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Winter Texans pump up state's economy
Y'all Stay a While

Winter Texans--visitors from northern climes who call Texas "home" during the winter--drop in around the state every year. They are especially fond of the Rio Grande Valley, which draws about 127,000 such visitors annually, according to the University of Texas-Pan American's (UT-Pan Am) Tourism Research Center.

Their economic contribution to the region does not go unnoticed, according to Penny Simpson, director of the center.

"We estimated they spent $420 million in their time here [in 2005]," she said.

That is an increase of more than 27 percent from the $329 million Winter Texans spent during the winter of 1998-99, according to UT-Pan Am.

Some Winter Texans come for the weather and then decide not to leave. Mary Ann Van Vooren, of Alamo, has been a Texas resident for eight years since she moved from Kansas. She believes the Valley has the potential to become a retirement hot spot similar to states like Florida or Nevada, which saw its over-65 population grow by 15 percent from 2000 to 2003.

"This area is ripe for that kind of growth," Van Vooren said.

But before that can happen, Van Vooren said Texas needs stronger protection for these new Texans, who tend to live in manufactured homes in retirement parks or "villages." They may own that home, but not the land on which it sits, which can suddenly leave them looking for a new place to live.

Shaky ground
Van Vooren has lived in a manufactured home in Texas and has seen the park change ownership. Thankfully, she said, the new owner had no intention of closing down the park and changing the land's use. If he had, she said, there would likely have been little she or anyone else could have done about it.

"When you move into a park, you put down your own cement, your own sheds, you buy your home and install it," Van Vooren said. "You put maybe $40,000 into the place, so you're putting a substantial amount into it. But, if you don't own the land your house is on, they can evict you for just about anything they want to. You don't have a lot of rights."

Texas laws are lacking, Van Vooren said, in protecting the rights of manufactured homeowners, which number more than 775,000, according to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Exactly what to do for these homeowners--retired and non-retired--comes before the Texas Legislature each regular legislative session, and likely will again, according to Suzanne Henry of the Consumers Union's Austin office.

"Texas has very few tenant laws for manufactured housing," she said.

Laws requiring owners to give park residents the "right of first refusal," where tenants can purchase the park for fair market value before the owner accepts other offers, and providing up to six months' notice of a park's sale and closure, would be steps in the right direction, Henry said.

"It takes a long time to relocate, especially if it's in a hot market for real estate," she said.

Ownership is bliss
New Hampshire passed a law in 1988 that came on the heels of numerous park closures. The law required park owners to give residents 60 days' notice of the sale. That time window gives residents time to form a legal entity and become a co-op and attempt to purchase the park, according to Paul Bradley, vice president of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund (Loan Fund).

"Community members have to be notified 60 days in advance of the sale," he said. "If they choose to, they can come to us at the Loan Fund and, if approved, they have the right to match the offer."

Started in 1983, the Loan Fund financed the first such community in 1984. More than $100 million, 72 communities and 3,500 home sites later, the Loan Fund has given New Hampshire residents a voice within their communities, Bradley said.

"Laws have evolved over 30 years due to activism by homeowners," he said. "Legislatures are left trying to balance the rights of homeowners and landowners and more often than not, they landed on the side of landowners."

The Loan Fund's success has caught the attention of nonprofit groups wanting to help manufactured homeowners around the country, including Texas, Bradley said.

"Texas is the biggest manufactured housing state in the country," he said. "I think they've been overwhelmed by that sector in Texas and have just basically hoped it would go away. Well, it's not going away."

The Loan Fund cannot loan money to communities in Texas but can offer training to interested groups.

"Our effort is to train nonprofit [groups] to help homeowners, not train homeowners directly," he said.

More information is available on the Loan Fund's Web site, www.nhclf.org.

Long, warm winter
Whether they're here for the winter or on permanent leave from colder areas, Winter Texans are good news for communities and businesses, according to Donna resident Jo Hyer, president of the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Texas RV (Recreational Vehicle) Association.

"From October to April, the Valley thrives on Winter Texans," she said. "There are a lot of restaurants in the area that are only open in the winter."

Martha's Taqueria, in Donna, relies on the winter influx of visitors, according to its owner, Martha Perez.

"We depend on them," Perez said. "We've been open nine years and always just worked the winter. If you come in, it's 99 percent Winter Texans."

Hyer sees the benefit to having more of the winter crowd hang around permanently.

"Well certainly it would boost the local economy year-round," she said.

In Florida, for example, residents older than 50 make up about one-third of the state's population, according to a 2000 study by the consulting firm Thomas, Warren and Associates. Those senior residents net Florida about $1.4 billion and help account for about 4 million jobs, the study found.

Van Vooren said that type of economic flow and job creation makes the Valley the destination of the future.

"The thing I think makes sense for Texas is the jobs it provides for local people," she said. "The people who work in these [retirement] parks and restaurants are local residents."

Van Vooren adds that the retired resident isn't likely to work on home maintenance and repair, but instead will hire local residents, skilled in whatever craft is needed.

"It's not like these people just appeared," she said of the retirees. "They've been around for 50 years and no one's done anything to get ready for them to retire. I think [having them here] would be a really good thing, and not just down here; it would benefit Texas."

Clint Shields