Since the workshop: Port Isabel, TX looks at the bigger picture of redevelopment

port isabel4Skyline view of Port Isabel from the Laguna Madre Bay. Photo by Valerie D. Bates

Smart Growth America visited Port Isabel, TX in May 2013 to provide the City with tools to implement smart growth strategies. In particular, the City was looking to revitalize two main areas in its south side—the Old Garcia Street District and the South Shore Drive District. These two neighborhoods, characterized by lasting damages from Hurricane Dolly in 2008, vacant or abandoned properties, as well as obsolete businesses, had fallen behind their counterparts in the northern part of the city.

At the workshop on May 22, 2013, Smart Growth America’s experts met with city officials, residents, and business owners to discuss smart growth in the context of Port Isabel, a small community of about 5000 people. Port Isabel, with historic development patterns and architecture dating to the turn of the 20th Century, is in stark contrast to the high-rise hotels and condominiums of South Padre Island, directly across the causeway. The City’s revitalization plans are part of a larger effort to distinguish Port Isabel as a different type of tourist destination, as well as a comfortable place for families to live year-round.

The workshop helped expand the community’s understanding of the meaning of smart growth, said Margie Jacobs, the Grant Writer and Administrative Assistant for the Port Isabel Economic Development Corporation. “All of [the city officials] got a better understanding about how they need to look at the bigger picture in an area and…how we can repurpose this whole neighborhood and make it more workable and more user-friendly.”

Smart Growth America’s recommendations after the workshop noted that an important first step towards achieving sustainable growth anywhere is to reach out and engage a broad group of community residents to help generate support for any proposed projects. Another important aspect of community engagement, the Smart Growth America team pointed out, is establishing priorities, particularly when there could be many competing goals.

At the time of the workshop, one of Port Isabel’s main priorities was the building of its Event & Cultural Center in the southern part of the city. Since the workshop, work on the center has been moving full steam ahead, with its grand opening slated for May. Last November, the Port Isabel City Hall hosted a public forum to provide updates on the center’s construction and possible future uses. Input was sought from the community members assembled; in particular, they discussed the needs of the surrounding areas, including connectivity to the center from neighborhoods across Highway 100, the state highway that bisects Port Isabel.

To address these concerns, the City has begun talks with the Texas Department of Transportation regarding the addition of pedestrian crossings on Highway 100, as well as longer traffic light cycles. The City is also exploring the option of building a hotel across from the Event & Cultural Center to not only accommodate event guests, but also help catalyze economic development by encouraging businesses to utilize the center for their events.

In connection with construction and opening of the center, the City is looking into securing a ten-year Cultural District Designation from the Texas Commission on the Arts for the Garcia Street District, which also encompasses the City’s Historic District. This designation would greatly augment economic development in the area and encourage sustainable development. The designation would enable the City to find funding to reclaim and repurpose older buildings in the area, and there is already talk of creating mixed-use spaces. The Port Isabel Economic Development Corporation (PIEDC) is also looking to contribute to the area’s economic development with the creation of $5,000 mini-loans to assist nearby businesses; and there is an upcoming community workshop about the PIEDC’s more substantial loans offered to businesses from the Revolving Loan Fund. With all these efforts in place, the Port Isabel community is seeking to support small businesses that can entice tourists and residents to spend more of their time and money in the downtown area.

The City has begun work on a variety of initiatives since the workshop. Recently, the City received a second grant to fund construction of the Living Shoreline, part of the Arturo Galvan Coastal Park. The park will provide more green space and recreational opportunities to residents and visitors alike. The City is also considering the purchase of the beautiful, historic Yacht Club Hotel, which it plans to repurpose as a culinary school and an incubator for new businesses.

There is a great deal of redevelopment potential in Port Isabel, particularly in the southern part of the city. While the workshop touched on the issues of redevelopment in the Old Garcia Street and South Shore Drive Districts, it really had a much broader focus on sustainable growth as a concept for the community to explore. There are many more conversations to be had surrounding future development in the area, which was one of Smart Growth America’s chief recommendations. Conveniently, the opening of the Event & Cultural Center next month will afford greater opportunities to bring residents together to do just that.

Smart Growth America’s technical assistance program, made possible through a five-year Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, seeks to develop local planning solutions that help communities grow in ways that benefit families and businesses, while protecting the environment and preserving a sense of place. Three other nonprofit organizations—Forterra, Global Green USA and Project for Public Spaces—also received competitively awarded grants under this program to help communities get the kinds of development they want.

Technical assistance