LAGUNA VISTA — This attraction in the works is aiming to become an ecotourism hub that provides visitors with interactive and educational outdoor experiences and amenities.
During a Town of Laguna Vista Council Meeting held Jan. 14, Cameron County officials announced they have completed their plans for the South Texas Eco-Tourism Center (STEC).
“I’m happy to say that the plans are at 100 percent,” Cameron County Parks Director Joe E. Vega said during the meeting.
Cameron County officials plan to build the STEC on 10 acres within Laguna Vista’s 23-acre site on the west side of Highway 100.
The STEC is planned to include multi-purpose rooms with interpretive exhibits, a rain catchment and gray water harvesting system, passive lighting and cooling systems, an amphitheater, pond and wetland enhancements, parking, pedestrian trails, a boardwalk, an observation deck, native landscaping, interactive exhibits, bird blinds and site amenities, a play area and picnic facilities.
What’s next for the project?
Plans for the STEC had been submitted to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) for review.
On Jan. 13, Cameron County officials received notice from Texas Parks and Wildlife that they approved the plans and they said they could proceed with going out for bids for construction of the project.
“We’ve been working on this project for a couple of years already, almost two years, and it’s been a team effort working together with the council of Laguna Vista, other members of the community and Texas Parks and Wildlife as well,” Vega said. “We’re very excited that we’re at this point.”
Cameron County Commissioner David A. Garza said the next step of the project is the bidding process.
A bidding item will be on the Commissioners Court agenda for Feb. 18 for approval and then they will proceed with placing advertisements.
Garza said if everything goes according to schedule, he hopes to have a groundbreaking ceremony in June.
“It’s something we’ve been planning for a couple of years now, but it’s a fairly complex project so it’s taking a little longer in the planning stages than we anticipated,” Garza said. “It’s not a we have to move in tomorrow type of project so we’re going to take our time to make sure things are done right and according to how we want them done.”
Making an idea come to fruition
According to Vega, Garza has been working on the project since day one.
“He’s been the one spearheading this project,” Vega said. “As a matter of fact, he’s the one who planted the seed of this project.”
Garza said his precinct runs from Port Isabel to Harlingen and includes Laguna Vista, Bayview, Los Fresnos, Rio Hondo, Indian Lake and San Benito.
Garza said he’s been working hard with all of the communities to find little niches that will benefit the area.
The STEC had been a project he thought about for many years.
“The larger towns have more opportunities for economic advantages. They can take care of things that help their economy because they have more resources,” Garza said. “So it’s always challenging to find ways in which we can help the smaller municipalities find a way to do things that become economic drivers of their communities.”
Garza said the project wouldn’t have been possible without the town of Laguna Vista.
“They were able to give us 10 acres so we could proceed with this project,” he said. “Now they have 13 acres next to it that could become an economic area for them.”
According to Garza, the project would probably be about $8.5 million to $9 million.
Money generated for the project comes from a venue tax for people who rent rooms or rental vehicles in Cameron County.
On Election Day in 2016, voters approved the 2-percent tax increase proposed by Cameron County.
“So basically the majority, if not all of this money aside from the grant money that we’re getting being utilized for this project, is the venue tax dollars,” Garza said. “So it’s being funded by people visiting our area. We did not raise taxes to pay for this project.”
The county visitor tax went into effect starting January 2017.
Additionally, the project has received a few grants.
In March 2019, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department awarded the project a $1.25 million grant.
In August 2019, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a $700,000 grant and Cameron County matched the grant with $300,000.
“It’s very important that we build roads of course, and all of our other infrastructure, but this was an opportunity for the County to do something completely outside of the norm,” Garza said. “You don’t find too many counties doing these types of projects. It’s completely different.”