Rio Grande Valley Braces for Big Season

October 8, 2012 by · Comments Off on Rio Grande Valley Braces for Big Season 

The counties in red at the southern tip of Texas constitute the prime vacation areas in the Rio Grande Valley. Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mobile home and RV park operators in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas say all indications point to a successful year for Winter Texan visitors.

At South Padre Island, there’s been a 10 percent increase in the number of inquiries from prospective Winter Texans, Lacey Ekberg, the Convention & Visitors Bureau director, told The Monitor, McAllen. The CVB has received 5,000 to 6,000 calls per month since July, with most of those calls coming from the Midwest and northern states, including Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota.

“Given the number of inquiries, we do not expect less Winter Texan visitors than the previous year,” Ekberg said.

Some parks are able to get a hint of the coming season’s success based on previous year park residents who take advantage of “early bird” discounts, or make their reservations far in advance of their return.

Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito, for example, offers a rate of $75 for the month of October, park spokeswoman Janie Paz said.

Paradise Park RV Resort, in Harlingen last year offered a 5 percent “Early Bird Special” discount for some visitors who paid by June for the next winter. Other parks’ discount offers vary from year to year.

Winter Texans are big business in the Valley, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy every year. For the 2011-2012 season, Winter Texans had a $751 million direct economic impact on the Valley economy, according to statistics compiled by the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Winter Texans usually begin showing up in the Valley around Oct. 1, said Penny Simpson, a UTPA professor of marketing and associate dean of the College of Business Administration and director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center.

“It’s just a trickle in October,” she said of the annual migration of retirees. “When they come is tied to the weather. The health of the retirees also determines whether they will return to the Valley each year.”

Visits by retirees from northern states and Canada dropped sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but eventually returned to nearly the levels of earlier years. A biannual survey by UTPA this January showed some drop in numbers of Winter Texans in a January count of seasonal visitors from two years ago.

Simpson said 133,400 Winter Texans came to the Valley last winter compared with 144,000 two years earlier.

Worries about terrorism incidents along the border play into the decision to return to the Valley each year, she said.

Paradise Park Mobile Home Park in Harlingen has 255 mobile home sites and 295 recreational vehicle sites, office manager Christine Henderson said.

Some Winter Texans who have visited the Valley for several winters will stay longer and some make the Valley their home base and visit their northern homes during warmer months, she said.

“We have quite a few people that are annual but stay year-round. But then we have those that are annuals but they are only here for X amount of months and then they go back home,” she said.

While some retirees claim they are no longer Winter Texans because they live in the Valley most of the year, they still go back home to visit family during the hottest months of summer, she said.

“They’re all Winter Texans to me,” she said, laughing.

In recent years, with soaring fuel prices, more retirees are choosing to leave their RVs in the Valley, Henderson said. Paradise Park has a designated storage area for RVs that are not in use.

At Sunshine RV Park in Harlingen, workers have been replacing sod and making other repairs and preparations for Winter Texans who will soon arrive.

Manager Lon Huff said Winter Texans are attracted to the Valley by the many species of birds and proudly showed a small lake at his park where black-bellied whistling ducks, swans and roseate spoonbills congregated.

Huff said his park’s numbers don’t support UTPA’s statistics of declining numbers of Winter Texans.

“The years of 2010 and 2011 for us were extremely good years,” he said.

Violence in Mexico and high gas prices have not greatly affected the numbers of people wintering at Sunshine RV Park, Huff said.

Baby boomers are an increasing presence in the Winter Texan community, Huff said, adding that there’s a “pretty big” contingent of 55-year-old Canadians at his park.

The number of retirees who stay for six months each winter has been increasing each year he has worked at Sunshine RV Park, Huff said. Some owners of park models and mobile homes have added patios, storage buildings and other facilities, as evidence of their longer visits.


Texas City Suspends Water Fee for RV Parks

March 8, 2012 by · Comments Off on Texas City Suspends Water Fee for RV Parks 

City officials in San Benito, Texas, have temporarily suspended charging RV parks a monthly base water fee that Winter Texans have argued violated a state law, an official said Wednesday (March 7).

Assistant City Manager Chuck Jalomo said Wednesday the $10 fee is suspended pending a final decision by the City Commission on whether the city will charge mobile homes and fixed RVs, which is allowed under the state law, The Brownsville Herald reported.

Park managers and Winter Texans have argued the city ordinance that was passed in October violates a state law prohibiting cities from charging water fees to RV sites, whether occupied or not.

But cities can charge water fees to mobile homes and permanently tied-down RVs, Victor Garza, a member of the city’s utility board, said.

The matter is not resolved, Bonnie Dominguez, manager of Fun N Sun RV Resort, said. “There’s still a lot of gray area to clarify.”

Under the original ordinance, Fun N Sun was charged $14,000 a month for its 1,400 sites.

“We want to be fair across the board,” Garza said.

Garza said officials are now trying to determine the number of mobile homes and permanently tied down RVs within the city limits that will be subject to the new ordinance.

Officials said they decided to charge the monthly $10 base water fee to help ease the burden of rising water rates from single-home owners.

Since 2004, the city has raised water rates to help pay a $28.4 million debt that stems from water and sewer improvements.



Texas Park Owner Ignores Water Bill for Empty Sites

January 11, 2012 by · Comments Off on Texas Park Owner Ignores Water Bill for Empty Sites 

Charles Nunn said he will refuse to pay a new water charge because it is against the law, even though the city of San Benito, Texas, is threatening to shut off water to his RV park.

“They’ve got to be trespassing to get to my meter,” Nunn said, pointing to the master water meter at First Colony Mobile and RV Park on Turner Road.

Nunn said his park hasn’t paid $5,300 that has been charged since October when the city passed an ordinance setting a monthly $10 base water fee to individual RV sites, whether the sites are occupied or not, The Monitor reported.

“I said, ‘I’m not paying,’” he said. “I never paid for anything I didn’t owe.”

Nunn cited a state law that he argues prohibits cities from charging water fees to unmetered sites at RV parks.

The law in question was filed in 2005 by state Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, and State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, authored Senate Bill 569 and House Bill 841, respectively.

“The bill was brought to us by campground owners who were concerned about aggressive billing,” Chris Steinbach, Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, said. “So the bill was to keep the billing as accurate as possible.”

State Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, last year authored revised legislation known as House Bill 1210, which prohibits cities from charging all unmetered RV sites, whether they’re occupied or unoccupied, said Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).

The law exempts mobile homes and permanently tied-down park models, from water meter charges, Schaeffer said.

Barbara North, who manages Nunn’s park, said she doesn’t want to take a chance that the city won’t refund the money if it stops charging the fee.

“They’re going to have to back off and when they back off, the city won’t refund it,” North said.

But Bonnie Dominguez, manager at Fun N Sun RV Resort, said her park has paid the city’s new monthly charge, which amounts to $1,400 for one of Texas’ biggest RV parks.

“I cannot take a chance of the city cutting off my water. That’s why we’re paying,” Dominguez said. “I don’t doubt the city will refund the funds when the time comes.”

The water charge dispute here has flowed to Combes. The city of Combes has cited the San Benito ordinance disagreement and held off charging a $9.25 base water fee for sites at Carefree Valley RV Park, Dee Robertson, who managers Carefree Valley, the town’s only RV park, said.

Combes City Administrator Lonnie Bearden referred questions to the city’s water department Supervisor Noe Alanis, who was out of the office Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

Now Nunn says he’s looking for a lawyer to argue the city’s in violation of the state law.

“I don’t know what else we could do but fight them in court,” Nunn said.

Dominguez said Encore, the company that owns Fun N Sun, is reviewing the city ordinance.

“The last resort is legal action and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Dominguez said. “I think we can settle this amicably.”

In the meantime, San Benito officials are seeking advice about the law from the Texas Municipal League, Pete Claudio, chairman of the city’s utility board, said.

“We’re trying to get background information on the law and how it affects us,” Claudio said.

Scott Houston, the TML’s legal director, declined to state whether he believed the city was in violation of the law, saying city commissions and their city attorneys would decide such a question.

“We don’t make a determination on whether what they do is right or wrong,” Houston said.

Houston said the law requires that cities charge unmetered RV sites in the same way that they charge businesses such as hotels.

“They would have to charge using the same rate calculations they use for other commercial businesses,” Houston said.

San Benito city officials said they decided to charge individual RV sites and apartment units a monthly $10 base water fee to help lift the burden of high water rates from single family homes that pay average monthly base water and sewer fees of $49.68.

Claudio has said the city passed the ordinance to help single-home owners shoulder the burden of water rates that have climbed since 2004.

The city’s new ordinance that charges $10 for about 2,900 park sites and apartment units in the city will generate about $348,000 a year to help boost city coffers amid a national recession that’s driven sales tax revenues to six-year lows, Claudio has said.

City Reconsiders Charging Sewer/Water Fees for Empty RV Sites

December 8, 2011 by · Comments Off on City Reconsiders Charging Sewer/Water Fees for Empty RV Sites 

City commissioners in San Benito, Texas, Tuesday (Dec. 6) agreed to consider revising a new ordinance that charges a base water and sewer fee to RV parks for empty spaces and for vacant apartments.

Winter Texans packed City Hall to protest the law that some warned would force small RV parks to shut down, the Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, reported.

Commissioners said they would also consider amending the ordinance’s clause that allows the city to charge a $10 base water and sewer fee for every vacant apartment unit.

Commissioners took the action a day after the city’s utility board voted 3-1 against changing the ordinance.

Commissioners would have to determine how to calculate the number of empty RV spaces and vacant apartment units if they agree not to charge them, Pete Claudio, chairman of the utility board, told commissioners.

Commissioners could rely on occupancy reports from RV parks and apartment complexes or assign a city employee to determine the number of empty spaces and vacancies, Claudio said.

“Be fair,” Bonnie Dominguez, manager of Fun N Sun RV Resort, said after the meeting.

Under the new ordinance, the city charges Fun N Sun $168,000 a year for the park’s 1,400 spaces, Dominguez said.

But as many of 300 of those spaces remain empty year-long because they are too small for bigger, late-model mobile homes and RVs, she said.

“It’s dead space,” Dominguez said. “There’s no toilet, no building, no unit. There’s nothing there but a meter and a sewer pipe.”

Winter Texans returned to City Hall on Tuesday to protest the new ordinance they warned would drive up rents and lead some park residents to move out of town.

“That $10 will be coming back to me and all of us with permanent homes there,” Alice Nash, a Fun N Sun resident, told commissioners.

The new ordinance that charges $10 for about 2,900 park spaces and apartment units in the city will generate about $348,000 a year to help boost city coffers amid a national recession that’s driven sales tax revenues to six-year lows, Claudio has said.

Monday, utility board members argued the ordinance makes RV parks and apartment complexes shoulder part of the burden of high water rates that have climbed since 2004. Single-family homes bear the brunt of average monthly base water and sewer fees of $49.68, they said.

City Reconsidering Water Surcharge on Vacant RV Lots

November 22, 2011 by · Comments Off on City Reconsidering Water Surcharge on Vacant RV Lots 

The city of San Benito, Texas, may consider repealing a $10 water surcharge on unoccupied RV park spaces and apartments that has outraged Winter Texans, an official said Monday (Nov. 21).

The utility board chairman Pete Claudio said Monday the board has tentatively scheduled a meeting for Dec. 14 to review the ordinance, The Brownsville Herald reported.

“We’re going to revisit it, more than anything the vacant lots and vacant apartments,” Claudio said.

The $10 charge on about 2,900 park spaces and apartment units in the city would generate about $348,000 a year, which would be used to offset sales tax revenues that have dropped to six-year lows, Claudio said.

Officials believe single-family homes that pay an average monthly base water and sewer fee of $51.68 bear the burden of high water rates that have increased since 2004.

But Winter Texans packed City Hall last week to protest the ordinance.

“They need to do a lot of rethinking,” Sissy Wilhoit, manager at Tropical Trails RV park, said. “They owe some of us refunds.”

Allen Bills, manager of Resaca Bend and El Ranchito RV parks, said occupancy at some parks drops during the summer months leaving as few as five vehicles during the off season.

“The city does not really have a choice (but to repeal the ordinance) because they’re going to lose so much revenue because they’re going to kill the industry,” Bills said. “They’re nuts … if they think Winter Texans or (park) owners can pay that kind of money.”

Donald Boyd, a retired inventory specialist at Fun N Sun RV Resort, warned he would boycott San Benito businesses if officials didn’t repeal the ordinance.

“There is pressure in numbers,” Boyd said about Fun N Sun, which is one of the largest in the state, attracting about 2,000 Winter Texans to town.

“When we come out of Fun N Sun, it’s just as easy to turn left as it is to turn right to do our shopping. In our hearts we want to support San Benito, but if this thing goes through we’re going to turn to Harlingen.”

Neighbor Ed Jones said called the ordinance unjust.

“It’s an arbitrary rate that’s not based on any additional services,” Jones, a retired teacher and Fun N Sun resident, said. “How are you going to single out apartment buildings and RV parks and charge them differently than other businesses? My parents taught me that if you take something that doesn’t belong to you it’s stealing and if you do it under force it’s called robbery.”

City Commissioner Bill Elliott called for “a judicious review” of the ordinance that was passed in October.

“I think a review is certainly appropriate considering we had concern expressed by some of the facilities … to see if there’s any way a project can be enhanced or improved.”

Winter Texans Arriving; Mexican Violence Impact Uncertain

November 14, 2011 by · Comments Off on Winter Texans Arriving; Mexican Violence Impact Uncertain 

A tough economy, high gas prices and violence in Mexico didn’t stop RaNay Elm from driving to the Rio Grande Valley to join Winter Texans whose numbers rebounded to hit a record last year.

The Valley’s low cost of living helped lure her here, said Elm, a retired retail store manager from Topeka, Kan., who pulled into Fun N Sun RV Resort with her husband Marvin early this month to spend her first season as a Winter Texan, the Brownsville Herald reported.

“Price was a very big factor,” she said.

Winter Texans came to the Valley in record numbers last year after a decline that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said Penny Simpson, a professor who researches tourism at the University of Texas-Pan American.

“We’re back up to the (pre-Sept. 11) level,” Simpson said.

But Mexico’s drug violence could cut numbers this year after news hit the Midwestern states that most Winter Texans call home, Simpson said.

Numbers hit a peak of 143,000, generating $329 million in 2001, before dropping off following the terror attacks that shocked the national economy, Simpson said. By 2005, numbers had fallen to 127,000.

But last year, 144,000 Winter Texans came to the Valley, setting a new record and pumping $802.5 million into the local economy, Simpson said.

“I think people are getting their confidence back,” she said.

Mexican Violence Hurts Some Parks

Lon Huff, the manager at Sunshine RV Resort in Harlingen, said this year’s numbers are up.

The park filled 89% of its 1,027 spaces last year, he said.

“We’re definitely ahead of last year, which was a very good year,” Huff said.

But at Country Sunshine RV Resort in Weslaco, Mexico’s violence is keeping some Winter Texans away, manager Melissa Cortez said.

This year, bookings are down about 30% at the park with 377 spaces, she said.

“My numbers are a bit down this season,” Cortez said. “The publicity we’re getting because of the Mexico issue has really hit us hard. A lot of them don’t know they can still go to Progreso and it’s OK.”

But violence across the border didn’t stop Don Carkner from his annual journey from Ontario, Canada.

“As long as they keep the violence in Mexico, that’s fine with me,” said Carkner, a retired military officer at Country Sunshine.

High gas prices have led many Winter Texans to drive down in their cars and rent RVs at the park, Cortez said.

“That’s a trend,” she said.

But gas prices didn’t stop Roy Ridlon from driving his 41-foot motorhome to Sunshine RV Resort in Harlingen.

From his home in Embarrass, Minn., about 30 miles from the Canadian border, it cost nearly $1,000 to fuel up for the trip, said Ridlon, a retired operating engineer.

“To heat your home in the Snowbelt would cost more than the drive down here,” Ridlon said.

Winter Texans Arriving Earlier

At Fun N Sun, Winter Texans like Elm are arriving earlier this year, Bonnie Dominguez, the park’s manager, said.

“We’ve had more residents come back earlier this year than years before,” she said. “I’m feeling we’re going to have a great year.”

Elm said she was enticed to leave for the Valley earlier after a cold autumn.

“It’s gotten colder faster in the North,” said Elm, who pulled into the park on Nov. 1. “We wanted to come down and get away from the cold.”

For Elm and Carkner, the Valley offered a lower cost of living than RV meccas they’ve visited in Florida and Arizona.

“Lots fees are cheaper,” Carkner said. “It’s about two-thirds the price of Florida.”

But violence in Mexico almost kept her away, Elm said.

“We hesitated. We almost didn’t come because of that,” she said. “But friends reassured us that the parks in this area are safe.”

Simpson said Mexico’s violence could cut the numbers of Winter Texans this year.

Last year, news of Mexico’s drug violence hadn’t hit hard in the Midwestern states before Winter Texans left for their annual pilgrimage to the Valley, she said.

But this year, the news has spread across the United States and Canada, she said.

“We really don’t know the impact yet,” Simpson said.

Economy Isn’t Slowing ‘Winter Texan’ Influx

October 19, 2010 by · Comments Off on Economy Isn’t Slowing ‘Winter Texan’ Influx 

Returning Winter Texans Bill and Judy Zorrer are not letting the national economic slowdown and reports of border violence in Mexico affect their plans to travel to the Rio Grande Valley this winter, the Brownsville Herald reported.

“It’s something that appears very scary on the news,” Bill said about reports of kidnappings and shootings. “But we feel that (Nuevo) Progreso is still relatively safe.”

The Zorrers have made the Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito their winter home for the past three years. This year they plan to stay in the Valley until April.

“We sold our home and travel for a living now,” he said. “We can’t let the economy or anything else get in the way of the way we live our lives.”

They said that when they go to Mexico, they make sure to travel in a large group and only travel during daylight hours.

“To tell you the truth, (low) prices are what keep us going to (Nuevo) Progreso,” Bill said.

Fun N Sun office manager Bethlee Huff said she receives many calls from Winter Texans who are concerned about travel to Mexico and the safety of the park. Still, the park’s daily count sheet states that 280 RVs have arrived there so far this season, a number that is on track with other years.

“We don’t promote travel to Mexico,” Huff said. “But a lot of people call and ask us about the state of the border. Ultimately, they do end up going to Nuevo Progreso, because many Winter Texas have gone without any problems.”

Huff explained that Winter Texans arrive daily; many of them have taken part in the early bird special, which entices the Winter Texans to arrive early and stay later, at reduced rates.

“To qualify for the early bird, they must have booked by the end of March the previous season, and spend four or more months at the park,” Huff said.

Fun N Sun’s discount is $75 for October, compared to the park’s regular price of $362, Huff said. It also charges $99 for November and April, she said, adding that the regular price for those months is $469 and $428, respectively. The prices include water, cable TV plus the park’s amenities.

In Harlingen, Paradise Park manager Dan Pearson said he expects about 1,000 Winter Texans and 500 RVs to return this year, a number that is holding steady with the previous year.

“Winter Texans aren’t greatly affected by the economy like other groups,” Pearson said. “A lot of them have pensions, or money saved up.”

Pearson also supported the attitude that despite border violence, Winter Texans will still migrate here when the weather turns frosty in northern states.

“There really is no competing with the Valley,” Pearson said. “The climate in Florida is basically the same, and for a couple of thousand dollars cheaper, Winter Texans can come and enjoy all the Valley has to offer.”

Penny Simpson, head of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American, believes that the number of Winter Texans staying in the Valley will continue to grow, unless an unforeseen national tragedy occurs.

“The only time Winter Texan numbers have diminished was after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11,” Simpson said. “The effect border violence will play in their decision to visit the Valley is not available yet, but it will be interesting to know if it’s going to play a role.”

Simpson has been researching the impact of Winter Texans on the Valley since 1986, and according to her findings, an estimated 144,000 Winter Texans pumped a total of $802.5 million into the Valley’s economy, during the 2009 season.

Simpson’s 1986 study found that a total of 77,000 Winter Texans were present that year and that each Winter Texan household spent an average of $2,500 during their stay.

Twenty-one years later, for the 2009 season, Simpson reported that the average household spent $10,700 during the winter season.

Huff and Pearson both cited gas prices as a concern for some returning Winter Texans. As a result, last year Fun N Sun kept an estimated 82 RVs in storage and Paradise Park held 30, the park managers said.

The spike in gas prices, which averaged around $4 per gallon in 2008, made it more economical for some Winter Texans to leave their RVs here, rather than tow them to their summer homes, Huff and Pearson said.

“During the gas crunch of 2008, many Winter Texans opted to leave their RVs in storage, because gas prices were incredibly high,” Huff said. “But if gas prices stay the way they are now, we won’t be seeing that in the coming year.”

For Donald and Barbara Seiwald, the choice to leave their RV behind last season was purely for convenience.

“We won’t be driving to the Valley until later this week,” Barbara Seiwald said from her home in Independence, Mo. “This is our fifth year leaving our RV at Sun N Fun, and it’s just a lot easier not having to worry about the drive, especially for older individuals like ourselves.”

She said that when they arrive, their RV would be sitting in their lot, prepped and ready for them.

“It saves us a lot of time and effort,” she said.

Driving from Urbana, Ohio, Judy and Kenneth Batterton said their return to the Valley took two days.

Judy Batterton said that this was their second year in the Valley and that hospitality and friendliness brought them back.

“The Valley and Florida are fairly similar,” she said. “But Floridians aren’t as friendly as Texans.”

The Battertons arrived only days after the Valley made national headlines when a Mexican investigator’s head was delivered in a suitcase to the Mexican military in Miguel Aleman. The investigator was looking into the disappearance of David Hartley, a case that has attracted national attention.

“That’s horrible,” Judy Batterton said. “We weren’t aware of the new developments in that case, but we still believe that traveling to specific parts of Mexico, like (Nuevo) Progreso is safe.”

Still, some Winter Texans like Jan Valdenna, who has been coming to the Valley with her husband Chuck since 1995, are concerned about traveling to Mexico.

“I will not be going as much,” Jan said. “It’s really unfortunate, because Mexico is such a beautiful place. I know couples limit their time in Mexico due to the violence.”

Huff and Pearson both expect the number of returning Winter Texans to remain strong and predict December through March to be peak season.

“They’re rolling in on a daily basis,” Huff said. “And that’s going to continue until we reach our peak.”