Winter Texans Give Lone Star State 5 Stars

Now's the time when sun-seekers flock to Texas' southern tip, bringing economic stability

Sometime before the first snow, they gather up their golf clubs and windbreakers, pack up their silver and tan mobile homes, and head south to the warm brushy plains of the Rio Grande Valley.

Locals here in the tropical tip of Texas used to call them "snowbirds" for their migratory habits, until someone, probably a goose hunter, realized this metaphor had unfortunate predatory overtones. Now folks call them Winter Texans, and from October until April, they will arrive by the thousands to sample the local golf courses, shop for curios in Mexico, take long romantic walks on South Padre Island, and add new vitality to the local economy.

"Obviously, Winter Texans have a huge effect" on local businesses, says Jeff Johnston, vice president of the Brownsville Visitors Information Center. "Over half of our visitors each year are Winter Texans, and it's common to hear them say 'I came down here for a week, and I never left.' "

According to a study by the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, nearly 120,000 Winter Texans will have spent about $295 million before heading home this year. For local merchants long dependent on the boom-and-bust Mexican economy, Winter Texans provide some needed stability.

"It definitely increases our business when Winter Texans come to town," says Julio Longoria, manager of Antonio's, a popular Mexican restaurant in Brownsville. "Today, we had a table for 35, and this is the second time they've come this week."

Fed up with Florida

A typical Winter Texan is a retiree from the Midwest who plans to stay 17 or 18 weeks. And like Pat Sasse, who spends her winters with her husband on South Padre Island, many of them come to Texas for the weather and for the shopping in Mexican border towns such as Matamoros and Reynosa.

"The weather is better here than in Oshkosh," she laughs. "We tried Florida and Arizona, but it's so crowded in Florida now."

Indeed, it's almost a badge of honor for Winter Texans to deride the Sunshine State.

"I've been to Florida in the winter time, and there's no comparison," says Gene Laubach, a retired bricklayer from Bethlehem, Pa. "Here the people are friendly. Over there, they want your money and they want you to go back north. That's the truth."

Of course, if Winter Texans find the locals friendly, it may be because they are friendly themselves.

Purple and pink decor

"Come on in," says Carl Nahkunst, a farmer from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who has just pulled into the parking lot of the local tourist bureau. His wife, Frances, gives a quick tour of their 30-foot Fleetwood Bounder, complete with purple curtains and pink seat covers she made herself. "It makes it a little homier," she says modestly.

Like many Winter Texans, the Nahkunsts will find a trailer park to call their home base while they travel by car to various Valley attractions. But unlike his peers, Mr. Nahkunst doesn't plan to stay four months at a time. "An RV is too confining," he says. "I was born into farming, so I've just got to be active with my hands."

Indeed, the work ethic is a hard thing for many Winter Texans to drop, and some have begun volunteering in the local churches, libraries, elementary schools, and battered-women's shelters.

Even so, most Winter Texans take time out to relax - and laugh. At the community center of the Winter Haven RV Park in Brownsville, a warm breeze is blowing as the beginner's class learns the simpler steps of country western line-dancing. Above the dance floor, a list of rules asserts "Rule No. 1: No Profanity."

Giggles break out midway through the Tennessee Twist, when a workman walks into the hall and finds himself face to face with a wall of dancers. He takes a few steps back, and they move forward in unison performing a complex pattern of steps and hand motions that would have left Fred Astaire smiling.

"That was pretty good," says instructor Marji Laubach, as her students congratulate themselves for a two-step well done.

"Now let's try the Cowboy Hand Jive." But first, she turns to a much younger guest seated nearby, and asks with mock disdain, "Did you just come here to watch?"

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