Aransas County partners to promote history, nature and recreation

Pathways project funded by bond dollars, tax revenue

By Liz Carmack

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If customers sitting outside the Rockport Daily Grind coffee shop today could time-travel to 1889 while sipping their lattes, they would stand mouth agape at the three-story, 100-room Aransas Hotel just a stone’s throw away.

A vestige of the community’s half-dozen grand hotels fronting Aransas Bay around the turn of the 20th century, the Aransas (later called the Del Mar) boasted a 200-seat dining room and weekly orchestra concerts. The hotel survived a 1916 hurricane yet succumbed to fire in 1919. Across from the hotel sat the Bailey Pavilion and bathhouse, built on piers over the bay — an entertainment mecca that drew crowds, many arriving by train from San Antonio, to see traveling plays, minstrels and medicine shows.

Dozens of stories such as these and tales about the county’s early meatpacking and commercial fishing industries are being preserved and shared through the Aransas Pathways project.

The project is a countywide system of trails, venues and interpretive signs designed to conserve, develop and promote not only the county’s history but also its ecological and recreational jewels.  

Aransas County is joining with the city of Rockport, the town of Fulton, the Aransas County Historical Commission, the Aransas Bird and Nature Club, and other community groups on the project, which launched in 2011. 

Information provided at aransaspathways.com and in the “Discover Aransas County” publication make it easy to learn about and visit more than 40 historic sites from the county’s past.

“Many people new to the community — we have a lot of winter Texans — don’t have the background on the history of the area,” said Pam Wheat Stranahan, a member of the Aransas County Historical Commission. “By learning about it through this signage, people begin to get a feeling for the depth of history here and take pride in the area.”

The online and print resources also feature county hike and bike routes, including the Tule Creek Hike and Bike Trail, and details about 17 publicly accessible kayak launch points and more than 30 birding sites.  

How the project works

A county bond issue passed by voters in 2010 and a 2% hotel occupancy tax collected by the county and approved by voters in 2011 fund the project.

For example, the tax enabled construction of new trails to connect with existing ones throughout the county and has helped enhance little-known birding sites by adding native plants and water features. Those sites and kayaking put-ins that were once mostly shared by word of mouth are now promoted statewide. 

The project also established the Aransas County History Center in a restored Victorian cottage and funded the construction of the Aransas Pathways Pavilion on state Highway 35 North in Rockport, which boasts an extensive display on the area’s history and ecology.

The funding structure provided by the county is an excellent way to sustain the cooperative project, said John Strothman, Aransas Pathways manager and Aransas County employee. “It supports itself. We’re not going into general funds to support this project.”

A steering committee composed of countywide community partners plans maintenance and promotion of the pathways’ attractions. Volunteers maintain landscaping, staff the history center’s exhibits, host events and more.

“People bring different ideas to the table,” Strothman said. “The city (of Rockport) has their projects. The town (of Fulton) has theirs. We’re bringing all jurisdictions together, and we’re all in the same boat. It’s unique to do this kind of thing for the common good for all of us.” 

Sandy Jumper, vice president of marketing and promotion for the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, leads Aransas Pathways’ marketing. She said the project was an easy sell in 2020 because during the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors felt safer spending time outdoors. 

“Having Aransas Pathways has kept us on the map as far as tourism through this pandemic,” Jumper said.

During 2020, the county collected more than $500,000 from the 2% hotel occupancy tax. The record-setting receipts were a welcome rebound from lean years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport-Fulton in 2017, devastating the town and its economy.

Other counties can learn by example

Stranahan said other counties could develop similar projects using the same funding mechanism and community partnership approach, but doing so takes time. 

The project took two years of planning, Stranahan said. “A year to determine what elements would be included and a year to define the character of it, and get people and institutions involved.”

Getting the buy-in of local hoteliers was important, as was the support of voters who understood that the program would boost the economy and provide venues that locals, not just tourists, could enjoy. Pathways boosters stressed that visitors, not residents, would pay the 2% hotel occupancy tax.

"The benefits that come from it are worth all the hard work and effort put into it,” Jumper said. “The best part is the buy-in from the community and the steering committee. It’s easy to promote something when people believe in it."