The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority’s East Loop Project is just one among transportation projects that could get done quicker thanks to the new merger of the Rio Grande Valley’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations.
Officials representing the Brownsville, Harlingen-San Benito and Hidalgo County MPOs signed an agreement April 24 that officially begets the merger. Next comes the creation of bylaws for governance of the newly formed RGV MPO.
Proponents have long argued that a merger was desirable because it would result in more federal transportation dollars for the Valley through the Texas Department of Transportation, which has pushed for a Valley merger. The RGV MPO is now the state’s fifth largest MPO.
“I think it’s going to light a fire under a lot of projects,” said Cameron County Administrator David Garcia. “We’ll be in a position to garner more funds and move projects along faster. At the end of the day it all boils down to funding. I think the agreements that have been put forward are going to allow for the county and the Valley as a whole to move forward on major infrastructure projects such as the East Loop.”
The East Loop is a planned overweight/oversized truck corridor to link the Port of Brownsville with I-69E at Veterans International Bridge at Los Tomates via a roughly 10-mile loop skirting the city to the south. Design is complete, environmental approval is pending and construction should start soon on the first phase, the South Port Connector Road.
CCRMA Executive Director Pete Sepulveda Jr. said the East Loop has been on the books for over three decades but has been held up by the environmental assessment piece and a lack of funding.
“We’ll go through that phase hopefully in the next nine months,” he said. “We’re very aggressively working on that right now, knowing that the merger is going to go through, and we have an opportunity to get this project funded. We’re extremely well positioned to be able to tap into different funding categories at the state and federal level.”
The project has become more urgent over the years, since the current overweight route — International Boulevard — has become increasingly urbanized over the past 20 years, with schools, residential and commercial developments, Sepulveda said.
“There are over 20 different conflicts between the bridge and the port,” Sepulveda said. “We need to put (the route) in a more rural area. It’s extremely important to the community.”
A second access to South Padre Island may also get done faster as a result of the merger, he said.
“Right now the Laguna Madre area is not in any MPO boundary,” Sepulveda said. “Once the merger is done it can be brought into an MPO boundary. That will help in getting funding for the SPI second access project.”
Another project that’s been on the shelf for years and could get a boost from the merger is the Outer Parkway, which would provide a new east-west travel route linking Cameron and Hidalgo counties and improving connectivity in rural areas of northeastern Cameron County. TxDOT currently has the project listed as “on hold.”
“We’ve got several projects in Harlingen and Brownsville,” Sepulveda said. “I think the projects that Cameron County as a whole is working on will be placed in a much better position to compete for funding.”
Garcia said the various municipalities were in talks for two or three months to draft terms amenable to all stakeholders. The “MPO-redesignation term sheet” that came out of it, and which was approved April 24, contains parameters and conditions that protect existing funding for each former MPO and guarantee that all parts of the Valley will be treated equably in terms of funding, he said.
“The cities, the mayors and the counties are encouraged that not only are we going to help every community in the Valley, big and small, the region is going to benefit as a whole,” Garcia said.
With approval of the term sheet, officials will craft bylaws to govern the new RGV MPO board, he said.
“We’re hoping it takes no longer than three months,” Garcia said. “We’ve already started working on those preliminarily in preparation for (the signing). We hope that it won’t take too long. We want to try to get it done by September.”
BY STEVE CLARK STAFF WRITER
With the election mere weeks away, the three candidates vying for the position of Mayor of South Padre Island converged at the SPI Convention Center Monday evening for a last public candidate forum.
Facing a capacity crowd as well as the moderator and timer for the event, the three candidates – Darla Jones, Patrick McNulty, and Clayton Brashear – were kept to a tightly scripted format. The questions utilized for the forum were submitted by the public and covered a variety of topics. The candidates were afforded opening and closing statements, and responded to the questions in a rotating order to allow for fairness in not having to always answer first.
Brashear gave the first opening statement. He spoke about bridging the gap between retirees and business owners, and strongly emphasized tolerance, saying, “We have to stop this bad stuff on Facebook. We have to project to the world, to the Valley, to the State, that we are a community that you want to come visit.”
Jones took a different tone in her opening remarks. Focusing on her background and knowledge from her previous years of service, she said, “There is no learning curve with me, from day one I’m ready to hit the ground running. I don’t need to learn the budget, the personnel, the projects, the plans, the issues, because I lived them for nine years as assistant city manager.”
McNulty stated he’s not running on a personal agenda, but rather a public one. “My goal is to make SPI the best it can be for our residents and guests.”
The candidates were each given opportunities to respond to nine questions over the course of the forum.
The topics included renovating the Convention Center, reef development, and spring break; the search for a new city manager and the possibility of SPI becoming a cruise ship port of call; their individual qualifications for mayor and embracing the current comprehensive city plan. Lastly, how to improve public access to the bay and the possibility of instigating paid beach parking.
While the three candidates agreed on certain issues, such as reef development, their opinions varied in other critical areas.
Regarding the search for a new city manager, Brashear said, “The first thing we should do is look for somebody in our area.” He later remarked, “I don’t need somebody coming from New York City to be manager of this town, guys, I don’t; we can hire them right here on this Island.”
Jones zeroed in on the need for a solid résumé in choosing a city manager, saying, “I believe our next city manager needs to have a background in city management, first of all. They need years of experience; I’d say at least 20 years of experience.”
McNulty seemed to be on the same page as Brashear, stating, “One of the big problems is, is that we do not have a large number of people who work for SPI in the upper staff levels and city manager level that are from the Valley. We need to start the process of looking locally.”
In the closing remarks, the candidates had a final opportunity to voice their differing opinions on the future of the City of South Padre Island.
Jones spoke first, saying, “I spent almost three decades working for cities. I got up before city councils in different cities where I worked and presented different issues, projects, and updates, and really didn’t give an opinion. They could assign me a project to do that I didn’t agree with, but I did it. I presented the facts to the city councils and I withheld my opinion. It is time for me to be able to give my opinion.” As a final comment, Jones added, “I am beholden to no one, I have no conflicts of interest, I have no business on this Island.”
Brashear emphasized infrastructure, quality of life, and tourism, saying, “Can you imagine palm trees up and down Laguna and Padre Boulevard, where beach accesses have palm trees? ‘Wow, this place looks cool.’ We live in this beautiful place; shake hands with your neighbor once in a while. The Island is a wonderful place. We need to beautify it, we need to fix the streets, build some bay access, and keep our beaches up. We have the best beach in Texas, let’s promote it like that.”
McNulty stressed the need for decisive leadership, saying, “I just want this Island to be the best that it can be, and we need to start moving forward. I agree that we need better landscaping, but we need health care, too. We need to maintain our beaches, we need better access, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of our beachgoers with restroom facilities. But what we really need to do is focus in on our shoulder season. We’ve got to get back on track, and we have to have a plan to get there. Lots of other places have moved a lot forward a lot faster. We need to focus like a laser and make sure that we’re doing everything the best that we can do and not just waiting around and taking our time.” He concluded his comments by stating, “If we, as a city, work forward and work consistently on projects, we should be able to get them done.”
Voicing the sentiments of many local residents present at the forum, Joni Montover, owner of Paragraph Books on South Padre Island, said she still wasn’t sure who she’s going to vote for, even after hearing all the candidates speak and state their positions. When asked what she felt the most important factor was in choosing a mayoral candidate, Montover said, “Big picture and being able to move us forward. They’re all very qualified, they all have different skill sets. I don’t know, I’m just going to have to think about it.”
Election Day is slated to be held on May 4 with early voting taking place from April 22 – 30.
Cozily located between Pompano and Sheepshead St., the South Padre Island Migratory Sanctuary has been underdone revitalization over the past two years, but now, the sanctuary is hoping to bring in volunteers.
If you take a stroll down to the sanctuary, operated by the Valley Land Fund, you will notice orange halves placed at various trees throughout the perimeter. Responsible for that act is Darrell Mangham, a volunteer and avid sanctuary admirer who is also currently running for Commissioner, Place 4 for the City of Port Isabel. Mangham said he visits the sanctuary daily at sunrise and in the afternoon to replace the oranges.
Though the sanctuary has been in place for about 16 years, local groups and volunteers got together about two years ago to revitalize the location.
“It hadn’t been maintained much over that first 13-14 years. Local groups, volunteers got together about two years ago, about 14-15 of us and we cleaned it all up,” said Mangham.
“But we realized it was beyond the scope of 15 ragtag volunteers. So, this year we realized we need to hire or acquire more help.”
Mangham said there are currently four volunteers who assist with the sanctuary but is hoping that more will join and donate their time and energy.
Further, a total of 11 beds” have been created and added to the sanctuary, each one filled with flowering plants, shade trees, and some even with watering holes. Mangham said individuals or groups are welcome to adopt the beds to maintain.
“We’d love to have individuals or groups adopt a small section, something that they can manage at their convenience and at their own schedule,” he said. “We’re not telling them how and when they need to do stuff, but it’s something they can do at their own convenience and landscape to their heart’s delight.”
Adopting a bed is free; however, the sanctuary does accept donations.
By FREDDY JIMENEZ
The new director of South Padre Island’s Convention & Visitors Bureau is open to the idea of having cruise ships docking at Texas’ top beach resort.
Ed Caum has only been on the job for four weeks but he is already thinking of the big picture.
Asked about the possibility of cruise ships docking at SPI, Caum said:
“I think the studies are proving that there are some opportunities there. I really appreciate the fact that the city has stepped up and the county is following along. Let’s do a feasibility study, let’s see what the right size ships are. Let’s see what it costs in mitigation.”
The possibility of having cruise ships dock at South Padre became a serious conversation during outgoing mayor Dennis Stahl’s tenure. Caum, who came from Naples, Florida, said he has been getting up to speed on the issue.
“Let’s make sure that when we mitigate we don’t damage Laguna Madre, or the Gulf. We have to do it smart. That is, what is the right size boat. But, if you can imagine us becoming a regular hub in the foot traffic that would bring to the Island, year round, from cruises, it would be a beautiful thing.”
Before an exclusive interview, Caum had talked to this reporter about recirculating new dollars. He said the impact of the cruise ship industry fits this category.
“Can you imagine having that money come in from all those tourists from all over the Caribbean and from South America and from Mexico? I think it would be a beautiful thing. But I think that is probably a distant operation. Probably ten years or so before we can make that happen, with all the permitting and everything.”
Before coming to SPI, Caum was deputy director of tourism and sports marketing for Naples, Florida. This is a luxury beach destination.
“So, I do know the beaches. If I had left Naples Bay then in a boat and I had headed directly west I would run directly into South Padre Island, Texas. So, I like to say I am from the same latitude and have the Island attitude.”
Asked what the Island attitude is, Caum said: “Let’s make this not only the best beach in Texas but also the best place for families to come visit. We are not only a Spring Break destination. We have been the vacation home of the Valley for generations and we do not want to change that. We want the Valley folks to come on down and enjoy South Padre Island just like their families have done for generations.”
Asked about his top priorities, Caum said it is very important SPI markets itself nationally and internationally.
“When I was hired, the interview committee said they would like me to take us through a strategic plan. So, over the coming months we will get all the Island partners together and have meetings and decide exactly how they want to market South Padre Island so that when we do this strategic plan it will be the Islanders’ plan that we can then put into effect, marketing both in Texas and nationally and also internationally. I would like to go back into the Mexico market.”
Asked about the potential for more business at the SPI convention center, Caum said:
“I think we are poised for growth here. We are going to look at the convention center, the space right now. We are really keeping pretty full. I am going to do is have a feasibility study, brushed up a little bit. We will be using Johnson out of Chicago to take a look at, if we do grow, what is the right size of growth. We want to be able to provide what our partners need on the Island so may be we will have a growth of 30,000 square feet, 50,000 square feet.”
Caum said he got a good idea from SPI police chief Randy Smith.
“The chief said, maybe we could have temporary tent space of 30,000 square feet or so. That might tide us over because it (adding permanent space to the convention center) would take about five years to come to fruition. We are using various ways to keep the convention center full. I think we are going to have a new agency come on board which I will be able to announce after the 1st of October. This agency can really help us do group and meeting markets. That will help us fill in that October, November time frame where we are a little bit slow.”
Asked for some wrap-up remarks, Caum said:
“I am just really glad to be here. The CVB and my team here are here for you. We would love to go back to hosting any kind of events you want out here. We want to go back to hosting some boxing, marshal arts, weddings, whatever the Valley needs. We do a lot of cheer and dance stuff. We are not just a Spring Break destination. We have plenty of months where we can have our neighbors come visit us. My team here at CVB will do whatever we can to make it the best experience possible.”
The arrival of April means sea turtle rescuers will be combing Cameron County beaches in search of nests.
The annual nesting of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles usually begin along the South Texas coast in early to mid-April, according to Jeff George, executive director of Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island.
The non-profit sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation group sends teams to look for nesting turtles or signs of turtle nesting activity so they can recover the eggs, incubate and hatch them under supervision, and then release the hatchlings on South Padre Island.
“ We offer public releases of hatchlings mostly in the months of June, July and August,” according to the group’s website.
At 6 p.m. Friday, April 5, Sea Turtle Inc. is celebrating the start of the season with Turtle Ball 2019 at the organization’s headquarters at 6617 Padre Blvd. on South Padre Island.
A cash bar will be available.
The party is a time for fun shared between Sea Turtle Inc. and the community.
“ Each year, we crown a new King and Queen of Sargassum, so we will be passing the crown, as well,” a Facebook event page says of the ceremonies.”
The ball will also honor the interns who do a bulk of the nest searches during the season.
This year’s interns include Ashley Moreno, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; Alicia Mackewicz, Florida Institute of Technology; Emma Pontius, University of Maine; Eli Yager, California State University Chico; Jennifer Peasnall, University of Delaware; Paulina Adame, New Mexico State University; Rachel LeCates, University of North Carolina Wilmington; and Rhiannon McGlone, Lock Haven University.
There are a few ways the public can help Sea Turtle Inc. The organization accepts donations and offers a Sea Turtle Inc. membership. The organization also welcomes volunteers at the facility and during beach cleanups.
Furthermore, people can visit the Sea Turtle Inc. facility, which is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays with ticket sales ending at 3:15 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors or military, $4 for children and children younger than 4 are admitted free. The center has an education center, tanks with sea turtles and a gift shop.
Educational presentations are offered throughout the day. The turtle talks teach the public about the mission of Sea Turtle Inc. to save endangered sea turtles.
As the season progresses, Sea Turtle Inc. does occasionally invite the public to witness the release of turtle hatchlings.
“ Not all hatchling releases are public,” the group’s website explains. “Hatchlings can only be released when they are in an active state (known as a frenzy). When the hatchlings are in a frenzy in the middle of the night, the hatchlings are released on the isolated northern beaches by trained staff members. These releases are not open to the public. Whey they frenzy at dawn (between 5 to 6 a.m., we host a public release. Usually notice for a public release is an hour and a half before the release.”
Patrols this year will involve, for the first time, coordination with SpaceX activities near Boca Chica Beach. SpaceX has already been conducting testing of its prototype Starship Hopper at its launch facility at the end of State Highway 4.
“ Sea Turtle, Inc. is responsible for nesting surveys on Boca Chica starting in early April,” George said. “We do periodic patrols from mid-July through early April looking for dead or injured sea turtles, and we have also been collecting ‘baseline’ data on any sea turtle or marine activity on Boca for the last 4 years. This will give the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service along with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department a look at what is ‘normal’ activity so that any activity during actual launches can be compared.”
Between early April and mid-July, Sea Turtle Inc. patrols at least five days a week and uses SpaceX equipment (ATVs) for these patrols, George said.
“ During this time, SpaceX is required (by their Environmental Agreement) and does provide access to Sea Turtle Inc. to look for nesting activity immediately before and after any closure,” George explained. “In the event of nesting, eggs are removed (and always have been removed) to be placed in a protective hatchery on South Padre Island.”
It is also important to know that Kemp’s ridley sea turtles like to nest during daylight hours and often when high winds exist, a time not conducive to launches, George further explained.
Coastal Current Weekly
A large crowd was on hand to witness the Rio Grande Valley League of Women Voters Mayoral Candidate Forum held on Thursday, March 28 at the SPI Convention Centre. All three candidates in the upcoming SPI election for Mayor, CLayton Brashear, Darla Jones, and Patrick McNulty participated in the evnt. Representatives of the League of Women Voters served as moderators, asking questions that were answered by each of the candidates. The questions included some that were generated by the moderators and others that were submitted by citizens.
Clayton Brashear began by chronicling his history on the Islan, beginning with his growing up in Brownsville, working as a busboy at Louie’s during high school, and later investing his earnings in real estate, building homes, culminating in his ownership of Clayton’s Beach Bar.
What I knew was how to put a tea together, so I put a team together to run that bar,” said Brashear of Clayton’s. “I am a visionary. I have vision, and that’s what I did. I built Clayton’s as the biggest beach bar in Texas.”
Darla Jones was next to introduce herself. She shared that she retired from after serving nine years serving as the SPI City Manager. Jones worked for four other city governments in the Valley prior to coming to the Island. “I’ve got a combined total experience in city management of 28 and a half years,” she said. “I will hit the ground running on day one. There is no learning curve. I know the staff. I know the budget.”
Patrick McNulty began by sharing that one of his platform items is to get the Island unified. “It seems like there’s been a lot of division over the last ten years as some people point out, and we need to get past that.
He went on share that he started visiting the area 42 years ago as a child. McNulty grew up in Dallas and moved to the Island in 2005. He started working in the area in 1997 as part of the development team for the Villas of south Padre and later formed his own company, Willis Development.
By Kevin Rich