reyna that the city was pursuing appropriations from state lawmakers, who were gathered in Austin for the 85th Legislative Session.

Spokesmen for Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Rep. Rene O. Oliveira said the legislators had been approached in late March 2015 by Reyna and Vega about getting funds earmarked for the yacht club, but it was considered late in the session and unlikely to succeed.

“We just didn’t have time to get legislative support because of the time it came in,” Oliveira Chief of Staff J.J. Garza said. “Doing a rider like that is very difficult. You’ve got to line up a lot of people to make it happen.”

The city paused plans to move forward with the yacht club renovations in July 2015, and Hockema said Texas State Technical College determined it wasn’t feasible for it to operate a culinary school in Port Isabel.

“People were behind this project because they believed in the city, and they wanted to save this building,” he said. “All of the things you need to develop a project like this really hadn’t been done, and it’s unfortunate because it’s been a pretty big hit to the city.”

Hockema said the $1.2 million federal grant was returned and a $300,000 USDA grant for kitchen equipment was allowed to expire. State loan funds left over after purchasing the yacht club, consultant fees and debt payments were used to shore up a deficit in the city’s budget, he added.

Hockema said Port Isabel will be paying back the $2.5 million loan for another 12 years.

“We can grow out of this situation because it’s all about time,” he said. “As we have some growth, hopefully it’s a smaller and smaller part of our debt.”

The city sold the Yacht Club Hotel to the Martinez family for $430,000.

Vega and Meza are adamant that had the city continued to pursue the project, it would have been successful. The current and former city officials agree about one thing: they are happy to see restoration efforts continue.


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Respect the Coast on Spring Break

Spring break in Texas means many tourists will be hitting the sandy shores for vacation, but there are risks that come along with this reward.

Lifeguards, beach directors and informational programs are in place during spring break to prepare for the swarm of tourists and inform beachgoers of the risks associated with the water. Rip currents are one of the biggest dangers that can be avoided with the right knowledge, and land-based marine debris can stack up on the beachfront without responsible visitors.

Pamela Plotkin, director of Texas Sea Grant, said it is important to be aware of your surroundings when you are swimming, so you can be aware of present dangers such as rip currents. She said she recommends visitors know their limits when it comes to swimming in the ocean.

“Every year, it seems like we lose one or two spring breakers to rip currents and that’s one or two too many lives,” Plotkin said.

Christian Brannstrom, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Geosciences, has an expertise in rip currents. He defined rip currents as a volume of water in the surf zone of the beach that is moving away from shore, sometimes at fast speeds.

“It’s hard for normal people who don’t have experience as surfers to understand [rip currents] and to identify them,” Brannstrom said. “Surfers often use rip currents as a way to get out to the breaks so that they can surf, so they’ve been doing this for decades … but normal people that visit the beach maybe once or twice a year, they can have a difficult time identifying what it looks like.”

When beach visitors are caught in rip currents, Brannstrom said that is when they start to panic and could be in danger, possibly leading to drownings. Rip currents can occur for a variety of reasons, including man-made structures such as groins, which are stretches of granite out from the beach to protect against beachfront deterioration.

“The structures that we’ve made as a society along the coast can also encourage rip currents to form,” Brannstrom said.

Brannstrom said many of the Texas beaches do not have life guards, but those that do are an excellent source for information about the safety of the ocean.

“Lifeguards do a fantastic job of informing the public, but you have to talk to them,” Brannstrom said. “It’s always a really good idea to approach them and ask, ‘Are there any risks or dangers [you] should be aware of [like] rip currents?’”

Peter Davis, Chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and President of the United States Lifesaving Association, said beach safety is the same year round, but rip currents are especially focused on during spring break due to the stronger waters.

“In Texas, especially the upper Texas coast, more of our strongest and most prevalent rip currents are near some sort of structure,” Davis said. “That doesn’t mean they don’t exist other places but they’re mostly by the groins or a fishing pier or a walk out cropping of some sort. The nice part about that is that we know where they are and it is just a matter of keeping people away from them.”

Brandon Hill, Shoreline Director for the city of South Padre Island and Class of 2016, said the preparation for spring break on South Padre Island begins months in advance, with city staff collectively working together to make sure everything falls in place the way it should, including permits, data crunching, traffic plans and more.

“The city of South Padre Island has a beach that is about five miles long, we maintain that during the off season with about six, full-time beach management staff members, so we’ve got six crew members that are out there every day cleaning and emptying the trash cans and maintaining our beach and our beach access,” Hill said. “During spring break this year, we’re bringing on 12 part-timers in addition to our six full-timers … just to be able to keep up with the demand that we have placed on our island.”

To keep the beaches clean and be a responsible visitor, Hill recommends to following the slogan “Treasure it, don’t trash it” by bringing a trash bag and keeping it at your chair or tent and be prepared to take away the garbage.

“I encourage everyone to take ownership of your spring break,” Hill said. “Don’t come down to someone else’s island and just expect your mess to get cleaned up. We’re here to facilitate a great time, we’re here to keep the beaches clean, but we all share a responsibility to not trash the resources we’ve been given.”

Plotkin said the main goals are to focus on safety of the visitors for places such as South Padre Island, a popular Texas beach destination for spring break, which can limit the focus on cleaning the beaches.

“It was such a disappointment to see, because there are garbage cans out there, people drive their cars out there, so they could easily haul that garbage away,” Plotkin said. “That garbage sticks around it can entangle wildlife, wildlife can eat it and wildlife can be harmed by that debris.”

South Padre Island is home to a local population of 2,816 people, and the dramatic increase in population from visitors can often have impacts to the beach, which is an essential aspect to the island’s economy.

“In addition to the impacts it can have on wildlife, it also creates quite a cleanup cost for small towns and communities that are then stuck with then having to clear that garbage off the beaches because tourists don’t want to go to the beach when it’s covered in garbage,” Plotkin said.

Although Hill said he hopes for every visitor to have a good time when visiting South Padre Island, he also wants it to be a safe and responsible visit.

“I want people to know that when they come here to South Padre they can come here and have a good time, but they need to follow the Aggie values when they are having a blast out on the beach,” Hill said. “Too often, people get consumed with having a great time and making memories, and they forget to look out for their friends, they forget to value their health and value their life and they end up making decisions and mistakes they regret.”

Plotkin recommends that to help cut down on beach debris, people can bring less single use items that would become garbage and in turn leave less trash.

“I’d love to see Aggies clean up the beaches, and I’d like to see everybody do their part by packing out what they bring in and not leaving it on the beach and not leaving it for someone else to clean up their own mess,” Plotkin said. “Bring less disposable items, bring coolers, bring thermoses, bring reusable Yeti cups and then you won’t have any garbage that you need to leave behind.”

By Savannah Mehrtens @SJMehrtens

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Expert: SPI Has Shot at Attracting Cruise Ships

he dream of bringing cruise ships to South Padre Island isn’t new, though it’s always remained just that: a dream.

But the Island’s time may have finally come. That’s according to Jay Lewis, president of Miami, Fla.-based MarketScope Inc., who recently formed SPI Cruise Group with other travel industry experts for the purpose of developing the Island as a port-of-call for cruise lines.

Specifically, the Island is envisioned as a stop for western Caribbean cruises, likely those leaving out of Galveston, which has a booming cruise industry. Lewis, an industry veteran, formed SPI Cruise Group with IDEA, a planning design firm currently at work on Port Grand Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island; industry consultant Cruise and Port Advisors; and Newman PR, which counts among its clients the Florida Keys tourism council and Carnival Cruise Lines.

In the past, Lewis had consulted with the Port of Brownsville about the possibility of establishing a full-fledged cruise-ship port, though the port decided not to pursue it. He realized, however, that the Island possessed the “necessary and sufficient conditions” to potentially succeed as a port-of-call — basically a day-excursion destination for cruise ships.

Lewis made a compelling case to SPI’s municipal leaders, who signed on to a $100,000 expenditure to launch Phase 1, which will entail a sustained, aggressive marketing and communications campaign to get the attention of cruise industry executives. That effort will take place between now and mid-March, leading up to the Seatrade Global Cruise Conference taking place that month in Fort Lauderdale.

At that event, the cruise industry’s most important international conference, SPI representatives will be able to pitch the Island as a port-of-call to cruise industry executives.

“It is very much at the beginning stage,” Lewis said. “Right now, cruise lines are relatively unaware that South Padre Island exists. We’re not starting from square one. We’re starting from square zero.”

In addition to generating publicity for the Island, the next two and a half months will be spent actively pursuing meetings with cruise-line itinerary planners, the people who decide where the ships dock. SPI Cruise Group has an edge since all its members have industry connections built over many years, Lewis said.

“At least we’re not coming out of the blue,” he said. “We’re a known quantity. If we request a meeting, it’s a good bet they’ll sit down.”

Also working in the Island’s favor are unique tourist assets compared to other ports-of-call — such as Sea Turtle Inc., the SPI Birding Center, and seven miles of unspoiled beach, Lewis said.

“Eco-tourism is a hot button these days,” he said.

There’s also horseback riding, deep-sea fishing and “all the things you can’t do in Minneapolis, Minn.,” Lewis said. Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville and King Ranch also make the list of attractions, he said.

Also, as traditional ports-of-call in the eastern Caribbean, such as St. Martin, are becoming “worn out” from too many visitors, cruise lines are looking for alternatives, while the cruise industry itself is exploding, Lewis said.

“The demand is so great that the shipyards can’t keep up with the demand from the cruise lines,” he said. “It’s big business, and it’s growing like crazy.”

All of this increases the odds that, in the not-too-distant future, cruise ships may be mooring off the SPI coast. The preferred option is to build a pier at which ships can dock, though another alternative is “tendering” passengers to and from shore in smaller vessels, Lewis said.

SPI City Manager Susan Guthrie said one thing she likes about the SPI Cruise Group project is that it’s not costing huge amounts of money up front. Rather, it’s incremental, with various “go, no-go” points along the way to help officials determine whether to proceed, she said.

“If there’s interest we’ll go to the next step,” Guthrie said.

With the help of SPI Cruise Group, Island officials will make the strongest pitch possible to cruise industry representatives, she said. Meanwhile, getting cruise ships to dock at the Island would have huge ramifications economically, Guthrie said.

“The original estimate was just one large ship a week could have up to a $19 million economic impact to the community,” she said.

Also, it would help plug a big hole in the Island’s economy during the offseason, Guthrie said. The peak season for cruise lines is November through April, which coincides with the slowest time of the year on the Island, she said.

And while launching a project of this size can be “a little bit scary,” the Island is right to pursue this one, Guthrie said.

“We really need to be positive and put our best effort forward, and go for it,” she said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

By STEVE CLARK Staff Writer

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Volunteers Needed for Ocelot Habitat

Buoyed by the phenomenal success of last year’s habitat restoration effort, officials at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge are seeking volunteers for another planting of native species at the refuge.

In early 2017, 34 acres were sown on a refuge plot in hopes of accelerating what can be a two-decade wait to fully re-establish native Tamaulipan thorn scrub.

By using an innovative technique of sheltering each seedling in a white plastic sleeve, the experiment showed a 93-percent survival rate for snake eyes, or devil queen; Texas torchwood; crucita or Christmas bush; trixis or American threefold; lantana; Berlandier croton; and manzanita, or Barbados cherry.

Previous habitat restoration plantings in the Rio GrandeValley showed a seedling survival rate of between 20 and 30 percent as white-tailed deer, nilgai, feral hogs, javelina, rats and rabbits mowed down the tender new plants before they had a chance.

Some plots had a success rate of zero.

This year, between 8 a.m. and noon March 10, volunteers will help U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers plant 30,000 seedlings inside the white tubes adjacent to the previous plot to create ocelot-friendly habitat.

By RICK KELLEY | Staff Writer

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Clayton’s Beach Bar & Grill Fishing Pier Project Underway

Clayton Breasher, owner of Clayton's Beach Bar & Grill on South Padre Island, says he's excited as his highly anticipated fishing pier project moves forward.

In 2016, Basher announced an expansion of his beach venue that would include a fishing pier.

Brashear says visiting several piers throughout the country is what convinced him to build his very own, with the overall goal of creating business year-round for the island.

Something the city has supported since the start.

"The idea is that it'll bring more tourism to the South Padre Island, " Brashear said.

At the moment, Brashear is in the engineering phase of the project. Once that is completed, he will take it to the city for approval before moving on to the construction phase.

South Padre Island City Manager Susan Guthrie says since the announcement, city staff has helped with area zoning and annexing to help get that approved.

"In terms of what the city needs to do, we have done all of our processes," Guthrie said. "When [Brashear] actually goes to start building, he'll need to put a building permit. But, other than that his work with the city is pretty much wrapped up."

Not all are in favor of the project, as some are concerned about trash, shoreline erosion and possible shark attacks.

However, the city has conducted research and assures residents and visitors that this will be a postie asset to the island.

by Abril Preciado

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