'Snowbirds' Find Fun, Warmth in Texas Gulf Community
Linda Vander Woude spent one winter in Florida – and then headed West.
The prices in popular Fort Myers, Fla., were too high. The crowds were too large. So they looked for an alternative warm destination to flee to when frigid winter descended, the Tulsa World reported.
"We were looking for something cheaper and warm, and we found Rockport," on the Texas Gulf Coast, the 63-year-old Vander Woude said, settling down for a night of country music and dancing at the Drifters Resort community hall.
The water is not as blue as Florida's. The winters are slightly less mild. The shopping is not as highfalutin. It's not nearly as hip as popular spring break destination South Padre Island along the Texas-Mexico border.
But the price is right, the economy is weak and Texans are winning these folks over with Southern charm.
"Here, we're called Winter Texans. In Florida, we're snowbirds," explained Jan Evenson, a Waterloo, Iowa, native who spent 2 1/2 winters in Florida and never felt comfortable.
Evenson, 73, has been coming to Texas for 11 years, though until about six years ago, she and her husband would drive down to "the Valley" – the popular winter destination along Texas' border with Mexico.
Now, with gas prices rising and the border getting more violent, Evenson and her husband prefer Rockport – one of many small villages along the central portion of the Texas Gulf Coast.
This appears to be the trend, says Ann Vaughan, president and CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau. Port Aransas is about 18 miles and a ferry ride away from Rockport.
Gary Mysorski, director of parks and recreation in Port Aransas, says the number of people participating in his department's activities has gone up from just over 1,300 in the winter of 2009-10 to 1,700 last winter. Activities range from arts and crafts to catamaran cruises. This year, he even offered one activity before Thanksgiving – usually too early – and it was full.
"Years ago, the city would shut down during the winter … they ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day and then nothing happened. And then as the Winter Texans began coming down, this all changed," Mysorski said, explaining that winter is now one of the busiest seasons.
Rockport and Fulton, two adjacent towns, have noticed a similar phenomenon, said Diane Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
The towns attract about 5,000 to 8,000 Winter Texans, she said. The entire region, including Corpus Christi, attracts more than 30,000 retirees.
Research shows the impact of their spending.
A 2009 study done by Rockport and Fulton – with a combined population of about 10,000 people – found that some 3,000 people wintered in these towns. Using estimates provided by hotels and RV parks, the chamber estimated they spend about $5.4 million a year there.
And last year, Probst said the towns enjoyed a 10% increase in Winter Texan traffic – and a change in demographic.
"It was a different clientele, not just the person that all they had was their RV," Probst said. "They want to do more. They want to learn and see and visit and get out and do and be active, not just coming to fish and that's it. We see them in our restaurants, we see them want to go and explore and get involved and volunteer."
And so, these towns are rushing to offer more, and different, activities.
The Joint Effort Leisure Ministry (JELM) is a not-for-profit organization housed by the Community Presbyterian Church in Port Aransas. With donations from Winter Texans and local residents, JELM offers a variety of programs and day trips. In the five years Pat Reilly has been the group's director, she has seen a steady increase.
Participation was so high last year that Reilly has added several trips, including three new birding excursions, to her repertoire of line dancing, bridge and other activities.
"People are telling me that their retirement dollars aren't going as far as they used to," said Reilly.