As SPI plans ‘world class facility’, birders warn of convention center expansion

Rendering of South Padre Island's plans to expand its convention center. (Courtesy Rendering)
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South Padre Island has big plans for its convention center.

On April 17, Convention & Visitors Bureau Director Blake Henry and officials with an architectural firm planning on a complete overhaul of the convention center told the Island’s city council the plans to transform the facility into a “world class facility.” One that could host larger events, trade shows and sporting events, which will translate to more visitors and more economic impact.

But, birders warn, those plans — in their current stage — would wipe out old growth habitat critical to migratory birds who have long flocked to the convention center following a two-day flight over the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan.

The area provides the birds necessary food, shelter and water after crossing the Gulf after two days of flight.

However, Henry and officials with the architectural firm Gignac Architects said during that April 17 meeting that they understand the importance of the area to birds — and the huge impact that birders from all over the world make when they come to the Island to see birds of all colors, sizes and shapes.

They also emphasized during that April 17 meeting that the planning is only 75% complete for the first of four or five stages of planning that will happen before drywall gets torn down or shovels ever hit the dirt.

On April 23, a petition was made highlighting those concerns that urges city officials not to touch green spaces by the convention center that are treasured by not only birders, but the birds they flock to see.

As of late Thursday afternoon, it had garnered 1,911 signatures and dozens of comments.

And, as the current plans stand in the designs presented to the city council on April 17, portions of that old growth would be replaced with a parking lot and a terrace — but again, they are just plans.

“As far as the birding area, we have no intention of destroying that,” Henry said during the meeting. “We have full intention of complementing that area.”

Map of South Padre Island’s planned expansion of its convention center. (Courtesy Image)

Henry said officials plan to keep the ecosystem alive and thriving and recognize the importance of migration and birding tourism — they even market it.

“It’s very important for us going forward,” Henry said.

Still, at the meeting and through the petition, birders are expressing concerns and reservations about the proposal.

Javier Gonzalez, a naturalist at the South Padre Island Birding Center, which is right next door to the convention center, attended the April 17 meeting in an individual capacity to express his concerns.

“I can speak pretty confidently that this area … is a critically important stopping site for the birds,” he said.

Gonzalez said habitat on the Island is slowly becoming condos and buildings.

“More now than ever, these little lots are extremely important … the convention center for decades has attracted birders to South Padre Island,” he said.

He described the area as the most mature on the Island.

“If you wipe that out, it takes a long time to recover, to recuperate something like this,” he said.

Gonzalez also said how interest in birding — a major economic driver for the Island — has grown post-pandemic, asking councilmembers to be mindful of all of these points.

Framework of South Padre Island’s planned expansion of its convention center. (Courtesy Image)

“Please preserve any habitat that we may have left for the birds and for the people … that come down here,” he said.

After the firm’s presentation, South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty said that if they did take out any habitat they would find areas to replace that habitat and officials with the firm said employees with landscape expertise would come to the Island and interact with interested parties.

Henry reiterated at the end of the meeting that they market the Island to birders and realizes the value in that, adding that “we’ll work together to build a world class facility” and not compromise existing areas for birds.