Part 3:

Chronicling MCND#1’s 75th anniversary: 

Caring for the Coast and Building for the Future

Palacios completes the southernmost point of a connect-the-metros rectangle of Texas Coastal Plain.  The city is equidistant to a triangle of big cities and was often the destination for city folks longing to look out upon the bay from the porches of The Luther Hotel or to fish in the fertile shallows of inland waters.  After the early 1960’s, the railroad no longer brought them and the unique and lively Pavilion had fallen under the crush of Carla’s winds, but they still came, and, in many cases, decided the breezy, friendly town was a great place to settle in.

In 1971, a powerhouse team of utility companies, along with the cities of Austin and San Antonio, joined forces to plan for and construct the first nuclear generating station in the state of Texas.  Although a slow start gave pause to the project, by the end of 1975 construction was underway and Matagorda County became a hotbed of newcomers and bustling activity.  The large utility companies soon identified Navigation District #1 as an entity authorized to lend its tax exempt status to bonds issued by the companies, thus paving the way for large fees to be paid to the District as a result of these transactions. The District’s legal representative, Eli Mayfield, took full advantage of the need presented by the utilities and the District’s fund balance grew quickly.

MCND#1 Commissioners joined Mayfield in a series of trips to the financial centers of New York City and Washington, D.C. The District was a player in the world of high finance, albeit public finance, and, while Harbormaster Jimmy Smith kept watch on the docks, the District’s fund balance continued upward.  Shrimp boats continued to be built and named Palacios as their home port.  Turning Basin #3 filled up with the new boats, bow to stern, as fish houses expanded along its wharves.

The boom hit a rocky spot in 1981, with the South Texas Project four years behind schedule and the county littered with transient housing and temporary businesses. Palacios felt the bump, and even though some businesses came and went, the town’s customary stores were stable and leasing port dock and properties was still the bedrock of the Port’s operations. Although regular passenger service on the T&NO rail tracks had been discontinued by then, agricultural exports remained a reliable source of revenue for the Port until the early 1990’s.

In 1985, an amendment to the Texas Water Code regulations governing the District and a sea change in the political balance of the MCND#1 Board both resulted in an elected board of three commissioners replacing the appointed management. The constituents who elected the MCND#1 commissioners soon realized that government, by those elected by the people, benefitted the community in a number of ways.  The Marine Center Classroom building was constructed during this time and Texas State Marine Education Center, with the Hulen House as its historic centerpiece, was born.  A committee of concerned citizens, including Navigation District commissioners, wooed the Texas State Technical College to the campus and often supported the college’s educational endeavors.

MCND#1’s Board also set up an agreement with the State to help clean its harbor.  The Texas General Land Office has long been a champion for clean harbors and the elimination of “mystery spills” along the Texas coastline and in its harbors and bays. In 1998, the TGLO built one of the first of a series of bilge water reclamation facilities on the Texas coast at the Port of Palacios. The facility and the free bilge pump out service offered by the Port quickly made the facility one    of the most prolific in the State. By 2011, the Port had removed 1.2 million gallons of oily bilge water from Port vessels, safely recycled 531,000 gallons of used oil and removed 31,000 oil filters.  This effort won the Navigation District the TGLO’s 2011 Gulf Guardian Award, acknowledging the efforts of the Port and its businesses.

The Port’s operations steadily increased, jobs were plentiful on the docks and District commissioners again found themselves being plied with requests for more dock space. Positive public support swayed a bond election and soon the plan for a fourth turning basin was taking shape. The plan was a challenging one and included a decision to go with an “L-shaped” basin or to take in even more property for a “T-shaped” basin. After much back and forth, a conservative “L-shaped” approach was adopted and Port Director William Turner delightedly accepted deposits for dock rental in Turning Basin No. 4. The old harbormaster’s office and grain elevators were dismantled to make room for the project and a new Port Administration Building was built.  However, it would be six long years before the first shovel of dirt was dug.

In the years between the bond election for the new basin and its eventual construction, Palacios’ shrimping industry endured a stretch of poor economic returns like none in recent history.  The slump was attributable to many things, including poor harvests, the cost of fuel and the ever-growing influx of imported shrimp. The Navigation District was sympathetic to the shrimpers’ plight and adjusted rents downward for five of the six years.  It was this strategic move by MCND#1 Commissioners that contributed to the ability of a number of the “fish houses” to remain afloat during those difficult years.

Native Palacians, tourists and even walkers from the nearby RV Park made a routine of stopping by the “big dig” as the excavation of Turning Basin No. 4 came to be known. Trackhoes, backhoes and dump trucks were in constant motion for months as the basin took its form behind an earthen dam separating it from Turning Basin No. 3. In October 2008, the dam was carefully released and what a thrilling site it was to see the bay slowly flood the new harbor! The new dock waited for its new tenants and slowly, they came forward until finally, the harbor was fully leased.

Texas State Technical College, meanwhile, fell under a mandate from the State calling for a significant reduction in college and university budgets.  The campus, even after a recent revival in student enrollment, had no choice but to pack up and retreat to its other campuses.  Since then, the Hulen House has continued to attract students from all over the region to its PISD-sponsored marine education curriculum and the Palacios HUB recently took over most of the classroom building for continuing education and job training classes.

It has been said that “the only constant in this world is change” and, in 2006, the port’s main reliance on shrimping industry revenue was diversified by the construction of a barge and tugboat manufacturing facility which took over the location of the Palacios Shipyard.  2009 saw the first female port director, Debbie Morris, hired from within to manage the Port of Palacios and MCND#1 properties.  And, in 2010, after petitions from taxpayers and much deliberation, Navigation District commissioners were successful in appealing to the Texas Legislature to allow expansion of their Board from three to five.

For all their changes, Matagorda County Navigation District No. 1 and the Port of Palacios remain today, as they were in the early part of the 20th century, an important partner in the city’s future development.  The channel from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway continues as the lifeline for a traditional industry that manages to thrive despite the challenges of the 21st century.  And those entrusted with the assets of the District continue to strive to fulfill the mission of MCND#1 and its duties to constituents.  Happy 75th Birthday, Matagorda County Navigation District No. 1 – you are wished a bright future! Palacios is depending on it.

Debbie Morris