ROCKPORT, Texas — Linda Vander Woude spent one winter in Florida — and then headed West.
The price of staying in Florida's popular Fort Myers area when her husband's job went overseas — forcing an earlier-than-expected retirement — was too high. The crowds were too large. And the couple did not feel welcomed by the locals. So they looked for an alternative warm destination to flee to when frigid winter descended on their hometown, Kentwood, Mich.
"We were looking for something cheaper and warm, and we found Rockport," on the Texas Gulf Coast, the 63-year-old Vander Woude said, settling down for a night of country music and dancing at the Drifters Resort community hall.
For years, it seemed, the charms of the Texas Gulf Coast were largely a secret — much to the chagrin of the locals, the business owners and the few outsiders aware of its magic. Now though, that is changing as baby boomers seek cheaper, less-crowded winter destinations and flock to small towns that dot the South Texas coast.
The water is not as blue as Florida's. The winters are slightly less mild. The shopping is not as highfalutin. It's not nearly as hip as popular spring break destination South Padre Island along the Texas-Mexico border.
But the price is right, the economy is weak, and Texans are winning these folks over with Southern charm.
"Here, we're called Winter Texans. In Florida, we're snowbirds," explained Jan Evenson, a Waterloo, Iowa native who spent two-and-a-half winters in Florida and never felt comfortable.
Evenson, 73, has been coming to Texas for 11 years, though until about six years ago, she and her husband would drive down to "the Valley" — the popular winter destination along Texas' border with Mexico.
Now, with gas prices rising and the border getting more violent, Evenson and her husband prefer Rockport — one of many small villages along the central portion of the Texas Gulf Coast.
This appears to be the trend, says Ann Vaughan, president and CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau. Port Aransas is about 18 miles and a ferry ride away from Rockport. The chamber hasn't done an official survey since 2004, but participation in community events and activities show the numbers of Winter Texans steadily increasing.
Gary Mysorski, director of parks and recreation in Port Aransas, says the number of people participating in his department's activities has gone up from just over 1,300 in the winter of 2009-10 to 1,700 last winter. Activities range from arts and crafts to catamaran cruises. This year, he even offered one activity before Thanksgiving — usually too early for the Winter Texans — and it was full.
"Years ago, the city would shut down during the winter ... they ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day and then nothing happened. And then as the Winter Texans began coming down, this all changed," Mysorski said, explaining that winter is now one of the busiest seasons.
Rockport and Fulton, two adjacent towns, have noticed a similar phenomenon, said Diane Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
The towns attract about 5,000 to 8,000 Winter Texans, she said. The entire region, including Corpus Christi, attracts more than 30,000 retirees, still considerably less than the 140,000 or so who flock to the border area, but significant for this sleepy area.
Past research shows the impact of their spending. A 2004 study commissioned by the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce found that these visitors doubled the local population of about 3,500 for the five months they were around. Just in that town, they were estimated to spend $13 million annually, creating the equivalent of 380 full-time jobs — 16 percent of the city's total.
A 2009 study done by Rockport and Fulton —with a combined population of about 10,000 people — found that some 3,000 people wintered in these towns. Using estimates provided by hotels and RV parks, the chamber estimated they spend about $5.4 million a year there.
And last year, Probst said the towns enjoyed a 10 percent increase in Winter Texan traffic — and a change in demographic.
"It was a different clientele, not just the person that all they had was their RV," Probst said. "They want to do more. They want to learn and see and visit and get out and do and be active, not just coming to fish and that's it. We see them in our restaurants, we see them want to go and explore and get involved and volunteer."
And so, these towns are rushing to offer more, and different, activities.
The Joint Effort Leisure Ministry, or JELM, is a not-for-profit organization housed by the Community Presbyterian Church in Port Aransas. With donations from Winter Texans and local residents, JELM offers a variety of programs and day trips. In the five years Pat Reilly has been the group's director, she has seen a steady increase.
Usually, she said, by the end of December she has only 100 applications. This year, she already has 130.
"This is an indication that by Jan. 1, when I usually have 300 registration forms filled out, I will be ahead by one-third," Reilly said. "That's an incredible number for a small town like Port Aransas."
Participation was so high last year that Reilly has added several trips, including three new birding excursions, to her repertoire of line dancing, bridge and other activities.
"People are telling me that their retirement dollars aren't going as far as they used to," said Reilly. Traditionally visitors hailed from the Midwest and Canada, but "lately, I've been getting people from the East Coast. I never had people from New Jersey until this year."
Larry Buerger, 72, and his wife, Louise, 71, traveled from Florida to Arizona and Nevada before finally deciding they wanted to spend the rest of their winters in Texas — far warmer than their hometown of Ironwood in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"Part of it was the economy," said Larry Buerger, who also likes the fishing. "Groceries, gas, restaurants — it's all cheaper."
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