Dale Bietendorf: You can't not progress
Editor's note: This is part five in a seven-part series of interviews with current and past Port Aransas mayors reflecting on the state of our island town and its future. The first four articles were interviews with the town's most recent four mayors: Claude Brown (current), Georgia Neblett, Glenn Martin and Jim Sherrill. J.C. Barr, who died in 1998, served just before Sherrill, from 1988 to 1994. Below is an interview with Barr's immediate predecessor, Dale Bietendorf. The final two articles of the series will be interviews with Bietendorf's two living predecessors: Charlie Brown (no relation to Claude Brown) and Bob Flood.
SOUTH JETTY Dale Bietendorf, 75, lived in Port Aransas from 1970 until the late 1990s, when he and his wife, Margie Bietendorf, began traveling full-time in an RV. After about 18 months of seeing the country, they took up residence in Kerrville for several years. They moved to Rockport earlier this year.
Bietendorf was mayor of Port Aransas for two terms, from 1984 to 1988. He also served on the city council and on the Port Aransas Independent School District Board of Trustees. While a Port Aransas resident, he owned the Marine Courts, where the Port A USA shops, next to Pelican's Landing, are today. He also owned Dolphin Lodge on Cut-off Road.
South Jetty: What is the state of Port Aransas? How are we doing?
Bietendorf: It's a whole lot different from when I moved there in 1970. In 1970, it was still a laid-back, friendly, sleepy-type fishing village. Today, it's a real tourist Mecca. The reason that I enjoyed and actually loved Port Aransas so much was that old-time feeling you had when you walked the beach, and those kinds of things that just don't seem to be quite (the same). I'm 36 years older now than I was then. Things happen (because) Port Aransas has got something that not many other places in the world have - the beauty, the Gulf, and still has good people.
SJ: It's only recently that you visited Port Aransas again after being gone for four or five years. What was your reaction when you saw the town again?
Bietendorf: It's hard for me to believe what's going on. I envisioned certain things, but good night! I never doubted … that something like this (development) would happen, but I didn't realize it would happen to the extent it has in such a short time. … But when you've got the most beautiful wife, you've got to expect people to flirt with her. … Actually, it's not that I didn't desire growth. You can't not progress.
SJ: How do you feel about the changes?
Bietendorf: I can't say I'm happy with it. … I really came to Port Aransas (years ago) because it was a friendly little fishing village with lots of good fishing, with lots of good people, lots of space. The only thing you had was people that wanted to come there to lie on the beach and fish. Now there's a hundred other reasons they come. The fishing was always a priority and the beach was always a priority for me, but it wasn't everything else. … How can I talk, because I haven't been personally involved (in town recently)? It might be great. But it wouldn't satisfy me for the reasons I came there in 1970. It wouldn't be that much of an invitation to me as it would be today.
SJ: What can residents do to make Port Aransas the best town it can be?
Bietendorf: That was a question I had when I first became involved in city government. Most people then - the old-timers as well as those of us who came in the 70's, the early 70's we wanted to preserve and maintain as much of that feeling as we could. So … we put in building codes and building height (restrictions). We re-zoned the city. It had never been zoned before. Not only that, but one time the city attorney and I got together and decided we had over 5,000 (people in town) in a weekend, and that was enough to entitle us to become a home-rule city. We got a charter, and things just proceeded to get in line, because most of us realized that Port Aransas was going to become something - a tourist attraction.
SJ: What about today? What should we do to keep Port Aransas an attractive place to visit and live?
Bientendorf: The thing I think is most important is to keep the controls that we have in place - all the controls we have through the charter, building codes and those kinds of things. … (Those) are the things that will keep Port Aransas from becoming too giddy, too Las Vegas, Miami Beach. That's the only thing city government can do to control its future. Money is going to control (the town's) future.
SJ: How can we look after the town's best interests besides acting through city government?
Bietendorf: I was also on the school board, and one of the things I liked about the city while I was on the school board was the fact that parents did participate in taking an interest in their kids' educations. Today, I think that's very important, and I would encourage everyone who has a child in the Port Aransas school system to pay attention and participate in those kids' educations.
SJ: How important is the role of ordinary folks in efforts to make Port Aransas a good place to live?
Bietendorf: Port Aransas accomplished many of the things it accomplished like Roberts Point Park and the swimming pool not so much by the effort the city council put in but by the voluntary efforts of people that got behind the programs. … The drive and the things that are going to be good for the town have to come from the ideas and the inspiration of the people. In other words, if there is something everyone wants to get done, like a swimming pool or a park or a fishing pier or anything else, they've got to take the initiative and bring the points up with the city council and form committees to prove or disprove the importance of their ideas. Other than that, lots of luck.
SJ: Any thoughts about how our beaches are doing?
Bietendorf: Something else people don't like and do like: I was the guy who initiated the beach parking sticker. That's a pretty important thing, talking about budgets and stuff. … To my mind, that has brought in a lot of money.
SJ: A developer, Paul Schexnailder, said he would bring in a resort development worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Packery Channel area if the city of Corpus Christi would close a stretch of beach there to vehicular traffic. Corpus Christi voters recently went to the polls and defeated the proposal to ban auto traffic. What are your feelings about auto traffic on the beach?
Bietendorf: When I was a councilman … (the issue of) keeping the beach open or closing the beach (to vehicles) for condos and stuff like that was a big issue. I remember some really wild town meetings that happened over (proposals about) closing the beaches. In fact, one of the real reasons I got involved in politics in Port Aransas was over the Open Beaches Act. I wanted them open. I had the support of the land commissioner then - a guy named Garry Mauro - and with his support and everything else, we kept them open.
SJ: What are you most proud of doing while you were mayor?
Bietendorf: I think one of my greatest achievements as mayor of Port Aransas was streets and gutters and sidewalks. Most of the streets got curbs and gutters, and a lot of the streets got sidewalks that never had them before. … Melvin Littleton also was a driving force on that. … He was my chief advisor.
SJ: Why was it important to you to keep the beaches open?
Bietendorf: A bunch of us had a feeling that if we closed them to vehicular traffic, the next thing would be, the condos would have private beaches. … If you close the beach to vehicular traffic, you automatically have the condos having their own private beach. That, at least, was my feeling. The thing about it that was always a bother to me was, we, the people, wouldn't have access.
SJ: What made you decide to leave Port Aransas and start traveling fulltime on an RV?
Bietendorf: I've always been a traveler. I've been in every state in the union except two.
S.J.: Why did you settle in Kerrville for a while?
Bietendorf: One day, I was fixing a thing on the back of my motorhome, and when I bent over, I couldn't straighten backup. (Getting well) was a long process and after we had been there a while, my wife started having (health) problems. At the same time, this RV park in Kerrville we were staying at had everything - a heated pool, a workout room, and the river ran right behind us. It was just the picture of a nice place. … But I also started having heart problems. … So, we bought a house and decided to stay a while. We knew we couldn't travel long distances anymore.
SJ: Why did you move to Rockport a month or two ago?
Bietendorf: My mother is still alive. She is 94, and she is over here in a nursing home. All my kids still live in Aransas Pass and Ingleside and Rockport, and it's getting a little harder, to where we need a little help now and then. … I would have liked to move to Port Aransas, but (moving to Rockport) was a monetary decision.
SJ: How do you like Rockport?
Bietendorf: I'm (living) almost to Copano Bay. … There's almost been as much growth in Rockport as in Port Aransas. They've got a bunch of new things over here, but up where I live, it's mostly trees, squirrels, stuff like that. … I really enjoy where I am. …
but if I had my choice, I'd rather be in old-time Port Aransas. Scary movie is on tap