Star Power: Cinesol film festival features ‘Breaking Bad’ actor

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — The 26th annual Cinesol Film Festival happening at the South Padre Island Convention Center this Saturday and Sunday will feature an internationally known actor as celebrity guest.

R.J. Mitte, best known for his role as Walter “Flynn” White Jr. in the critically acclaimed AMC series “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013), will be on hand Saturday for a question-and-answer session related to the new film “Carol of the Bells,” which will be screened at the festival and in which Mitte plays Scott Johnson, a businessman and typical, stressed-out family man haunted by his past, hobbled by guilt and “somewhat broken,” Mitte explained in a phone interview with the Herald.

“It’s a Christmas film (but) not strictly a Christmas story,” he said. “No one’s really seen this story before. This isn’t like your typical Christmas feel-better movie.”

The film’s director is Joey Travolta, actor John Travolta’s older brother, who in 2007 founded Inclusion Films to teach filmmaking to children and adults with developmental disabilities. The company produced “Carol of the Bells,” three-quarters of the cast and crew of which are developmentally disabled, Mitte said. The actor has a mild form of cerebral palsy, which he had to exaggerate for “Breaking Bad.”

On day two of the festival, Mitte will lead a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in the arts and media. He said there’s still much work to be done on that score, for disabled and non-disabled people alike, but that he’s glad he was given a chance to help influence attitudes about developmentally disabled people. Mitte called it “an honor and a great responsibility.”

“It’s a hard business,” he said. “The more you excel in it the harder it gets. I think Walt Jr. did have a hand in opening the door for perceptions and for how people are viewed, and what it means to see an accurate representation that you feel is relevant to the screen. It makes a difference. But we still have a long way to go. I’m very lucky for Walt Jr. and what Walt Jr. gave to me.”

Mitte has been busy since “Breaking Bad.” Besides to “Carol of the Bells,” recent projects include roles in “Now Apocalypse” on Starz cable network and “Standing Up for Sunny,” a film by Australian director Steven Vindler. This is Mitte’s first visit to Cinesol, a festival he said he’s been aware of for some time but has been prevented from attending due to a packed schedule.

All told, the festival will screen 31 independent films over two days, including three features, five documentaries and 23 shorts. International offerings will include films from France, Malaysia and Spain. Cinesol will also feature screenings from the Texas Filmmakers Showcase, and on Sunday, screenings and awards from the 14th annual Cinesol 36-Hour Film Race.

Steve Clark

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State awards $1.5M for county park projects

Cameron County has received over $1.5 million in grant money from the Texas General Land Office for several coastal county projects.

The money will come from the GLO’s Coastal Erosion Planning Response Act and Coastal Management Program, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said in a press release.

The grant will help fund projects at Adolph Thomae Jr. Park, North Cameron County Beach Nourishment Phase, Children’s Beach Shoreline Restoration Project, and Cameron County Beach Access No. 3.

“Special thanks to the Texas General Land Office for their partnership on these Coastal Projects,” Treviño said. “These projects will assist with improving public beach access at Cameron County Beach Access No. 3 and most importantly protecting our shorelines at Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park and County beaches on South Padre Island from eroding.”

Cameron County has received over $1.5 million in grant money from the Texas General Land Office for several coastal county projects.

The money will come from the GLO’s Coastal Erosion Planning Response Act and Coastal Management Program, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said in a press release.

The grant will help fund projects at Adolph Thomae Jr. Park, North Cameron County Beach Nourishment Phase, Children’s Beach Shoreline Restoration Project, and Cameron County Beach Access No. 3.

“Special thanks to the Texas General Land Office for their partnership on these Coastal Projects,” Treviño said. “These projects will assist with improving public beach access at Cameron County Beach Access No. 3 and most importantly protecting our shorelines at Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park and County beaches on South Padre Island from eroding.”

Laura Martinez

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Steel project at port would mean 500 full-time jobs

It looks like the Port of Brownsville may get that steel mill it’s been wanting.

David Stickler, CEO of Arkansas-based Big River Steel, was quoted in a June 5 article in metals trade publication Fastmarkets AMM saying that the company is spending time, money and effort toward construction of a mill in the southern United States, “with the most focus currently on the Port of Brownsville.”

BRS is in the process of doubling the capacity of its existing steel mill, in Osceola, Ark., and is evaluating sites for a second mill in order to grow its business serving Mexico’s vehicle manufacturing sector. In a Nov. 7, 2018, AMM article, Stickler confirmed that Brownsville was a contender but said BRS was also considering other Gulf coast sites for a high-tech, $1.6 billion mill.

In April 2018, the Brownsville Navigation District Commission approved a lease option agreement with BRS on up to 800 acres of port land, and the company signed an extension on that option agreement this April.

Stickler said in the most recent AMM article that the company had secured contracts with three major automakers — he didn’t say which ones — and is planning to add a fourth in the near future.

BMW opened a new plant in Mexico this month. Audi, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen also have plants there, as do General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, which have been building cars in Mexico since the 1930s. Manufacturer demand for flat-rolled steel continues to grow in Mexico.

Meanwhile, BRS is forging ahead with a second mill against a backdrop of dramatically fluctuating steel prices since its Osceola operations began in 2017, and despite whatever the Trump administration does related to tariffs. The new plant would support about 500 full-time jobs with an average annual salary of $75,000.

Steve Tyndal, Port of Brownsville senior director of marketing and business development, said Stickler took part in the port’s May 23 Workforce Summit, attended by roughly 60 stakeholders, including representatives from the three proposed liquefied natural gas projects at the port.

“This is another reassuring example of Big River Steel’s continuing interest in the Port of Brownsville,” Tyndal said.

Port officials are in regular communication with BRS about the project, which would provide “significant economic and job opportunities across the Rio Grande Valley, as well as further diversifying the port’s commercial foundation,” he said.

BND Chairman John Reed said Stickler was “very involved” in the summit, which also drew state officials with the Texas Workforce Commission.

“I will say that we are continually visiting with and speaking to Mr. Stickler and working very hard towards having Big River Steel open in Brownsville,” he said.

Kevin Shuba, CEO of OmniTRAX, which is in charge of marketing and developing the port’s industrial park and operating the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad, said the potential economic impact of a BRS steel mill in Brownsville was obvious from the first conversation with the Arkansas-based company.

“Together with our local and state partners, we are collaboratively working to put the final pieces in place that hopefully enables a favorable decision by Big River Steel to bring a new, high technology steel mill to Brownsville, Texas,” he said.


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Reduce, reuse and recycle

 In addition to recycling common objects such as plastic bottles and cardboard boxes, Island visitors will have a chance to reduce the amount of uncommon items sent to landfills.

Coinciding with America Recycles Day, the South Padre Island Environmental Health Services Department (EHSD) is hosting the 10th annual Recycle Land Saturday, Nov. 16, from 8 a.m. to noon.

The event will be held at the Community Center at 4501 Padre Blvd.

Attendees will be able to drop off several recyclable items which include appliances, beads, buttons, batteries, corks, copper, clothing, dishes, flags, fabric, keys, household American light bulbs, ink cartridges, lace, monofilament fishing line, phone books, syringes, tennis shoes, watches and wooden frames.

In addition to music and recycling opportunities, the event will have exhibits and educational activities.

“We wanted to do something fun that would educate the community about the importance of recycling to take care of our delicate environment,” SPI Environmental Health Director Victor Baldovinos said. “For us, it’s really important to not only educate the public, but also, to offer assistance in recycling in ways that help people.”

Baldovinos said recycled Nike shoes will be taken to outlets where they will be resoled and sent to third world countries.

Additionally, Baldovinos said recycled bottles will be shipped to Monterey, Mexico, where they will be repurposed into objects such as benches that will be sold to pay for kids’ cancer treatments.

As an organizer of the event, Baldovinos said he is excited to offer it to the community and make a big impact in the world.

“If you go around the state, people know South Padre Island,” Baldovinos said. “It’s our prized jewel and we want to do everything that we can to protect it with the one goal of having the cleanest beach in the nation and for me that’s really important.”


WHAT — 10th annual Recycle Land

WHEN — Saturday, Nov. 16 from 8 a.m. to noon

WHERE — Community Center 4501 Padre Blvd., South Padre Island

For questions, contact the Environmental Health Services Department (EHSD) at (956) 761-8123.

Alana Hernandez

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Valley MPO names first executive director

Andrew Canon had just been named the first executive director of the Rio Grande Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, and his bosses were already giving him a hard time.

“We have no November meeting,” Canon said at this week’s board meeting, citing the Council of Governments schedule that the recently created MPO follows. “I believe our next board meeting will actually be Dec. 11, since we follow the COG schedule.”

“For your first action as director,” said Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, who chairs the board of the Valley MPO, “is to take a month off?”

“No, sir,” Canon said. And Canon, Hernandez and the officials from across South Texas in the Ken Jones Board Room this week at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council in Weslaco broke out into laughter.

The officials named Canon, the former Hidalgo County MPO director, the executive director of the newly formed MPO, which is responsible for securing money available to the state for transportation planning and construction in urbanized areas across Texas. The MPOs in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio have for years received the most funding due to their size as, by far, the largest MPOs in the state.

But over the summer, with the merger of the Brownsville MPO, Harlingen-San Benito MPO and Hidalgo County MPO, officials believe the new Valley MPO will fight for the same funding as the four largest MPOs. Officials said the new MPO will represent a region of more than 1 million people, as opposed to three separate organizations representing smaller slivers. Officials have projected hundreds of millions in additional funds that could be available to Valley transportation projects.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez emphasized this point in June when Gov. Greg Abbott signed the only still-blank signature line to complete the authorization for the merger.

“The creation of this merger will bring access to transportation dollars to access our traffic congestion and our growth,” Cortez said.

Officials were happy with Canon’s long tenure heading the Hidalgo County MPO and rewarded him with the job running the transportation organization covering the entire Valley.

“My job as executive director is to build regional collaboration on projects benefiting all of our residents,” Canon said in an interview after being named director. “Now, it’s not about what’s best for Harlingen, or Brownsville or McAllen. There are projects in Cameron County that affect people in Hidalgo County when they’re driving to the island, or projects in Hidalgo County that affect people when they’re driving to McAllen.

“This is an organization that will put forth the best projects for the region.”


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Island enjoys tourism boost

The Island is reporting record-breaking sales tax figures and strong hotel occupancy numbers for summer 2019.

Ed Caum, director of the SPI Convention and Visitors Bureau, said last July’s sales tax revenue was more than 8.2 percent higher than July 2018, and that hotel occupancy taxes increased 4.13 percent for June and July year to year.

He said also that SPI’s website had seen a nearly 20 percent increase in traffic year to year through August, with an equally strong showing on social media. The SPI Facebook page just surpassed 500,000 “likes,” Caum noted.

The big news is that these revenue numbers happened despite a couple of three-month periods of less-than-ideal weather last year that hurt business, he said.

“To come back in the other six months is what made this newsworthy,” Caum said.

Total lodging revenues for the 2018-2019 fiscal year were nearly $138 million, compared to $114.5 million for fiscal year 2017-2018, he said.

“That’s a 24.9 percent growth over last year,” Caum said.

No single thing is driving growth but rather a combination of factors, such as stepped-up marketing efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, responsible for 42 percent of the Island’s sales and hotel occupancy tax revenues, he said.

“I think that’s a huge number,” Caum said. “Since I’ve come on board we’re advertising in the Valley more. … We really value RGV. For generations they’ve been coming to the Island. It’s their Island.”

SPI is also seeing a steadily emerging “drive market” from as far away as Laredo, and direct flights through Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport and Valley International Airport are a big help, he said.

“Also, we still get stuff from McAllen,” Caum said. “They go shopping in McAllen but still come to the Island for the beach.”

The SPI CVB placed SPI ads behind home plate for eight Astros home games and is also pushing digital advertising, he said.

“We’re trying some little things, and if it works we’re sticking with it,” Caum said. “If digital advertising is working somewhere we can keep it going. If not, we can turn it off. … By doing digital, we track on a weekly basis what’s working and what’s not. We actually do regular marketing meetings every Monday to see what’s working and what’s not.”

The Island’s refurbished Isla Blanca Park has begun hosting concerts that are bringing people in, with the Grammy-winning group La Mafia scheduled for Nov. 9, and more groups and meetings are coming to the Island, Caum said.

The CVB now has a full sales staff and, since Caum arrived in March, a full groups-and-meetings team, he said. The SPI Convention Center, meanwhile, is almost fully booked for 2020 and has begun booking into 2023, Caum said.

“Things are rocking good with the convention center and we’re looking forward to expanding,” he said. “We’ve got a study right now to see what we can do with more space.”

Steve Clark

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Cameron County Amphitheater opens at Dolphin Cove

Isla Blanca Park received another upgrade from Cameron County, in the form of an open-air amphitheater overlooking the Brazos Santiago Ship Channel. The amphitheater site is in the Dolphin Cove area of Isla Blanca Park. Overall, the project cost $2.1 million, using money from the County Hotel-Motel Venue Tax approved in 2016, and took just over a year to construct, starting in December 2017. 

With nearly 41,100 square feet of space, the amphitheater can seat 4,200 people, according to Cameron County: 800 on curved stone blocks under the amphitheater awnings, and 3,400 on the preceding lawn area. GIGNAC Architects, out of Corpus Christi, Texas,  was the architectural firm on the amphitheater, with HALFF Associates, based in Richardson, Texas, as the engineering firm. Noble Texas Builders, based in La Feria, Texas, was the General Contractor.

The Cameron County Amphitheater had a soft opening on October 5, just before sunset, with a crowd of over a hundred people. Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino, Jr., Rev. Sam W. Steele, chaplain of Chapel by the Sea, Cameron County Commissioners, Sofia Benavidez, Precinct 1, Joey Lopez, Precinct 2, and Gus Ruiz, Precinct 4, and South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty, South Padre Island Mayor Pro-Tem Ken Medders and Councilmember Kerry Scwartz, South Padre Island Police Chief Claudine O’Carroll were among the people who attended. 

In the amphitheater parking lot was Tacos Frontera’s food truck, Tehuacán Brillante sparkling mineral water, and an Elote stand were set up, where attendees mingled in the shadow of the Cameron County Events Center, which was completed earlier this year. That project cost $5.7 million, also using money from the County Hotel-Motel Tax.

On Saturday, October 12, the amphitheater will host its first concert, featuring Sublime with Rome. The venue’s next concert will feature La Mafia on November 9. 

By Gaige Davila

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Alligators Among Us: Nuisance alligator on SPI finds home in Gator Sanctuary

South Padre Island Birding Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary (SPI SBNCAS) received a call on the morning of October 27, 2019, from SPI Police Department regarding a four-foot nuisance alligator near the KOA entrance, right off Padre Blvd. Texas Parks & Wildlife were contacted first and, since they were several hours away, they asked the Police Department to contact SPI SBNCAS. 

There had been sightings of this alligator around the Sea Ranch Marina for over a month. Center Executive Director, Cristin Howard said, “If fish scraps are thrown into the water, that is free, easy food for an alligator, and it is common for habituated (nuisance) alligators to consistently hang around docks and piers where this may occur.” She advised that it is important that fish scraps be thrown into the garbage if alligators live in your area.

When SPI SBNCAS staff arrived there were numerous people, police cars, and golf carts near the alligator. The alligator demonstrating no fear of humans. This behavior, along with the proximity to the KOA deemed this a situation where the alligator needed to be removed. 

Howard said, “We are very happy to be able to assist the City of South Padre Island and Texas Parks & Wildlife.”

The SPI BNCAS was built around the Laguna Madre Water Districts’ water treatment plant, and, as such, we have a freshwater habitat here on the island that wild alligators have resided in for years. We have a large population of wild American Alligators in the Rio Grande Valley, and that population is growing. We are thrilled to be partnering with Gator Country, of Beaumont Texas and have been issued a permit by Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, to create a safe way to house “nuisance alligators” those habituated to humans due to humans feeding them, for the rest of their natural lives, while also sharing a unique educational experience for local residents and visitors alike. Alligators are an important part of Texas’s natural history, as well as an integral component of many wetland ecosystems.

By Laura Lyles Reagan

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4th annual Hallowings Monarch Migration Festival celebrates monarch journey

It was perfect weather for the 4th Annual Hallowings Monarch Migration Festival. The South Padre Island Birding Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary (SPIBNCAS) hosts the annual celebration of the Monarch butterfly migration which passes through South Padre Island late October and early November. 

The generation of Monarchs born in the late summer and early fall makes the full migration to wintering grounds in central Mexico. They are a super breed generation that lives longer, are stronger, and are larger winged than usual to be able to withstand migrating south ahead of north winds from fall cold fronts. 

Those seen on South Padre Island are migrating down the Gulf Coast coastline on the coastal flyway and begin to arrive on the island in late October, sometimes in large numbers. They are greeted by coastal nectar plants brought to full bloom by fall rains. The City of South Padre Island has designated lots throughout the island which are dedicated to native habitat for migratory butterflies and birds. 

There are lots of flowers and color this time of year in SPIBNCAS gardens and the Monarchs stop by to take advantage and gather energy for the rest of their migration. Unfortunately, monarch populations have diminished over the last 20 years due to loss of native habitat necessary for their existence, some of which is caused by pesticides, says SPIBNCAS board president Alita Bagley.

SPIBNCAS is a certified Monarch Waystation which means monarch habitat has been cultivated and is being sustained. SPIBNCAS monarch and other butterfly gardens have varieties of milkweed and other native plants which attract multiple pollinator species. Visitors to the Hallowings Monarch Migration Festival had the opportunity to learn about monarchs, their habitat and how to cultivate and certify other Monarch Waystations. 

While the SPIBNCAS aims to spread awareness and Monarch ecology and conservation, other conservation organizations were invited to showcase their work and sites at the festival. Washed Up Texas, RGV Texas Master Naturalists, Sea Turtle Inc., Laguna Atascosa NWR and UTRGV Coastal Studies Lab were in attendance. 

Approximately 500 people attended the event. Activities included: Monarch Breakfast by the Port Isabel Rotary Club, Guided Birding and Butterfly Tours, Sandcastle Building Lessons, Native Plant Sale, Monarch Craft Activities for Kids and a Monarch Talk, which focuses on butterfly gardening. Then there was a Live Habitat Planting. UTRGV helped plant a new Monarch Waystation section. There was a Trashion Show which featured fashion and beach plastic pollution awareness. Leslie Blasing provided live music. There was a butterfly costume contest, an art show, food trucks and a reptile experience presentation also. There was something for everyone. 

SPIBNCAS executive director, Cristin Howard said, “The board and staff of SPIBNCAS thank everyone for supporting Hallowings and invite all to come back next year.”

Visit to learn more about planting, cultivating, sustaining monarch habitat or registering and certifying an existing Monarch Waystation. 

By Laura Lyles Reagan

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Island nonprofits to host Halloween activities

As Halloween continues to draw near, a few local nonprofits plan to incorporate the holiday spirit into their educational facilities this weekend. The South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary will host a Hallowings Monarch Migration Celebration Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A variety of activities such as guided walks and sandcastle lessons will be offered throughout the celebration. Additionally, the event will have face painting, crafts, a food truck, vendors, an art show and a plant sale. 1 of 2 Courtesy photo The SPI Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary is gearing up for its Hallowings Monarch Migration Celebration, which will be held Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Courtesy photo Sea Turtle, Inc. patient Hurley Mac opens its mouth wide to get a taste of a squid tentacle ice block, which is part of the facility's animal enrichment feeding strategies. Sunday, the nonprofit will feed Halloween-themed enrichments to patients during its Trick or Treat with the Turtles event. According to SPI Birding Center representatives, the fall season is a fantastic time to view the migration of monarch butterflies. “South Padre Island is an important resting area for thousands of fall monarchs migrating on the coastal flyway to wintering grounds in Mexico,” said SPI Birding and Nature Center Naturalist Educator Javier Gonzalez. “Join us as we greet their arrival and enjoy a day full of wonder, educational presentations, activities and more.” Halloween with the sea turtles Sunday, Sea Turtle, Inc. will host a Trick or Treat with the Turtles celebration from 1 to 3 p.m. Attendees will be given candy, snacks and prizes. Additionally, they will be able to witness Sea Turtle, Inc. personnel give Halloween-themed enrichments to their sea turtle patients. Attendees are encouraged to wear family friendly costumes, but they are not required. Social pets that are kept on a leash are able to visit the event. “This is our second year hosting a Halloween event at Sea Turtle, Inc. since the opening of our new education center,” said Sea Turtle, Inc. Marketing and Public Relations Manager Sanjuana Zavala. “This family-friendly event is one of many we host year-round and we hope to continue doing these every year.” SCHEDULE OF EVENTS Hallowings Festival and Monarch Migration Celebration WHEN — Saturday, Oct. 26 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PANCAKE BREAKFAST AND GUIDED BIRD WALK — 9 a.m. SANDCASTLE LESSONS AND BUTTERFLY TALK — 10 a.m. PLANTING NATIVE HABITAT — 11a.m. TRASHION SHOW — 11:30 a.m. LIVE MUSIC WITH LESLIE — Noon BUTTERFLY WALK — 1 p.m. BUTTERFLY COSTUME CONTEST — 2 p.m. LIVE REPTILE EXPERIENCE — 2:30 p.m. WHERE — South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary, 6801 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island ADMISSION — $5 WEBSITE — Trick or Treat with the Turtles WHEN — Sunday, Oct. 27 from 1 to 3 p.m. WHERE — Sea Turtle, Inc., 6617 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island ADMISSION — Adults $6, ages 62 and older, military $5 and $4 for children ages five through 17.

Alana Hernandez

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