Limited Construction for Isla Blanca Park
cornered officials to limit construction after deal to allow private
development on Isla Blanca Park was already signed. County judge says
new contract that hasn’t been unveiled should calm outcry.
The genius, Barry Keenan, is the youngest person ever to hold a seat on the Los Angeles Stock Exchange.
He’s less lucky at real estate,
however, and had just lost big bucks.
Shifting financial gears, he decided that kidnapping would be a good way to get them back.
He picked Frank Sinatra, Jr., the 19-year-old son of Ol’ Blue Eyes. It’s 1963 and the story is true.
One film critic called Stealing Sinatra - the movie based on Keenan’s
kidnapping - a study of a “domino effect of bad choices that break down
into hilarious chaos.”
Did you miss this recent not-so-classic?
Don’t worry. If you live in South Texas, you might unwillingly have a
front row ticket for the sequel.
KEENAN ON THE RAMPAGE, SOUTH PADRE OR BUST
three years after he left a night club full of people clutching Frankie
Jr. tickets and many years after completing four and a half years of
his original 40 year sentence for the crime; three years after partners
in a failed multi-million dollar casino project in Biloxi, Missouri,
were indicted, Barry Keenan has brought his latest development plan to
South Texas. Last year Cameron County signed a lease agreement with the
Keenan-backed Laguna Madre Enhancement group to open Isla Blanca County
Park to private development. As originally proposed, the plan made room
for a new marina, condos, a casino, an aquarium and an IMAX theatre.
The 592-lot RV park that has forever been the Valley’s number one
low-rent seaside campsite and summer vacation destination was not on
the blueprint. Neither was the Boy Scout camp at Dolphin Cove.
Children’s Beach, a sandy cove where generations have taught their
children to swim while watching dolphins surface was gone, too. In its
place, a multi-million dollar, lumbering aquarium, where children would
have the privilege of travelling indoors to see the outdoors, while the
outdoors would no longer be accessible.
It wasn’t until March of
this year, however, that the public seemed to take notice. Though
Cameron County commissioners had discussed the development dozens of
times in open session, and had dutifully published minutes of all their
executive sessions, the public never keyed in on the plans. Part of the
problem might have been indirect language that was used to announce the
NACHOS FOR SALE FROM A HIGH RISE CASINO
the first commissioners’ court listing of the project in June 2004, the
meeting agenda described the Laguna Madre Enhancement Group’s plans to
lease Isla Blanca Park as a “concession agreement.” Now when you think
about a beach and a concessions agreement, nachos, hot dogs, maybe even
fish tacos or ice-cream shakes might pop to mind. It’s safe to say it
probably wasn’t obvious to anyone who might have been concerned that
the county was in the process of signing a lease that would
significantly alter a public park that sees nearly a million visitors a
But then something happened. Reporters for the Harlingen
and Brownsville newspapers covered the emerging deal. Doyle Wells was
interviewed twice by talk show host Davis Rankin on KURV 710 AM. County
Judge Gilberto Hinojosa then made numerous appearances before local
chambers of commerce to explain the county’s vision for the Isla Blanca
Alarmed by fears of privately controlled beaches and
visions of her kids playing in the shadow of a casino, soon-to-be
mother of four, Faith Ballesteros and 52-year-old Delton Lee started a
local chapter of the Surfriders Association, a national group dedicated
to preserving the nation’s beaches and ensuring public access to them.
Their first guest at their first meeting was Cameron County Judge
It was just the first of several meetings
Hinojosa would attend to try to gauge public response to the master
plan, a move he made only after the plan had already been signed into
effect the previous year. People were not happy with the belated
discovery that 165 acres - the best chunk of real estate on the entire
island - could soon be shut off from the public. It’s the one spot
where fishermen, surfers and beachcombers can simultaneously take in a
view of the jetty and ocean-going vessels. And The Intracoastal
Waterway cuts right by Isla Blanca, where dolphins feed and play,
sometimes racing boats and jumping through the air out in front of
On Isla Blanca’s Gulf shore are the best surf breaks between Texas and Florida.
The park is such an anchored, historic part of so many South Texans
lives that most probably assumed it would forever remain in the public
trust. In fact it was given to Cameron County by the Brownsville
Navigation District in 1950 with the stipulation that the land be used
for a public park. Unfortunately, no penalties were written into the
deed that would prohibit using the land for private interest.
By the time outcry started, it was too late. Development was on its way.
ITS NOT WHAT YOU SAY OR EVEN HOW YOU SAY IT
are disturbed by conflicting comments issued by the developers and the
county about the fate of the RV Park, the contract’s vagueness on that
particular subject, and its general open-ended nature (e.g., “Tenant
shall have the right to construct operate and maintain such additional
food, beverage, hotel/entertainment facilities, offices, tourism
related businesses, marina and marina-related facilities as it deems
appropriate in its business judgment.”)
That’s pretty broad language, which allows the planning and construction of multiple projects, including a high-rise casino.
GIVE AWAY A PARK; WISH YOU HADN’T
judge is an intelligent and competent man and it’s beyond me why he
signed an agreement to turn the park over to the developer to do what
he pleases,” said Rob Piirainen, a concerned resident whose opinions on
the lease are posted on www.saveislablanca.com.
No matter that the
proposed development would swell the county parks department’s annual
budget from $3 million to $8 million, pummeling criticism and
impassioned letters to the editor have taken their toll.
April, Emma Perez Trevino reported for the Brownsville Herald that 6.5
acres in the plan weren’t owned by the county, but rather by the
Brownsville Navigation District. It wasn’t long after that before
Hinojosa regretted having signed the contract.
On May 18 Herald
reporter Ryan Henry wrote that Hinojosa said the contract “ ... was not
a good deal. It needs to be reworked, and I have basically told them
that I will not allow them to do any of the things they have suggested.”
But the judge’s assurances - and attempts at damage control by Laguna
Madre Enhancement owner Doyle Wells and Barry Keenan himself - have not
Alarmed that the county is still bound by a legal
contract that allows the tenant to do virtually anything they want (one
local attorney who reviewed it called it “the most tenant-friendly
contract I’ve ever seen in my life”), Ballesteros and her fellow
Surfriders staged the first Save Isla Blanca Park fund raiser last
weekend at Dolphin Cove. Three bands played. Hundreds of people
attended. More than $1200 was raised to pay for a billboard to help
save Isla Blanca.
SAYING UNCLE WITH YOUR FINGERS CROSSED
In the meantime, Doyle Wells and the County seem to be conceding an agreement.
“They’re getting geared up for a fight they’ve already won” is how
Cameron County Administrative Assistant Remi Garza describes it.
In his mind, a recently renegotiated contract between the county and
Laguna Madre Enhancement (it’s reportedly under review by lawyers prior
to public release) settles the issues that stirred up so much concern.
The marina, Garza says, is out. So are the condos (although 23-story
hotels are in). And the RV park is back.
Under this new agreement
“every aspect of the project is ultimately under control of and subject
to the desires of the County,” Doyle Wells said when interviewed by The
But the Surfriders probably shouldn’t change the wording of
their billboard yet to Isla Blanca Park Saved. As long as the lease
agreement with the developers exists, there’s reason to be uneasy over
the fate of one of the county’s most precious spaces.
people who own RV’s just so they can camp at Isla Blanca one week out
of the year,” says Kelly Leonard, a school teacher in McAllen who was
alarmed to learn of the still-potential changes. And should the Texas
Legislature legalize casino gambling - as some feel is inevitable - you
can count on at least one casino to block your ocean view (though
Keenan, as a convicted felon, won’t be the owner).
It may be
premature to celebrate, but it’s not too soon to acknowledge how a few
plucky islanders have so far stalled a “domino effect of bad choices”
that might have resulted in some local beach-side chaos that probably
wouldn’t have qualified as “hilarious” to anyone at all.