Sometimes even beaches are not enough.
The City of South Padre Island has received a $500,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to enter into Phase II of its overhaul of a non-sandy community feature on the Island, John L. Tompkins Park, at 6100 State Park Road 100.
The money from TPWD will be matched by the city under the terms of the Non-Urban Outdoor Recreation Grants which are limited to cities with populations fewer than 500,000.
Phase I of the renovation of the park, which is located near the Ramada by Wyndham and Suites South Padre Island, was completed in 2016. That work expanded parking and added basketball courts and restrooms.
The next phase will add new amenities for families and kids, for people working out and for people just hanging out.
“Phase II will entail seven components that are going to be included,” said Debbie Huffman, parks and recreation manager. “A walking trail, seven exercise stations, two picnic areas, two shade pavilions and additional play equipment, a bocce ball court and a soccer field.
“We’re going to include some solar lighting and that’s where the state park component of the park will be located,” she added.
The enhanced city park will have something for all age groups, Huffman said.
“Any more amenities that we can add to our community and visitors here is a bonus for us,” Huffman said.
And while the Island is rightfully known for its spectacular beaches, Huffman said the park does acknowledge the sand’s proximity.
“Actually from the very back of the park, there is a beach access,” she said. “There’s a hotel or condominium right behind it, but there is a public beach access from the park onto the beach.”
The TPWD grant to the City of South Padre Island was one of 38 awarded which will deliver just over $16 million in competitive local park grants to help fund projects to create and enhance outdoor recreational opportunities.
By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer
Cameron County Commissioners Court approved an order Thursday morning allowing County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. to close Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach during potential space flight activities.
The move comes nearly a week after Boca Chica Village SpaceX watchers first saw the booster portion of the Starship Hopper prototype moved to the construction site at the facility to the launch pad.
The order was approved after nearly 20 minutes of executive session where commissioners conferred with legal counsel regarding space flight activities.
After the meeting, Treviño said as county judge he has emergency authority to respond to anything from road or beach closures, as well as “whatever the case might be in relation to the upcoming potential space flight activities.”
Last Friday, SpaceX Spokesman James Gleeson said in an email that the Starship prototype was moved in preparation for non-public testing.
“SpaceX will conduct checkouts of the newly installed ground systems and perform a short static fire test in the days ahead,” Gleeson said. “Although the prototype is designed to perform sub-orbital flights, or hops, powered by the SpaceX Raptor engine, the vehicle will be tethered during initial testing and hops will not be visible from offsite.”
When that happens, Gleeson said a safety zone will be established.
“SpaceX will establish a safety zone perimeter in coordination with local enforcement and signage will be in place to alert the community prior to the testing,” Gleeson said.
As tests draw closer, Treviño said the county is on a learning curve as potential launches draw closer to becoming a reality.
“It’s exciting and we know that we keep moving closer and closer to that first test or whatever they’re going to be doing and we’re wishing them all the best of luck and we’re excited,” Treviño said.
In another recent development, SpaceX founder Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter last week to his followers that a Raptor engine was moved to Boca Chica Beach and was scheduled to be mounted on the Starship Hopper prototype this week.
In 2013, former Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a bill granting Cameron County the authority to close beaches and access points to beaches for space flight activities.
“A person planning to conduct a launch in a county to which this section applies must submit to the commissioners court proposed primary and backup launch dates for the launch,” the bill states.
The legislation applies to any county border the Gulf of Mexico that has a launch site approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
However, when news of the county’s approval broke Thursday morning, Keith Reynolds, who lives four miles from SpaceX contacted the newspaper to share an email he sent to Treviño and Cameron County Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia C. Benavides about his concerns over closures.
“Something that has fallen through the cracks is property owner access during the road closures. SpaceX has not reached out to any of us that live along Hwy 4 past the Border Patrol checkpoint,” Reynolds wrote in the email. “I am currently working in Houston and travel back to my place on weekends. I live not too far from SpaceX and am concerned that I will be denied access to my property. What measures have been put in place to ensure this will not happen?”
FAA documentation shows that SpaceX will be able to limit public access at two pre-defined checkpoints, a soft checkpoint at the Border Patrol station, where the public could not pass, and a hard checkpoint, “just west of the control center area, where no one would be permitted to pass during launch operations.”
Those documents show that SpaceX is required to notify Cameron County Commissioners Court approximately two weeks in advance of a proposed date for a launch or a static fire test, which SpaceX confirmed will happen in the near future.
The FAA documentation also states that approximately three to six days before a launch operation that would require a closure SpaceX must notify the public through local media, along with informing the cities of Brownsville and South Padre Island, as well as several state and federal agencies.
Amid a rising tide of development on the Gulf Coast, The Nature Conservancy recently acquired over 6,000 acres of land on South Padre Island in order to protect the fragile habitat of sea turtles there.
Laura Huffman, director of the Texas branch of the conservancy, says the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which crawls onto beaches throughout Mexico and the U.S. to nest and lay eggs, is a particularly fragile species.
“The ridley sea turtle is the smallest and most endangered of the world’s seven sea turtle species,” Huffman says. “The nesting habitat was the goal of this project and of the projects that precede this purchase.”
In addition to protecting the turtles’ habitat, the conservancy’s land acquisition will also provide protected habitat for dozens of bird species.
Huffman says the BP oil spill in 2010 provided impetus for the project, which included partnerships with numerous state and federal agencies.
“The BP oil spill gave us an opportunity to think about how we [could] recover from man-made disasters differently,” Huffman says. “How do we take those situations and invest more concentrated dollars into conservation and into recovering habitat than we might have otherwise?”
Coastal land is a major draw for developers and other entities. But Huffman says she believes her organization will be able to fend off efforts by the government, for example, to requisition the land through eminent domain.
“If you have ever had the opportunity to either watch the sea turtles come out of the water or go back into the water, it is a natural show that is amazing and hard to find on this planet anymore,” Huffman says. “Our job is to protect it for generations from now.”
The room was filled with sounds of clanking silverware and a roar of conversations.
It was past closing time at the Grapevine Café and Coffeehouse Friday afternoon, and the establishment was still packed with business.
The first week of Spring Break is in the books and the Island is set to see a second wave of vacationers this week.
With the UT System’s split from taking Spring Break during Texas week, city officials expect to see a more “spread out” and “lengthened” season this year that will help the Island’s economy.
According to SPI Convention and Visitors Bureau Interim Director Michael Flores, Spring Break season is a very important time for the city and officials are excited to see occupancy growth this year.
“Right now it’s looking very strong and we hope to have sustained growth through the end of March,” Flores said.
The city collected $1.5 million in hotel occupancy tax last year. According to Flores, hotel occupancy on the Island during the first week of March compared to last year was up 9.7 percent, revenue per available room was up by 15.7 percent and the average daily rate was up by 6.5 percent.
The three metrics “tell the story” of the city’s hotel tax collections.
According to Flores, last March was the highest grossing food and beverage tax period for the city.
Flores said the city’s food and beverage tax sales from local businesses take about 30 days to configure and won’t be available until the middle of April.
“This is the first fresh breath from the Winter Texan season, and now we have families and college students out here,” Flores said. “So, it really helps pump up the community, economy and really our perception as we continue to have fun Spring Breaks throughout the years.”
Ship Shape retail store owner Liz Money says Spring Break is an impactful time for her business, but the impact is not “as huge as it is with Winter Texan guests.”
“There are whole families who visit the shop from moms and dads to grandmas and grandpas. So that’s the part that helps us because right now Spring Break is an extension of our Winter Texan time,” Money explained.
“However, I think Island businesses as a whole prosper a lot during this time frame.”
Early last week, Money said business had been a little slow, but predicts this week will be “incredibly busy.”
ECONOMIC IMPACT FOR NONPROFITS
For the past couple of years, the city has donated parking lots at the convention center to local nonprofits during the Spring Break season.
Each nonprofit has a raffle to select days they can charge parking fees at the convention center and can keep all of the money they raise.
According to Flores, the city helped participating nonprofits raise $26,000 last Spring Break.
This year, five nonprofits are participating in the parking fundraiser, including the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Sea Turtle, Inc., Laguna Madre Art League, Boy Scouts of America Laguna Madre Scout Troop and Friends of Animal Rescue.
Friends of Animal Rescue shelter personnel have participated in the fundraising opportunity for the past four years and believe it has been a very beneficial opportunity.
“It’s really helpful all the way around for all of the nonprofits,” said Friends of Animal Rescue president and co-founder Jacky Conrad. “We’re always grateful for every dime that we can make and it’s great of the city to let the nonprofits get involved and raise money.”
The city and participating nonprofits are hoping to raise about $27.
With all of the recent changes at City Hall — including a new city manager and police chief — residents of South Padre Island will head to the polls on May 4 for a special election to chose a new mayor to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Dennis Stahl, who is not seeking re-election.
Voters will be able to select from these three candidates:
With more than 35 years of business experience and serving on various local boards and committees, longtime Island resident and owner of Clayton’s Beach Bar and Grill Clayton Brashear believes he is “the most qualified candidate to serve as mayor of South Padre Island.”
“I have chosen to run for mayor because I feel it is time to come together as a community and place ourselves in the right direction,” Brashear said.
Brashear believes residents should consider voting for him because he is a “visionary, dependable and hardworking Island resident.”
“Unlike my opponents, I have many years of both development and hospitality business experience on South Padre Island,” Brashear said.
Recently retired from the City of South Padre Island where she worked for nine years as Assistant City Manager and twice as Interim City Manager, longtime Island resident Darla Jones decided to run for mayor because she “intends to continue the progress that’s been made over the last several years.”
Prior to working with the City of South Padre Island, Jones worked with the cities of Harlingen, Pharr and La Feria.
“My entire career of more than 28 years has been in municipal government and I recently retired,” Jones said. “My education, experience, background and accomplishments make me the best candidate for the position.”
Jones believes residents should consider voting for her because she is “familiar with the budget, laws, policies, people, and projects of the city better than any other candidate.”
“If elected, I’m ready to go on day one. There’s no learning curve,” Jones said. “Also, over my career in municipal government, I’ve developed positive working relationships with other agencies the city deals with so it’s easier to keep progress moving forward.”
Longtime Island resident and owner of Willis Development construction company Patrick McNulty decided to run as mayor “to bring the residents back to a common ground with the hope of hiring a great city manager that will run the Island professionally.”
“I feel that we have departed from the charter that is the blueprint for our government,” McNulty said.
McNulty has been working on the Island since 1997, is a founding partner in SPI Rentals, a partner in Troy Giles Realty & Management and is currently serving on Island board committees.
He believes voters should consider voting for him because he “cares greatly for the Island and the community.”
“I am a great listener and mediator who understands there are multiple sides to any issue,” McNulty said. “All sides need to be heard so that we as a City Council can take appropriate action.”
McNulty said he understands the city charter and its specific roles of the mayor and council.
“We are a strong city manager form of government, which requires council to let the city manager operate the Island, and us at council to listen to the citizens and help form policies to further direct the city manager.”
McNulty said he is humbled by the support of the citizens and realizes the trust that they place in elected officials to do their best for all concerned.
The Valley Morning Star will be providing all candidates a questionnaire regarding their platform, which will be published closer to Election Day.
By ALANA HERNANDEZ Staff Writer
It took some time, but American Airlines passenger planes are once again nosing up to the jetways to disembark and take on passengers at Valley International Airport.
On Sunday, for the first time since 2001, American resumed passenger service to VIA, and will continue with three daily direct flights between Harlingen and Dallas-Fort Worth, or 21 passenger flights per week.
“I want to thank everyone for taking time out of their busy schedules to come here, and to thank American Airlines for believing in us here in the Rio Grande Valley and in the City of Harlingen,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, told officials at a dedication of the new passenger service Monday.
“Air service development is probably one of the hardest things we have to do here at Valley International Airport for our staff,” added Esterly, who has directed VIA operations for four years. “I just want to tell you it takes a professional and great staff to orchestrate an airline coming in, and I want to tell you that it takes a lot of partners, and without our partners we have in the Rio Grande Valley, we could never get this done.”
The addition of American brings the number of airlines offering passenger service at VIA to six — American, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Sun Country Airlines and Frontier Airlines, which began service last fall.
American’s Harlingen flights will be made on Embraer ERJ-145s, a regional jet that can carry 50 passengers.
American’s arrival also coincides with the culmination of a long and expensive renovation effort at VIA, which cost $12 million and took six years.
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell referenced the dramatic overhaul of the terminal, including new terrazzo tile flooring, lighting and new roof panels overhead.
“You just look around — it feels like a whole new different place, it looks like a different place,” he said, “because now it has American Airlines to round out all of our air service here at Valley International Airport. It’s a great day to be here.”
South Padre Island’s tourist industry and Mayor Dennis Stahl were key players in negotiations to bring American back. The airport operates a shuttle bus service between Harlingen and the Island.
“This flight today celebrates the growing interest in Texas tourism,” Stahl said. “Valley International Airport and our city, South Padre Island, have had a longstanding partnership in destination development, and we’re ecstatic to be taking this step forward, spreading the word about Texas’ best beach.”
Both American and Frontier were attracted to the Harlingen airport with a new $1.55 million incentive program called the Air Service Development Program introduced by Harlingen officials late last year. American will receive an incentive payment of $834,000 to fly into Valley International under the program.
But there are already signs that the investment into the new air passenger carriers is paying off. Valley International posted a 12.5 percent increase in passenger enplanements in 2018, and in January, recorded numbers which were 19.4 percent higher than a year ago.
Dale Morris, senior consultant/governmental affairs for American, said it was a “long journey” to reach agreement on American’s return.
“It speaks to the fact that the respect that American Airlines had for Marv — having worked with him at other airports and the way he is so fiscally responsible, the way he runs an airport, his fairness, and a lot of those factors come into play,” Morris told the crowd. “Because nowadays, there is a shortage of airplanes and pilots, and we just can’t put airplanes anywhere.”
Outgoing South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl says merging the Rio Grande Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations will lead to more money for a second SPI causeway.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the Valley could trap into more than $100 million of additional transportation funding, should the region’s three MPOs merge. The three are Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito, and Hidalgo County.
South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl
The MPOs are the conduit for state and federal transportation dollars. Made up of locally elected officials, the MPOs prioritize which transportation projects go forwards.
The cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and San Benito, along with Cameron County, have agreed on a framework for merging the Brownsville and Harlingen-San Benito MPOs with Hidalgo County MPO. They are waiting to hear back from Hidalgo County leaders.
“Regarding the second causeway we are very excited about the merger of metropolitan planning organizations. That will provide more funding for the second causeway,” Mayor Stahl told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.
“We would very much like to have a second causeway but we need the funding for it. By merging all metropolitan planning organizations, it makes us the fifth largest MPO in Texas. We would be at what I call the big boy table in Austin. Almost 80 percent of the funding from TXDOT goes to the top five. We would be in the top five.”
Getting to sit at “the big boys table” would allow the 2nd Causeway project to be considered for additional discretionary funding from TXDOT, Stahl said. “It is very exciting and allows the City of South Padre Island and the 2nd Causeway project to get on the list.”
Asked how environmental assessment studies of a second causeway are going, Stahl said: “There are several and they (environmental agencies) have worked their way methodically through most of them. Most of them are out of the way now.”
Asked how much a second causeway to South Padre Island would cost, Stahl said: “I have heard broad ranges on that. We will not really know until they work through it.”
The time it takes to build a second causeway is not that long, the mayor said.
“The most exciting idea I heard was, one contractor told me, a good friend, it could be built in 21 months. They would start in the middle, on the Island and on Holly Beach and run them all together, much like they did the old railroads. Hopefully a two-year construction project at best.”
Stahl will serve as mayor of South Padre Island until a special election is held to succeed him. That is on May 4. Stahl spoke about the second causeway project while attending a news conference at Valley International Airport on Monday. The news conference was about American Airlines starting daily flights from Harlingen to Dallas-Fort Worth.
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell was also at the news conference. He was asked about the second causeway project by KVEO-TV reporter Alfredo Cuadros.
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell
“We have developed a framework that all the necessary parties in Cameron County have signed off on, Brownsville, the City of Harlingen, Cameron County, Harlingen-San Benito MPO, and the City of San Benito have all signed off on,” Boswell said.
“They have all agreed to this framework. We are now trying to work with our partners in Hidalgo County and get them to sign off on to same kind of framework that we think will be beneficial to each of the regions in our community but there are still some negotiations to do.”
Asked why merging the three MPOs is important, Boswell said: “For all of us it would mean the potential of getting more discretionary funding, more Category 7 funding for our area and we would all share in that. The goal is to increase the types of funding we could garner here in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Boswell added: “Cameron County is all on the same page. Now we have to get Hidalgo County together. We think we will get that done but we think it will take a little bit more time.”
During a Rio Grande Guardian livestream on Facebook on Monday, Boswell said: “We continue to work on this MPO merger. I think that is something that is good for the entire region. We still have some ways to go on that but I’m hopeful that we will find a way to bridge any gaps that we have and bring that together.”
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez spoke about merging the Valley’s three MPOs at a McAllen Chamber of Commerce legislative affairs committee lunch event last week. He pointed out that MPOs with a population of more than a million received the lion’s share of transportation funding, courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation.
If the other two MPOs in the Valley do not want to merge with Hidalgo County MPO, Cortez said, Hidalgo County could just wait until the 2020 Census is complete. Its population would then be over one million.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez
“As you know, our system of allocating funds is based on where the greatest needs are. The Texas Department of Transportation says, let’s take care of where the highest density is. That makes sense.”
Unlike the Valley, Cortez said, areas such as Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio consolidated with surrounding areas in order to create the critical mass needed for a seat at the ‘big’ table.
“When they consolidated themselves they created the critical mass. So, they (the big metro areas) enjoy 83 percent of the monies that are available. The rest of us get 17 percent. Well, because of the numbers, we (Hidalgo County) are not quite a million. If we were to merge with Harlingen, Cameron County and Brownsville, we would be over a million. So, we would go automatically go to the 83 percent and enjoy much more money.”
Cortez admitted he does not have a lot of experience with MPOs. However, he said he does have a lot of experience on what is fair and just.
“So, when we were trying to negotiate a deal (with Brownsville MPO, and Harlingen-San Benito MPO), I was listening and listening and listening. It appeared to me, and I may be wrong, and I want this conversation to continue, but it appeared that they (Brownsville and Harlingen-San Benito) felt that they needed to have a little greasing because we could not do it without them saying yes,” Cortez said.
“So, they were going to ask for a little bit more. Perfectly understandable. If I were negotiating for McAllen or the county I would try to get all I can. That is just human nature. But this is so important that we cannot play those games. It is so important for us to do this right; that we sit down and identify what is fair and equitable and let that definition decide how we allocate and spend the money, not who the boss is going to be.”
Cortez said Hidalgo County MPO has sent the other two Valley MPOs a proposal.
“Hopefully, they will agree to it because that would be very important for us to meet that (million population) threshold. Should that be unsuccessful… I hope it would be successful because Cameron County is part of who we are, they are just a little further east from us. We want that to work. I believe that after this Census we will be at a million ourselves and so basically what we have to do is maybe wait a little extra.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows the Queen Isabela Causeway linking Port Isabel to South Padre Island. A second causeway is under consideration to the north.