Hotelier Barry Patel is upping his ante in the South Padre Island tourism economy with the construction of a Courtyard by Marriott near his Hilton Garden Inn on the north end of the coastal town. He is wagering the Island’s future will deal him a full house.
“I am very optimistic about the Island,” said Patel, a former mayor. “The things that the city has done in the last three years and the things coming next, in about five years time the Island will have a completely different look.”
Patel has developed several other hotels on the Island over the years, and his latest venture, expected to open in about a year, will bring an additional 220 rooms, a Bar Louie restaurant, ballroom space for 1,000 people, swimming pool and beachfront deck.
The economic indicators for the Island continue to show steady growth year over year, according to figures compiled by the South Padre Island Economic Development Corporation. Total sales tax revenue in 2017 tallied $3.26 million, an increase of more than $137,000 over 2016. All revenue from taxes for 2017, which also include hotel-motel occupancy, mixed drink and property, topped more than $18.74 million or $483,400 over 2016.
One statistic that stands out more than others is the valuation of building permits. After an almost $10 million dip from $29.46 million in 2015 to $19.96 million in 2016, commercial and residential building permits last year were valued at $54.87 million, a whopping year-over-year increase of 178 percent, according to the figures provided by the EDC.
Last year in July, more than $40.75 million worth of building permits were issued. The lion’s share of that is related to Patel’s Marriott development. “That is what I hope is the confidence in the future of my predecessor Barry Patel,” said Island Mayor Dennis Stahl, a former councilman who ran unopposed for mayor after Patel did not run for re-election.
Signs of change can be seen around the Island, with the most visible a combination of infrastructure improvements and private sector investment, Stahl said. “We started and finished a project where we redid Gulf Boulevard to make it more pedestrian friendly,” he said. “We spruced it up and added some foliage. And we have worked real hard improving our beach access with new walk-overs to the beach.”
Crews are working on concrete sidewalks along Padre Boulevard, the main drag through town, all the way north to The Shores subdivision at the northern end of the city, Stahl said. Medians along that street will be extended north to the South Padre Island Convention Centre.
Many commercial buildings, from hotels to retail outlets, have benefited from significant renovations, including new investment along the bayside of the Island. “When I was mayor I made sure we put emphasis on the bayside in our planning,” Patel said. “That bayside needs to look just as nice as the gulf side.”
Anchored by some longtime favorite attractions like Louie’s Backyard restaurant and club, the entertainment district along Laguna Madre shoreline is showing signs of revitalization. A group of investors purchased the land in the old Jim’s Pier area, including the long-vacant Amberjack’s restaurant, and began a complete makeover of that area. Amberjack’s was demolished and Jim’s Pier underwent extensive renovation and expansion that included an improved boat ramp, more boat slips, additional parking for boats and trailers, a boardwalk and public green space.
“Jim’s Pier was bought out by a group from Dallas,” Patel said. “They have completely renovated the place. They have invested a ton of money and it’s just beautiful.” An adjacent bar and grill was revamped and reopened as the Painted Marlin.
“Fortunately, they are very patient and long-term investors and everything they do is first class,” Stahl said. The new mayor also pointed south down Laguna Boulevard to where even more investment has been taking place. New owners and extensive renovations have changed the old Palm Street Pier into Lobo Del Mar and long-closed Tequila Frog’s into the Longboard, which just opened in June.
The old boat launch at the end of Palm Street will be replaced by the city using a $1.6 million grant through the RESTORE Act, which is funded by administrative and civil penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “The city two years ago applied for a RESTORE Act grant to help us do our own bayside improvements by adding a boat ramp for fishing tournaments,” Patel said. “We also improved four streets on the bayside for more parking for boat trailers.”
Stahl agrees with the need to continue improvements along the Laguna Madre and said the city is beginning to look at other projects to enhance the bayside. “We are just now beginning to do the research that is necessary to completely redo Laguna Boulevard,” he said. Those discussions are ongoing as the city works on updating its comprehensive plan, known as The Island Way. “We are concentrating on being as transparent as possible as we develop plans for the future.”
As development continues to churn on the Island, the profile of visitors has also undergone change. Valley residents have always counted as the largest number of visitors each year to the Island, and growth in the higher education and medical fields has helped bring expanded prosperity to the region. “I think the demographic in the Rio Grande Valley has changed,” Patel said about that growth. “It has added an enormous number of people who are now making better wages. The folks that come from the Valley are staying longer and spending more. It has been a huge increase in that particular segment.”
But a higher demographic profile does not mean the Island will become out of reach for tourists on a tighter budget. “We want to have what I call everybody’s island,” Stahl said. “What I mean by that is if you are on a budget you can still afford to come here. There’s plenty of choices. You can go from the Marriott on the north end to a more budget hotel on the Island.”
Behind the local visitors, San Antonio and Austin are second in the numbers of tourists, followed by Dallas and Houston, and the Island promotes itself as a tourist destination well beyond Texas. Stahl pointed to a new weekly nonstop flight between Chicago and Brownsville during the winter tourist season that will fly from November through March.
Cameron County’s ongoing improvements to Isla Blanca Park may pay off in more ways than providing revitalized visitor amenities and a new amphitheater as negotiations with cruise lines enter a new phase, with the park the likely place where tourists would disembark from a cruise ship. “It would be in Isla Blanca Park,” Stahl said. “That amphitheater parking lot could be used to stage buses or vans when the cruise lines make their stop here.”
At the end of June, the city approved $100,000 to continue exploring the viability of cruise line visits. “The second part is spending more time with the cruise lines to understand what they need,” Stahl said. “This next round we would be spending on some more consultancy and trips to Miami to visit with cruise lines to lay out plans.”
This July, as the busiest month of the year for the Island unfolds, many locals are betting that past, present and future development and investment will pay out big returns for the future of tourism.