Aransas Pass after slice of tourist pie
Within the past year, the Aransas Pass City Council has
• Gained resident input on the future of Conn Brown Harbor
• Let bids for a new civic center
• Decided to refurbish the municipal swimming pool
Speaking of plans to turn Conn Brown Harbor, once a haven for shrimping fleets, into a tourist-oriented area, Aransas Pass Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rosemary Vega said, "It allows us to promote tourism on a whole different level."
That level is where Port Aransas is today.
Once a point of serious contention in Aransas Pass (plans to sell the harbor to a developer led to the recall of two city council members in 2006), the harbor now seems to be a point of agreement. In October, a class of Texas A&M University landscape architecture students came to the city to host what they called a "charette" - a gathering designed to learn how the public feels about a matter.
Presenting the class's preliminary report to the city council last month, City Manager Tom Ginter noted that residents agreed on public use of the harbor and on making it into a tourist destination.
While it didn't draw the attention backers had hoped, the festival did direct attention to work that's being done to clean up the harbor and make it into a destination for someone other than shrimpers.
In fact, shrimpers have become less and less an economic factor in Aransas Pass since early this decade. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department figures show the year 2000 was a boomer for shrimpers, but the next year the bottom fell out: Farm-raised shrimp from overseas began to seep into the United States and is still gaining ground on shrimp caught in the wild in the Gulf of Mexico.
The people who go to sea in the shrimp boats are finding it difficult to make enough money to keep going. Fuel prices are high, food for the family is a constant demand and payments on boats whose cost approaches $1 million are a daily worry.
Gulf King, the massive company founded by the Herndon family, helped give Aransas Pass its nickname of "Shrimp Capital of Texas" (as recently as the 1980s, a huge statue of a shrimp dominated the intersection of Wheeler, Cleveland and Harrison streets in front of the Aransas Pass city hall). But Gulf King moved most, if not all, its 65 vessels to South America a decade ago.
The city's new slogan is "Saltwater Heaven."
On the shores of Conn Brown Harbor, buildings bearing the Gulf King logo are being torn down.
Derelict shrimp boats, some of which have sat in the water for years, are being dragged onto the shore, cut into manageable pieces and hauled away for scrap.
At the charette, the public-input meeting held in October, residents suggested such previously unheardof projects as an upscale high-rise hotel or a golf course for the peninsula of land that separates the harbor from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. While planners agree that a golf course wouldn't be appropriate, that upscale hotel is another matter entirely.
Nor is attention entirely focused on the harbor.
Along the causeway between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas, a quartet of buildings is nearly finished, what developer Steve Couchman calls "West of Key West." The enclave, just feet from the Aransas Pass Channel, will include rental homes, a hotel, a convenience store, a bar and a place to rent kayaks and personal watercraft.
Couchman, who ran afoul of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year for failing to request a wetlands permit (the Corps of Engineers says - Couchman disagrees), hasn't yet set an opening date for the complex.
It may escape the attention of drivers headed north on State Hwy. 361, the road that runs to Aransas Pass, but while most of Harbor Island is in the city of Port Aransas, the rest of the island and the entire causeway itself is in Aransas Pass.
Businesses that may begin to flourish along the causeway will pay taxes to Aransas Pass, not to Port Aransas. Several businesses - South Bay Marina, the Crab Man bait stand - already do. More property fronting the channel could go on the market if the price is right - and, if the opportunity is there, the price will be right.
That movement may not have been noticed much in Port Aransas, but at least one person is paying attention.
"(Port Aransans) need to be aware, and it needs to be a wake-up call," said Ann Bracher Vaughan, executive director of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce-Tourist Bureau.
"We're unique - but we can't rest on our laurels," she added.
Vaughan is one of those who pushes for the Port Aransas city council to make up its mind what to do with 67 acres of city-owned property at the end of Port Street. The acreage, bought by the city in the 1990s, carries with it a Corps of Engineers permit for a marina, something nearly everyone seems to agree the city needs.
Yet, though the permit has been renewed every five years, experts say those renewals may be coming to the end of their cycle.
The council has appointed a committee, including Vaughan, to make a recommendation on the uses to which the 67 acres should be put, including how it should be developed - as a public venture, as a public-private partnership or as a private investment that must meet city guidelines. The committee is to report back to the council soon.
In Aransas Pass, the bulkheads and boat ramps are in place. They're just waiting for the final proposal.
And they're not waiting idly.