Slow-Developing 'Hidden Gem' Regains Its Sparkle

CRYSTAL BEACH, TX (AP) — A faded waterslide, some beach-themed honky-tonks and bait camps with hand-painted signs welcome visitors to this sliver of a town fronting the Gulf of Mexico. There are upscale subdivisions, too, but also oil wells churning over fields of brush and cactuses.

         Waves crash onto khaki-colored beaches within sight of Texas 87, the highway that serves as the Bolivar Peninsula's main road. Seagulls flutter next to pastel-painted houses high on stilts. Flag-waving, swim-suited revelers cruise the beach on hot summer days, bumper to bumper in their pickups, while the more settled play washers and horseshoes, drink light beer and watch the surf from folding chairs.

         This Southeast Texas getaway, which includes Port Bolivar, Gilchrist and Crystal Beach, is a ferry ride from Galveston but a lifestyle away from such island attractions as Moody Gardens, the glittering Pleasure Pier or shopping at the Strand historic district. For this lightly governed and historically slow-to-develop area — both points of pride to locals — the draw long has been the freewheeling, often outlaw attitude and the comfy mom-and-pop feel of its businesses.

         In September 2008, Hurricane Ike's powerful storm surge washed away hundreds of small cabins passed down through families for decades, along with most of the businesses, bait camps, souvenir shops and restaurants on the peninsula.

         Seven years later, momentum appears to be pushing Bolivar in a higher-end direction. Higher property taxes, insurance premiums and expensive building standards are making a more upscale community with larger and fancier houses. Businesses, old and new, welcome the interest.

         At the same time, longtime residents and visitors, typically from the Houston and Beaumont areas, fear changes will strip away what makes the community unique.

         Melanie Wallace, who lived in Crystal Beach full time for 10 years and now visits her second home as often as she can from Fort Worth, said some of the "eccentricities" of the community have faded over the years.

         "There's always been a certain kind of person who comes to Bolivar — everybody seems to be interesting," Wallace told the Houston Chronicle’s Erin Mulvaney. "I think the multimillion-dollar houses certainly bring a particular demographic. But they are interesting people, too, or they would have gone to Miami."

         Emblematic of this recent push, one developer plans to build a beachfront "community" complete with uniformly white houses and a high-end pool overlooking the Gulf. He also has plans to eventually develop the peninsula's first condominiums, a marina, yacht club with a restaurant and pool and 120 high-end homes on 86 acres.

         "It's a hidden gem," said developer Brad Ballard, who took over two large properties on the peninsula earlier this year. "I think the opportunity is great here for appreciation of value."

         Still scattered among the communities are boarded-up, vacant buildings, staircases leading to nowhere where the powerful storm surge blew entire structures off their stilts and overgrown land where developers abandoned plans to build new housing projects years ago. These signs of Ike's wrath have become more scattered as the peninsula grows, fancier houses are built and businesses are drawn to the potential.

         "The past has shown that about two to three years after a major event (like a hurricane), market memories start to fade and development resumes," said Jim Gaines, research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. "I've seen a couple announced plans for projects on Bolivar, and it's a great place to be — until … anyway, I am not too surprised enterprising folks would redevelop the area."

         Most homes built under modern building codes survived the '08 storm, while hundreds of smaller, older homes washed away. Bolivar now has a voluntary sewer system for residents who elect to have service. The area has mostly run on septic tanks, which deterred large-scale developments over the decades.

         About 6,000 residents lived on the peninsula before Ike, and that population has been building back. Since the storm, 1,652 permits have been issued, which equates to 20 new homes per month, data from the Galveston County Engineer's Office show. In the first couple of years after the storm, between 25 and 33 homes were permitted each month.

         The median sales price in Crystal Beach, Gilchrist and Port Bolivar has remained relatively steady over the last several years with the number of transactions gradually increasing. Port Bolivar has the highest prices with a median of $264,000 in 2014, according to data from the Houston Association of Realtors. The data show median prices in Crystal Beach at $235,000 and Gilchrist $240,000.

         Ballard, who calls himself an avid fisherman and remembers visiting the beach from his hometown Friendswood as a kid, has a grand vision for two large pieces of property he purchased on Bolivar.

         His company, New Coast Properties, is developing Seagrass Beach, a 33-plus-acre site that will include an elevated beachfront pool, six poolside cabanas, a beachside fire pit and a stocked fishing pond. When completed in the next six months, the Crystal Beach community will include 35 custom homes starting in the $400,000s. Ballard, who is building a house for his family on the land, said the homes will have more architectural design than most Bolivar houses and be required to be painted white.

         The real estate firm also recently acquired Laguna Harbor, an 87-acre bayside community in Port Bolivar with 120 waterfront lots. The company plans to build a full-service marina, yacht club, condominium and a waterside restaurant on East Galveston Bay. He said his full plan is about five years out. Six houses are in various stages of construction. The lots run from $65,000 to $500,000.

         Ballard took over the properties as a package deal from a developer who had begun to build before Ike. The previous development company suffered setbacks from the storm, loan troubles and illness. Ballard purchased the bank notes and took over development.

         "The common misunderstanding about Bolivar is that it was wiped out by Ike," Ballard said. "Houses are still around. Construction here is constant and it's increasing daily. The quality of homes is superior to what it was before. … The fortitude of the people here is incredible."

         Residents and regular visitors say this year's Fourth of July attracted more visitors than the peninsula has seen in years, with rental houses reserved as much as a year in advance. Fireworks filled the nighttime sky all down the beach with impromptu pyrotechnics. The restaurants, bars and the grocery store — renamed "The Big Store" since that is what everyone called it before the storm — were packed with out-of-towners.

         Since Ike, the Stingaree Restaurant built a second deck with tables, an area for bean-bag toss and a bar overlooking East Galveston Bay. Steve's Landing reopened with new owners after Ike closed down the longtime seafood joint on the bay. Another seafood restaurant, the Ocean Grill, opened on the peninsula's sole strip center. More restaurants continue to open, including a Mexican restaurant Jose's and HardHeads Ice House & Grill. The Ship's Wheel is still around.

         "This year seems like a lot more people are coming down to the beach," said Rahib Rahman, co-owner of Steve's Landing. "We can only expect bigger and better things to come.

         Rahman and David Patel, his roommate from the University of Texas at Austin, reopened Steve's after the storm closed the long-time seafood joint's doors. The two moved to the peninsula, seeing the potential. Rahman said his family used to make trips to the old Steve's Landing from Dallas for the fresh seafood.

         Brenda and Bill Smith purchased a house in Crystal Beach in 1974. Bill, a 72-year-old Vidor native, visited the peninsula with his family since he was a young child. The couple's original house was lost to the bay during Ike. The couple rebuilt a couple of years after the storm.

         When they bought their first lot for $1,400, a relative said the land would "never amount to anything" and declared it a "total waste of money," Brenda said. Before Ike, a lot near them sold for $80,000, she said.

         "I'm happy for the businesses when I see how upscale it's becoming," said Brenda Beust Smith, an Aldine resident who has visited the beach with her family for half a century. "But I will terribly miss the eclectic mix we've always had — wealthy folks, folks on welfare and you really couldn't even tell them apart on the beach or at the Big Store.

         "It could become urbanized, sanitized and all look-alike-ish."

         A handful of families, most of whom live on the quiet side in Port Bolivar, have roots on the peninsula dating to the 1800s, when settlers ranched and built up the small fishing village with camp houses. In a lighthouse standing at the far end, residents huddled together to ride out the historic 1900 hurricane. As later storms rushed ashore over the decades, many homes were washed away. But many others remain.

         "I think a lot of people got the idea that we were gone," said Margo Johnson, who moved to Port Bolivar in 1982. Her late husband, Andrew, had roots on the peninsula that began with his great-grandparents. A small barn connected to her 1920s house served as the community courthouse for 40 years, she said.

         She said Ike drove out a lot of young families, who never returned after getting their children settled into new schools. A few older residents didn't have the energy to return. Many ranchers, who lost cattle, didn't make it back either. She has noticed, like many others, that homes are getting larger and fancier.

         "I do kind of miss the days when everyone could have a chance to live here," Johnson said. "It's out of reach for a lot of people."

         Ike was certainly not her first storm. Hurricane Alicia struck a year after she moved in. She said the community seemed like it was at a turning point then as well. A lot of the camp houses went away and bigger houses were built.

         "My husband always said, after every storm it comes back better, which is really true," Johnson said.

         – by AP/ Reporter Erin Mulvaney with The Houston Chronicle

         For more information




Categories: In Other News