Despite some pandemic-related delays, the South Texas Ecotourism Center project is nearing completion along S.H. 100 in Laguna Vista, with an official grand opening possibly taking place in late January.

So says David Garza, Cameron County commissioner for Precinct 3, who led a tour of the 10-acre STEC on a recent Friday morning. Garza has been the driving force behind the project, which he said he made a priority after visiting similar ecotourism parks in his travels to places like Costa Rica, Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and Napa Valley, California.

The idea of the $12 million project is to give visitors, including students, an opportunity to experience the beauty of nature in one location showcasing the four principal types of habitat found in the Rio Grande Valley: coastal prairie, lomas, savanna and thornscrub forest. Admission is free.

“Kids can come in and learn about the flora and fauna of the ecosystem,” Garza said.

A View of South Texas Ecotourism Center in Laguna Vista that will officially open by early 2022 as the facilities mission is to encourage the exploration of biodiversity in South Texas. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

So can curious adults for that matter, he said. The interpretive signage, which the center is still waiting on, will feature QR codes readable by smart phones or pads for information on the various types of plants, as well as the animals likely to be found in the various habitats. The animals — collared peccaries and aplomado falcons for instance — will be represented by expertly painted, stainless steel sculptures from a foundry in Nebraska.

The vast majority of the plants, all 48,000 that have been installed at the center, are native to the Rio Grande Valley. The rare exception is live oak trees planted on either side of the center’s outdoor classroom, its 46 seats made from scrap piling left over from construction of STEC’s massive elevated boardwalk, which offers an impressive vista of the Bahia Grande Unit of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge abutting STEC to the south.

The classroom, which also looks out onto Bahia Grande but from a more modest height, could double as a scenic spot for the exchange of vows, Garza said. The county plans to present naming opportunities for the classroom and other elements of the park for those who would like to help support it, he said.

Cameron County Commissioner David Garza makes his way up an observation bridge looking towards Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Bahia Grande Unit Friday at the future home of South Texas Ecotourism Center in Laguna Vista. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The center, located just inside Laguna Vista’s western city limit, also features a number of pavilions and bird-viewing blinds, a pond system that collects virtually every bit of runoff from the center, including the semi-permeable parking lot and even the stretch of S.H. 100 out front. The park also incorporates donated recycled steel from the former aircraft carrier USS Independence, dismantled by International Shipbreaking Ltd./EMR Group at the Port of Brownsville.

A main feature of the park is its nearly 8,000-square-feet indoor classroom/exhibit/event space. The minimalist-style building is designed to fit in rather than compete with the natural elements surrounding it, including the sizable plot of useful native plants in front of it, Garza said. The structure incorporates natural indirect lighting and features roll-away glass walls to convert it to an open-air setting.

Garza said the building will also house an administrative office, reception area, restrooms and maybe a gift shop. Another major feature, thanks to a grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is a “water lab” to be used for local training for potable and wastewater plant operators, and for smaller communities to be able to test water samples rather than having to send them off, he said.

Cameron County Commissioner David Garza gives a tour of the future home of South Texas Ecotourism Center in Laguna Vista Friday morning as Commissioner Garza holds a stainless steel sculpture of a South Texas wild pig that will be used for educational purposes. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)q

The entire 10 acres is wi-fi accessible and features downward directed lighting to eliminate light pollution but still offer enough light for nighttime strollers to avoid snakes, Garza said.

“It’s a beautiful area to walk at night,” he said.

Education is a major focus of STEC, which is offering free to teachers prepared online curriculum for grades 2-8 covering nature and ecotourism curriculum and approved by the Texas Education Agency.

“All of that is already done,” Garza said. “That’s part of what we are all about.”

A grant from the federal Economic Development Administration is helping pay for bringing utilities to the south side of S.H. 100 where STEC is located, and will allow the city of Laguna Vista to develop 13 acres next door into a retail/restaurant space, though in an environmentally responsible way, he said. Garza said the center is also a way to give the community of 3,000 a boost in terms of tax base and job creation.

“Laguna Vista, it needs something,” he said.

Part of it, in addition to serving as an educational and recreational asset locally, is to give out-of-county visitors a reason to stay longer and spend more on restaurants, lodging and so on, which will help generate more HOT tax revenue.

A View of an outdoor classroom at South Texas Ecotourism Center in Laguna Vista that will officially open by early 2022 as the facilities mission is to encourage the exploration of biodiversity in South Texas. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

None of it would have been possible without voters approving a portion of Cameron County Hotel Occupancy Tax to be used for the project, for which TPWD also contributed money, Garza said. No property taxes were used for the project, which instead relied on revenue generated by the HOT tax and vehicle rentals in the county.

Garza also thanked his fellow county commissioners for their support, without which he said STEC would not have been possible. He said he hopes the center will attract a number of daytime and nighttime events, noting that the facilities will be available for rent at a nominal rate, just enough to recover the center’s costs for hosting.

“We’re not in the money making business here,” Garza said. “This has nothing to do with making money. It has to do with making it accessible to the community.”

South Texas Ecotourism Center

44487 S.H. 100, Laguna Vista