Local

Dike closure hits Texas City businesses hard

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Texas City Dike was not built to serve as a fishing pier or recreation area. But in the 74 years since it was built, the dike turned into more than just a way to protect the Texas City Ship Channel.

[IKE ANNIVERSARY: Look back at the storm that changed SE Texas]

Boat ramps, fishing piers and bait camps lined the shores of the 5-mile-long dike, and the beach area on the east shore was a popular spot for locals who wanted to avoid the beaches in Galveston.

Hurricane Ike changed all that, destroying all the bait camps on the dike and the fishing pier on the dike's end, and damaging the boat ramps, including the Yarbrough ramp, the third-busiest boat launching site on Galveston Bay.

There never has been a comprehensive economic impact study on the dike.

For the business owners who operated those bait camps, fishing piers and even a snow cone stand and driving range on the dike, the inability to get the dike repaired and reopened before next fall has been devastating.

"I'd have to say 70 percent of my business is dike-related," Jason Cogburn, owner of Boyd's One Stop bait camp, said. His was one of two bait camps that survived the hurricane because they are on the inland side of the Galveston County hurricane protection levee at the entrance to the dike, rather than on the dike.

For Doug Bell, who owns the Lighted Fishing Pier at the end of the dike, that dike-dependent business figure is 100 percent. The storm demolished his business. All that remains are a few of the pilings that held up the fishing pier and grill, which was a popular lunch spot.

Bell leased the property from the city, as did the owners of Anita's and Curl's bait camps, which were destroyed by the hurricane. Those leases appear to have been revoked, at least for the immediate future.

"I'm not really certain what the future is," Bell said. "Even if I wanted to rebuild, the city won't open the dike, and my customers couldn't get to me anyway."

Bell said he and other business owners on the dike received letters from the city asking them to resume lease payments or risk losing their leases.

"Why would I pay rent when the city won't even let my customers onto the dike?" Bell asked. "It's all in limbo right now."

Nick Finan, the city's director of management services, did not provide details on the status of the leases, but a city commissioner last month said all but two pier leases with Boyd's had been canceled.

Bell said he, like hundreds of others in the county, is fighting with his insurance providers. He said he isn't certain he is willing or able to wait for another year before returning.

The future of Cogburn's business also is in limbo, although it opened within a month after the storm.

"The winter months are usually slow, but it's been like winter around here since August," he said. "I'm really surprised in the business we are doing right now, but it needs to turn soon."

Cogburn credits regular customers who stop by his bait camp to buy table shrimp or oysters with keeping the doors open. The real profit makers fishing bait and gear are not selling."

Because die-hard anglers have diverted their fishing to spots along the levee, Cogburn still is getting that part of the business, but he figured sales are off by as much as 80 percent. "I make sure we have the live shrimp and the mullet because that is what the customers expect," he said.

Still, the storm cut off access to the two piers where shrimp and oyster boats normally would dock with supplies of the live bait and seafood. Cogburn has to drive to Seabrook each day to get the items he needs to keep his business going, which adds to his operating expenses at a time when sales are plummeting.

"At some point, something has got to give," he said. It's not just the bait camps that are suffering.

John and Irma Moreno bought the Coach's Corner snow cone stand and driving range from the John Hancock family in May.

It's closed for the winter now, but Irma Moreno said she and her husband had hoped the dike would be open by next summer, which based on past sales figures, accounts for 75 percent of snow cone sales.

Moreno said she and her husband are worried about the dike being closed through the summer.

"Right now, we have the regulars who still come out and support us," she said. "But we are really hoping (the dike) reopens soon."

Mayor Matt Doyle has said repeatedly the priority, after months of delay waiting on federal funds, will be to repair the dike. Even that won't be complete until the end of summer of 2010. When the dike returns and, if the city renews the leases, it will be up to the businesses themselves to find the funds to rebuild.

Doyle said pre-Ike discussions about development of the dike and ideas of charging an entrance fee to help defray costs to maintain the pier are off the table until the repairs are done.

Bell said he and other bait camp owners were opposed to the idea of a dike fee to begin with.

"That would be like Kroger charging people to park in their shopping center," he said. "Right now, the priority is to get that road fixed. It needed to be fixed before the storm."

Cogburn said he would like to see the city develop a fishing pier at the base of the dike and then lease it to an operator to give anglers multiple fishing options.

For many anglers, the dike's closure has been as painful as it has been for the bait camps.

Billy Persky, 73, has been fishing off the dike since 1941. "All Texas City has are convenience stores, bars and the Texas City Dike," he said. "I remember after a hurricane in the 1950s, the dike was all messed up, and we came out here anyway. The city didn't close it or say you can't come here."

Times have changed. In fact, since the dike was closed 15 months ago, Texas City police have issued about 500 citations for trespassing on the dike. At least three people were arrested.

Persky and David Gonzalez, 66, who used to own the Lighted Fishing Pier, are part of a core group of 10 fishing buddies. They said the city should reopen the dike now.

"Just put some 'at your own risk' signs up and let people back out here," Persky said.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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