June 24–The Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport was recently honored with the “Most Improved Airport” award for 2013 by the Texas Department of Transportation.
In truth, it had nowhere to go but up. County Commissioner David A. Garza admitted the facility was in sad shape after decades of neglect under county stewardship.
“This place was a dump,” he said on a recent tour of the facility.
Garza said that when he first became a commissioner 13 years ago, the county wasn’t doing much with the airport but a little mowing and occasional cleanup “when things got out of control.” Southwind Aviation, the fixed-base operator, was doing most of the upkeep, Garza said.
He realized that thanks to the dilapidated state of the maintenance hangar/office/pilots’ lounge and the general scarcity of services and amenities, the airport wasn’t likely to attract much traffic, and an airport that doesn’t attract traffic doesn’t generate revenue. Garza took the facility under his wing, so to speak.
The airport, northeast of Bayview, was built by the U.S. government in the early 1940s as the Laguna Madre Sub-Base. Its purpose was to support training at Harlingen Army Airfield, now Valley International Airport. After World War II the base served as a Navy Auxiliary Air Station. In 1963 it was decommissioned and handed to Cameron County.
The facility had had plenty of time to go to seed — nearly four decades — by the time Garza found it. But in 2003 the airport’s cavernous maintenance hangar, built in 1942, was repainted. Runways were restriped and cracks sealed. The work was made possible with grant funds available through TxDOT’s Routine Airport and Maintenance Program, Garza said.
The RAMP program, supported by a tax on aviation fuel sales stateside, is very well-funded, he noted.
“That fund always has money for general aviation airports,” Garza said. “It has money because I guess people — like we used to have here — didn’t pay attention to their little airports and they never used that money.”
In 2005 the county formed an Airport Planning Advisory Committee and an Airport Development Plan was commissioned. RAMP funds covered 90 percent of the cost. In the eight years since, the county has checked off the items in the master plan one at a time, which makes sense in light of the $50,000-per-year cap on RAMP funds per recipient.
In 2008 and 2009, funds from TxDOT’s Capital Improvement Program were combined with local money to mark and seal runways, taxiways and aprons, install lights and signs and replace an aging wind cone.
In 2009, eight new T-hangars (for plane storage) were built, again with CIP funds and local money. The same year, the county received CIP funds for engineering and design of a new terminal building.
The old “terminal” was jammed into one side of the old hangar and featured an exceptionally ratty pilots’ lounge. The new terminal, completed in 2010, features a nice lobby, counter, pilots’ lounge with showers, flight-planning room, conference room, vending area, and more.
The cost was roughly $500,000. TxDOT paid 80 percent of the cost and the county 20 percent — typical for this type of grant, Garza said.
Shifting back to 2008 and Hurricane Dolly, insurance money covered repairs of heavy structural damage to the hangar and made a new roof possible — badly needed even before the storm.
“Dolly was a blessing in disguise,” Garza said. “At the end of the day, we were well-insured.”
In 2011 and 2012, the county used 80/20 RAMP funds to replace the massive, operable hangar doors on the west and east sides of the old hangar.
Up next is a $1 million project, already approved by TxDOT and the county, to install a rotating beacon and tower to make the airport more visible. More runway lights are planned, as are 20 new tie-down areas on another portion of apron scheduled for resealing, as is a 24-hour, self-service fuel farm.
“We hope that we can attract some of our Homeland Security people that now can’t use us because they want service whenever they need it,” Garza said. “Their helicopters burn a lot of fuel.”
The airport will also have emergency generators installed with enough capacity to power everything at the airport, including the fuel farm.
Finally, TxDOT has allotted nearly $15 million already to fix the worn-out road that connects the airport to SH 510 and Rio Hondo. That project is awaiting clearance from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regarding ocelot crossings and should begin this year, Garza said.
“After this is done, we’re probably like 90 percent done with the master plan,” he said.
Garza credits Marty Pena, operations director for Cameron County Parks who also oversees the county’s international bridges, as being indispensable in “getting things done” at the airport. Port Isabel Mayor Joe Vega handles all the grant writing for the airport and is likewise a key player, Garza said.
Why go to all this trouble and spend all this money to resurrect a quietly expiring World War II relic in the middle of nowhere?
Because the future is calling — largely in the form of the proposed second causeway to South Padre Island, Garza said.
“We anticipate the Island tripling in size in the next 20 years,” he said.
“We want to make sure that we have all the improvements in place that are needed so when that new causeway gets developed the improvements are already going to be there,” Vega said.
In addition to other potential business opportunities on the horizon, the airport hopes to attract people with private planes who own condos on the Island.
It’s all about rebranding, Garza said, adding that, ideally, it will all lead to economic development. None of it, he noted, would have been possible without TxDOT grants.
“I’d like to be self-sustaining in the next five years, and then in the next five to 20 years be an economic generator,” Garza said. “General aviation, when you look at what it does for the state of Texas in regard to the economy, is unbelievable.”