|By Gilberto Salinas, The Brownsville Herald, Texas|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 19, 2004 - SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas -- The collapse of the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge not only cut vehicular traffic to the mainland, it yanked the Island's economic bloodline and livelihood.
Restaurants and stores shut down, businesses trimmed to the bare necessities and hotels resorted to energy conservation to make ends meet.
This was three years ago.
Today, the Island is coming off its busiest and strongest summer ever.
Hotel construction is standing tall, sales tax revenues are robust and the Island is enjoying several national poll rankings, including the Travel Channel's No. 3 best Spring Break destination in the world.
"We're back," said Dan Quandt, executive director for the SPI Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"But I pray that we never have to go through anything like that again. We literally felt what it was like to be an island." On Sept. 15, 2001, a barge crashed into one of the tallest pillars under the causeway, linking the Island to Port Isabel and the Texas mainland.
The partial collapse of the bridge created a 240-foot gap and killed eight people.
A couple months after the collapse, the Island suffered one of its worst sales tax declines ever.
The Island posted $8.2 million in retail gross sales for the fourth quarter of 2001, down from $21.7 million and $22.1 million in the previous two quarters of that year, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts In services, the Island reported $2.1 million for the fourth quarter, about half of the $4 million and $4.1 million reported in the previous two quarters.
By year's end, the Island received nearly $200,000 less in the total sales tax refund from the state than 2002 and 2003. In 2001, the refund was $1.6 million, down from about $1.8 million in 2002 and $1.8 million in 2003.
But the figures could have been worse, had it not been for two elements: a temporary ferry system and timing.
"We lost quite a few jobs because people couldn't go back to their jobs," said Rey Guevara, director of communications for Cameron Works, the agency that administers the county's work force centers.
"(The collapse) didn't have the impact that it could have because if it would've happened in the middle of the summer, we would have seen a major economic catastrophe," Guevara said.
In terms of jobs, the Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito metropolitan statistical area reported a moderate increase in its unemployment rate, jumping from 8.9 percent in August to 10.2 percent in November, when the bridge reopened.
After the collapse, the eight-story high Padre South Hotel immediately cut its personnel to five employees from 30 and dropped its rates, said Lisa Leal, assistant manager for Padre South Hotel.
"We lowered our rates basically for the people who were here," Leal said.
"We were able to get some business from the crews of the ferries. But there were no tourists." Leal, who lives in Los Fresnos, said many people in the Island's hotel industry were laid off because there was not enough business.
"It's all tourism. It's all about putting people in hotels and restaurants," Guevara said. "That's where the jobs are at." About 4,800 people are employed at the Island, according to the Workforce Commission.
"They are waiters, chamber maids and people who work at the front desk.
Those were the people who were affected at the time," Guevara said. "And a lot of these people live in Port Isabel, Los Fresnos and Brownsville." Ella Warrell was one of the five employees who remained at the Padre South Hotel during the layoffs. Like her co-worker Leal, she made the trip from Los Fresnos and used the ferry to the Island and walked to the hotel.
"I lost 12 pounds," said Warrell, the hotel's desk clerk. "I (was) walking and lugging everything that I needed with me."
Bill Summers, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, said other elements that kept the Island afloat was the regional economic stability and the Valley's diligence in helping during a crisis.
"We were hit hard, but because the people of the Valley pulled together, the Island came back," Summers said. "There were a lot of people that went to the Island to show their support." One example of helping the Island was the decision to hold the chamber's board meeting at the Island.
"We spent the night and the weekend there," Summers said.
Just days before Thanksgiving that year, the bridge re-opened.
And a line of 18-wheelers -- country singer Garth Brook's entourage of workers and equipment -- lumbered over the newly rebuilt bridge en route to the Island for a nationally televised live concert.
"I remember (Garth) saying that coming here would be disrespectful to those who died in the tragedy," Quandt said.
"We said, 'No.' On the contrary, it will be a boost in morale for South Padre Island." That was the economical turning point, he said.
"The whole consciousness of South Padre has grown over the years after that," Quandt said.
In July, the Island enjoyed a record- breaking month after collecting $1.1 million in hotel occupancy taxes, a quarter of the total $4.2 million collected on average annually.
The Island holds about 4,000 hotel rooms and rentable condominiums.
The biggest year was 2002, shortly after the collapse.
Instead of canceling events after the collapse, many convention organizers postponed their events to 2002. That year, the Island recorded $91 million in sales taxes, up from $86.6 million in 2001.
Last year, the Island posted $89.6 in sales taxes.
"We feel the loss of the tragedy," Quandt said. "But on the positive side, it showed what this town could do when it is forced with adversity."
2001 Retail Sales Tax Report for South Padre Island:
--April-June: $21.7 million
--July-Sept: $22.1 million
--Oct-Dec: $8.2 million
--Jan-March: $17.5 million
2001 Unemployment rate for Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito MSA:
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