105 N. Alister Street
Port Aransas, TX
The History of Amelia's Landing Hotel
According to guests, it was common to see horses being ridden on the block that is now occupied by our hotel all the way through the 1970s. As hard as it is to believe on a summer weekend, when Alister Street is bumper-to-bumper traffic, just 40 years ago Port A was a much more bucolic place.
From the 1970s until 1981, our property was the site of a bar and grill called "The Country Bumpkin". It featured all-outdoor seating, and appears to have been a pretty sketchy establishment, at least near the end. This is borne out by the fact that in 1981 it was closed down by order of Port Aransas due to multiple and repeated building and health code violations! According to the reports we saw at City Hall, the owner pretty much violated every law there is to violate -- and the police were actually sent to force them to close.
Thus, a new owner, J.C. Hawkins, changed directions and built the first 8 units of what he would call "The Seahawk Motel". He tore down the ill-fated restaurant portion, and built a brick structure which became the motel's lobby and manager's quarters.
The bar and lounge lingered on until 1985, when it was remodeled and split into two hotel units, our current "Amelia Earhart Room" and "Flying Tigers Room". They built on short pilings right over the lounge's extremely heavy slate tile floor that was laid right on the sand, and is still beneath the building today.
Norman Grandbury purchased the property in the 1980s, and began a long period of expansion, first adding another block of four rooms (19 - 22), and then finally a block of nine more rooms, 10 through 18. (Obviously the room numbering system has changed over time.)
We saw plans for the pool construction in the city archives, but -- as was common with all Port Aransas building permits back in "the day" -- nothing was dated. We're guessing it was added in the late 1980s.
Here's a picture of the Seahawk in the early 1990s. The property went through a series of owners, all of whom maintained the Seahawk name.
In the early 2000s, a new owner changed the name to "The Harbor Inn". Since the motel is 6 blocks from the harbor, this name change is something of a mystery, but perhaps someday we will find out why they changed it. It was then purchased by a father/daughter team of "flippers" in 2007. This pair also purchased the Mariner Inn and the Double Barr Cottages in Port Aransas.
As we all know, flippers hold property for a period of years and then resell it, hopefully at a profit. In their world, it doesn't matter what they're flipping -- it could be oil futures or potatoes. Thus, as flippers are wont to do, they ran the hotel straight into the ground. If something broke, it was replaced as quickly and cheaply as possible. What improvements they made were shoddy and cheaply built. As a result, common sense things like making use of stainless steel hardware were foregone, in favor of saving a nickel per nail by using standard galvanized steel. Predictably, this short term, scorched earth strategy failed miserably in the salt water environment, and the property ran down quickly.
Then, the Great Recession of 2009 hit. Property values plummeted, and the flippers got flipped themselves, ending up upside down in their loans. They needed to sell something quickly to pay off the banks, so the Harbor Inn went on the market, even though it would mean selling at a loss.
Despite a fair price, times were tough, and it sat for quite a while with nary a nibble. This was no surprise, since 2009 was the worst year in hotel history. (We know -- we owned one in Iowa.) Which is, fortuitously, when we came on the scene.
How We Ended Up On Mustang Island
That year, we flew from our home in Iowa City, Iowa to Austin, TX for the "South by Southest Music Festival" -- an event we had heard about for many years. We had a fantastic time in Austin, but -- after three days -- our teenage kids grew bored. With nothing for kids to do at SXSW, they began clamoring for a trip to the beach -- so Mary and I decided to oblige. After all, the Gulf Coast was only an hour away by air -- and surely there had to be SOME great beaches there...right?
This is where luck and the internet came into play. I jumped on the piloting chat groups and asked Texas pilots a simple question: "Where do you fly your family when you want to go to the beach, and you don't have a car?" Almost without exception, they responded "Mustang Island"!
To which we all said "Huh?". Outside of Texas, no one had ever heard of Mustang Island -- and we were no different. We actually had to find the island on a sectional chart before we could determine if we could fly there. After a few minutes we saw that Mustang Island was between Galveston and South Padre Island -- destinations we had heard of -- so we figured we'd give it a one-day shot. If the beach and/or town sucked, we would move on to one or the other the next morning.
We landed at Mustang Beach's wonderful airport, and were absolutely entranced by the beauty of the over-water approach. It was Spring Break week, so the beach was crowded, giving us a great idea of the huge scale of the island's amazing, 20-mile long beach. We had no trouble finding a hotel room -- an indication of how devastating the Great Recession was about to get -- and we hoofed it to our room.
One day quickly turned to four, as we were reeled in by Port Aransas's subtle charms. It was unlike any other major beach community we had ever visited -- and the town was so free! Bonfires on the beach weren't just legal -- they were encouraged! Driving on the beach wasn't something that would get you arrested -- it was just what you did on the island! It was amazing, and we all quickly fell in love with the whole notion of "island time".
Best of all, there were NO high-rise hotel crowding the waterline, as there are in virtually every other beach community in America. The town's "no-taller-than-35-feet" rule promised to keep the beach forever open and clear -- something that deeply appealed to us.
And the rest is history. We flew home, and started talking seriously about finding a property to purchase. We had always wanted to own a sun-belt hotel to run in the winter, but were stunned and amazed to discover that the "season" in Port A was the same as the "season" at our hotel in Iowa: Summer! So, that plan fell by the wayside.
Undeterred by logic, we forged on, initially looking at several other properties on the island. We were utterly appalled at the condition of some (one in particular simply should have burned to the ground years ago, due to substandard wiring) of the properties on this barrier island, and the location of others was equally bad. Luckily, after several aborted negotiations on other properties, our realtor eventually discovered the gem of the island, the Harbor Inn -- which wasn't even back on the market yet! .
Buying The Harbor Inn...and Dealing With the Flippers
A quick tour showed that the motel had obviously been rode hard and put away wet -- but the location was too amazing to pass up! Located at the geographic center of Port Aransas, we quickly discovered that (unlike the hotel we were staying at, way out by the airport) EVERYTHING was within walking distance. Every bar, every restaurant, every live music venue, the beach, the docks, the intra-coastal waterway -- ALL were an easy walk away! We realized that -- if the place could pass inspection -- we had to have it.
Then the games began. The flippers were about as honest as a double-sided coin, and as slippery as day-old fish. The first indication that they were anything but honest was when they absolutely banned us from talking to their staff. This seemed pretty odd, but after the first walk through it became obvious that we wouldn't want to keep any of their staff, anyway -- the place was FILTHY beyond belief.
Still, it had charm, potential, a great location -- and the price was right. After weeks of back and forth double talk, we eventually closed the deal on Christmas Day, 2009, with a take-over date set for April 19, 2010. We needed that much time to get our affairs in order back at our Iowa hotel, and to sell our home. This turned out to be a huge mistake, but there was simply no other alternative.
Obstacles presented themselves...and were overcome. After deciding to make the move, we had entered negotiations to sell our hotel in Iowa. We thought we had a buyer for that hotel -- who then backed out at the last moment. So, with few alternatives we quickly promoted our night manager to general manager, put her in charge of running the whole enchilada -- and hoped for the best..
Then the real problems began. Unbeknownst to us, during the four months between closing the deal and taking possession, the flippers -- who still owned two other properties in Port A -- had been cherry-picking the best stuff from the Harbor Inn! One by one, the newest air conditioners were moved to their other properties, and older, smaller units were installed at the Harbor Inn. TVs and beds were taken -- they even stole all the pool furniture! Thankfully, we had taken photos of the pool, so we were able to force them to bring it all back, but we didn't discover the other theft until our final walk through.
Since our intention was to utterly gut the rooms and update them anyway, we decided that their actions, though despicable, wouldn't stop us from closing. Gritting our teeth, we signed the papers. We were at last done dealing with the scoundrels, and were in business in paradise!
Let the Renovations Begin!
The first thing that had to be fixed was the pool. The flippers had allowed the water chemistry to deteriorate so badly that the pool walls had actually started to dissolve! Despite state law, they had not maintained a single, written pool chemistry record in years. Thus, the walls were pitted, and, worse, the drains were illegal. So, on the very first day of possession -- April 19, 2010 -- a large crew arrived to sandblast and re-plaster the pool, as well as add legal drains and depth markings. $10,000 later, we had a brand, new pool.
The second thing we needed was a hot tub. We had planned to add a built-in tub with a waterfall into the pool, but the City of Port Aransas gas utility was unable to install a larger gas line (needed for the heater) in time for Memorial Day weekend -- the traditional start of the all-important "Season". So, we purchased a stand-alone four-person hot tub that has served us well, and proven to be VERY popular.
Next, we needed all-new linens and towels. The ones the flippers had left us could be seen through when held up to the light! So, 23 rooms worth of towels and linens were ordered, and placed in the rooms.
The rooms were cleaned with putty knives and Super Clean -- that's how bad they were -- and 25 year old beds were replaced. Every television in the hotel was replaced with flatscreen HDTVs, and DVD players. Hair dryers were added. It was an ENORMOUS task.
Our first summer (2010) was experimental. Everything needed to be fixed simultaneously, but we could only do so much, so fast. Our solution was to keep the old Harbor Inn name, keep the prices low, add our signature "delivered-to-the-room" breakfast basket, and start fixing the rooms, one by one.
We redid the landscaping in 2010 -- after shoveling three truckloads of sand out the parking lots! The big internally lit sign out front had to be rewired, as half of the insides had corroded away. (This was especially ironic, as one of the flipper's other businesses was a sign company!)
Slowly, we whipped the place into good enough shape to NOT have continuous complaints -- a huge step forward. Then the real work began.
That first off-season we re-did all the rooms in the South building, remodeling them into our aviation themes. While all of this was going on, we were still trying to run our Iowa hotel by "remote control" -- and failing. Even with an airplane at our disposal, we discovered that running two businesses 1200 miles apart was just too hard. Reluctantly, we put the Iowa hotel back on the market.
Meanwhile, the renovations continued. First the Amelia Earhart room came to life, followed by the Mustang, Lightning, Pan Am Clipper, and Red Baron rooms. We also added gingerbread details to the exterior balconies, giving the whole hotel a more elegant feel.
Finally, in November of 2010, we found a buyer for our Iowa hotel. We practically had to give the place away, but the good news was that they did NOT want to continue the aviation theme. This meant that we could take all of our priceless and hard-won aviation artwork and memorabilia down to Texas, and display it all at our new hotel! This single stroke of luck literally moved the project ahead four or five years!
Then, we had to face a big one: The parking lots. Both North parking lots were rapidly falling apart, and no amount of resealing could save them. So, we contracted a paving company out of San Antonio to repave them.
At first it appeared that they had done a fine job -- but within a few months, it was apparent that they had simply put down highly compressed black gravel, with not enough binder to hold the pavement together. Unresponsive to complaints, we ultimately ended up hiring another company to come in and seal the lots. We're hopeful that this makes them last five more years.
Then...the second season was upon us! No remodeling could happen, since once "The Season" is in full swing here in Port Aransas, it is "all hands on decks" and we need every available room - and then some! It was a great year, with business well ahead of our first year.
That second off-season (2011 -- 2012) started with a bang, when we started tearing into the South Building. From November until the following March, we demolished and finished the Barnstormers, The Cub, the Fly-In Movie Room, the Floatplane, and the Constellation rooms With all-new everything, these became not just the newest, finest rooms in the hotel -- but the newest, finest rooms on the island!
In November 2011, we FINALLY felt that the facility was worthy of the name we had chosen for it, way back in 2009. After dozens of design proposals, a design company in Wisconsin finally came up with the logo we all know and love -- and the big sign went up out front right before Thanksgiving 2011. At last, we were "Amelia's Landing"!
With the finishing touches going into the Constellation Room literally hours before the Sand Fest crowds hit the island, we were at last through with remodeling for the off-season. But that doesn't mean that work didn't continue. We are continually upgrading everything, from new exterior paint, to new security and surveillance systems. All sorts of little things can be done during the seasons, like replacing old window screens, and refurbishing the pool fence gate with all stainless steel hardware. Additionally, the pool room electrical system was brought up to code, and half a dozen new air conditioners were installed -- all without disrupting a single guest.
As I'm writing this, we are in the middle of the busiest month of the year -- July -- and business is up a solid 20% over last year. Our nervousness about the name change has proven unwarranted, and we have been met with enthusiastic approval at every turn!
But we're far from done. This next off-season we will renovate another six rooms, and new ceramic tile flooring will be installed in half a dozen more. Then...it will be time to add a second floor to the lobby area, and open up a retail souvenir and snack shop!
The work -- and fun -- never ends, at Amelia's Landing!
July 14, 2012
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