Retirees seeking to save money, avoid crowds flock to Texas Gulf
Coast in winter
By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI
Associated Press Thu, Dec 29, 2011
in the "Chicago Tribune"
In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo, Mel Camden, left,
from Rock Falls,
Ill., plays guitar
In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo, Phyllis Hampton,
center, leads a
group of dancers at
ROCKPORT, Texas (AP) Linda Vander Woude spent one winter in
Florida and then headed West.
The price of staying in Florida's popular Fort Myers area when
her husband's job went overseas forcing an
earlier-than-expected retirement was too high. The crowds were
too large. And the couple did not feel welcomed by the locals.
So they looked for an alternative warm destination to flee to
when frigid winter descended on their hometown, Kentwood, Mich.
"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.
For years, it seemed, the charms of the Texas Gulf Coast were
largely a secret much to the chagrin of the locals, the
business owners and the few outsiders aware of its magic. Now
though, that is changing as baby boomers seek cheaper,
less-crowded winter destinations and flock to small towns that
dot the South Texas coast.
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
two-and-a-half 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. The chamber hasn't done an official survey since 2004,
but participation in community events and activities show the
numbers of Winter Texans steadily increasing.
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 for the Winter
Texans 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, still considerably less than the 140,000 or so
who flock to the border area, but significant for this sleepy
Past research shows the impact of their spending. A 2004 study
commissioned by the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce found that
these visitors doubled the local population of about 3,500 for
the five months they were around. Just in that town, they were
estimated to spend $13 million annually, creating the equivalent
of 380 full-time jobs 16 percent of the city's total.
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
And last year, Probst said the towns enjoyed a 10 percent
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 so, these towns are rushing to offer more, and different,
The Joint Effort Leisure Ministry, or 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
Usually, she said, by the end of December she has only 100
applications. This year, she already has 130.
"This is an indication that by Jan. 1, when I usually have 300
registration forms filled out, I will be ahead by one-third,"
Reilly said. "That's an incredible number for a small town like
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. Traditionally
visitors hailed from the Midwest and Canada, but "lately, I've
been getting people from the East Coast. I never had people from
New Jersey until this year."
Larry Buerger, 72, and his wife, Louise, 71, traveled from
Florida to Arizona and Nevada before finally deciding they
wanted to spend the rest of their winters in Texas far warmer
than their hometown of Ironwood in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"Part of it was the economy," said Larry Buerger, who also likes
the fishing. "Groceries, gas, restaurants it's all cheaper."