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It has been years since Harry Carlsen was able to drive into a Texas Rio Grande Valley recreational vehicle park and obtain a space on the spot. The Connecticut resident told the Harlingen (Tex.) Valley Star he was staying at an RV park in Edinburg, but about two weeks ago, decided to move further south.
He had no problem relocating his fifth-wheel to an RV campground in Mercedes, Texas.
January and February are usually peak months for the Winter Texan season, but this year the numbers are down and many parks have the empty lots to prove it.
Winter Texan numbers dropped dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which were followed by an extended downturn in the national economy.
Al Williams, from Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., said that about five years ago, Winter Texans had to reserve spots at most Valley RV parks.
“That is not the case today,” he said. “You can practically drive into a park and, more often that not, you will get a place.”
And back then, Williams said, a parking spot cost about $150 a month. Today, he continued, it’s closer to $300, which is about what some parks in Florida are charging.
That is leaving some wondering if Winter Texans are bypassing the Valley for other destinations or simply staying home because of economic or health reasons.
During a recent trip to RV parks from Brownsville to Mission, Texas, parks had plenty of empty spots and some lots displayed “for sale” signs.
However, an informal survey of park managers and residents found that while some parks claim to be missing a lot of their usual winter visitors, others are doing better, or at least holding their own.
“We keep hearing that this season is down,” said Janice Thompson, activity director at The Split Rail RV Park in Mission. “We think it’s because of the economy.”
Herbert Overberry, a Canadian staying at Morningside RV Resort in Alamo, said a few more of his fellow countrymen came to the Valley this year.
He said a possible reason is that the Canadian exchange rate was favorable this year – 1.28 compared to 1.50 last season.
Don Erath, a Michigan resident staying at Sunburst RV in Harlingen, said he hadn’t seen any difference in Winter Texan traffic, at least at his park.
Rio Mobile & RV Park in Brownsville is having a good year, Lee Ziegler, the park’s manager, said.
“We do a lot of advertising and provide good programs,” he said. “Our residents now have Internet access without having to leave the park.”
That, however, was not the case at Crooked Tree Campland on the other side of town.
Park manager Cris Ramos said that the occupancy rate was down. He attributed the decline to last year’s sale of the park.
River Bend RV Resort, also in Brownsville, has not seen a decrease in tourists, said Phillis Bates, the clubhouse manager. But that’s because many of the Winter Texans own homes and arrive at their convenience.
Ron Brown of Oklahoma said he has been coming to the park for the past three years and recently bought a lot.
The former owner of an amusement park in Oklahoma said that after taking a beating in the stock market the past two years, his investments are doing much better. With his renewed financial health, he bought himself a $300,000 Fleetwood motorhome.
But while Winter Texans like Brown aren’t complaining about the economy, others say the Valley is getting a little too expensive.
Charlie and Mary Cotton, a retired couple from St. Joseph, Mo., said they decided to stay home this season, not because of their health but because of money constraints.
“We feel we were spending a little too much money,” Mary Cotton said in a telephone interview. “We might go down some other time.”
Charlie Cotton said they were spending about $1,680 a year to keep their travel trailer in a Harlingen park, $400 in insurance and about $250 in taxes.
The Cottons said they also knew of three other couples from Minnesota who stayed home this season for the same reason.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the economy,” he said. “A lot of folks are dependent on the interest they draw from their savings, but that isn’t much today. Despite what you hear that the economy is getting better, it’s not.”