Port Aransas And Rockport Want You To Visit, Even If They're Not Quite Ready
The Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau has a message for you: The city and its beaches are open for business.
Hurricane Harvey walloped the area just six months ago, so why the rush?
"Our cash crop is tourism, and we're a tourism-based economy with no other resource of industry," said Jeff Hentz, president and CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber. "So, we've been shut down since Aug. 25, and we've had very little money coming into the community."
Hentz said the city will be ready next weekend to fill hotel rooms – at least some of them.
"About 40 percent of those are going to be back open in March taking visitors," he said. "That's a big number. ... About 75 percent of our restaurants are going to be open by March 10, which is a huge number. Our bars are all open, with the exception of one. And our beaches are [in] phenomenal shape. Our fishing industry is halfway back already."
Most seaside towns would be worried to start the season without being fully operational, but Port Aransas doesn't have a choice. Tourism generates $400 million a year for the local economy. Hentz estimates that nearly half that has been taken away by Harvey.
The Tarpon Inn has stood in the wharf area of Port Aransas since the 1880s. Manager Amiee Van Winkle says she's looking to re-open the hotel in two weeks, but finishing repairs is only half the battle.
"We really want all of our ex-employees to come back to work for us, because we had a really great team at the time of the hurricane," she said. "But they've been displaced to Rockport, Corpus, even some as far as Dallas. So, getting them back here and finding them housing has kind of been a hurdle for us."
Labor could be a bit of a chokepoint for much of Port Aransas' ambitions this spring. The chamber had a job fair last month that drew only about half the number of applicants as there were jobs to be had through the summer.
The lack of labor has been a factor in the rate of reconstruction on the island.
"Where we've struggled, just strictly because of sheer volume of work, are in skilled or licensed trades and subcontractors, plumbers, electricians, things of that nature," said Alan Stevenson, a general contractor in Port Aransas. He's got 40 jobs already in the pipeline. To fill those faster, he needs a bunch of new workers and places for them to stay.
Housing is issue for workers in Rockport, too. Entire apartment complexes were knocked out by the storm, and residents were displaced to other towns. As of last week, the Walmart still does not have enough workers to stay open 24 hours.
"If there's no one here to work the restaurants and work the hotels and provide those service-related jobs, the whole economy struggles," said Mike Koerner, director of Long Term Recovery in Aransas County. "So, it's the lynchpin to our recovery. How do we get workforce families and workforce housing married up as quickly as possible to keep them here?"
The Long Term Recovery unit is a pilot program, of sorts, tapped by the governor to help residents in the Rockport area cut through some of the arduous red tape that has hampered past disaster recoveries.
Unfortunately, Koerner says, the county has no control over housing.
"It's controlled by federal dollars. It's controlled by federal programs in the state, with the [General Land Office] and things like that," he said. "So, our biggest challenge is the one we have the least control over."
Koerner says what his office has been able to do is get Rockport as close to ready for business as possible. That means doing everything from taking care of storm victims to removing tons of debris from the streets. The debris – all 2.7 million cubic yards of it – was sorted and piled 10 to 20 feet high in mounds. At one point, the mounds stretched for nearly two miles in the median on nearby Highway 35.
With all of that in the way, it's difficult to see Rockport the way Diane Probst would like visitors to see it.
"The water's still beautiful," said Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce. "The sun is still outstanding. As you drive through the main arteries of the community, you're going to see a lot of the things that you've known Rockport-Fulton for all these years."
She says Rockport will launch its own visitors' campaign later in March. The delay will allow more hotel rooms to come back online and for workers to return. She estimates it will be summer before things really feel "normal."
If folks can't wait, she says, the town could still use help: There are still volunteer cleanup opportunities.
"So, coming back with the spirit of help will just catch us up even that much more," she said.
Both towns realize they're not what they were a year ago or as far along as they'd like to be. But as one Port Aransas contractor said: No matter what, we still have the beach.