- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2015

INGLESIDE, Texas (AP) - Word about Pam Sliva’s chicken spaghetti has gotten out.

Food orders at the Crazy Monkey Cafe, the tony sandwich shop she co-owns in Ingleside, pile up after 11:45 a.m.

The cheesy delicacy is Thursday’s lunch special. It tends to draw all kinds of customers - from businessmen, to soccer and tee-ball moms to blue-collar energy workers with hard hats tucked under their arms.

“We can get slammed some days,” Sliva told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (https://bit.ly/1j8t3yH).

“But it’s good to be busy.”

The days of businesses like Sliva’s turning a profit in this town were supposed to be over after 2010, the year Naval Station Ingleside closed.

Naysayers, including economists and even local business leaders, had verbally written the town’s obituary. There was little to save this city of 9,600 that hugs the north side of Corpus Christi Bay, they said.

But they were wrong.

“We got lucky. This was supposed to be a ghost town,” said Niki Shugart, president of the Ingleside Chamber of Commerce. “They were all talking gloom and doom. And it was easy to believe.”

Key to Ingleside’s survival, so far, has been finding new tenants for the naval station property.

Ones with deep pockets.

Two energy companies - Flint Hills Resources and a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum - purchased the former minesweeper base and moved in. They brought thousands of jobs, ideas for massive energy plants and millions of dollars in payrolls with them.

They were the jump-start the city needed.

To get an appreciation for how big a bullet Ingleside has seemingly dodged, consider the economic climate in the Coastal Bend at the time of the base went away:

The recession - Texas survived it better than most states, but was not completely unscathed. Unemployment in the area hovered near 8 percent in 2008. By 2010, the Corpus Christi metro area, including Ingleside, had begun to recover, regaining most of the 2,600 jobs it lost the previous year. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d ever come back … after the base closed,” Shugart said.

Eagle Ford was still new - the massive energy play’s potential hadn’t yet been fully realized. Only 26 Eagle Ford drilling permits were issued in 2008, the year exploration there began. Last year, 5,613 Eagle Ford drilling permits were issued, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates in the industry in the state.

The naval station was awarded to Ingleside in 1987. The base became operational in 1992.

Ingleside had been transformed from a small, quiet bayside town into a boomtown.

Quickly.

Its population jumped roughly 50 percent between 1993 and 2000, and hit a high of 10,561 residents in 1999.

Large apartment complexes and hundreds of single-family homes began to mushroom around town.

They had to. More than 3,000 military personnel and civilians worked at the base in its heyday.

“We had people from all over the world, speaking different languages,” said Troy Mircovich, superintendent of Ingleside’s school district. “We were growing and becoming a more diverse community, and it was awesome to see.”

That changed in 2005, when the Federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, voted to close it.

Doing so would save the federal government nearly $60 million a year, and relieve duplication of tasks already being performed at other bases, according to the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Report. Mine hunter ships were already being decommissioned at the time.

Military families began leaving soon after. Mircovich remembers the images of moving trucks chugging around town, with familiar faces inside them.

“It was a sad time for us all,” he said.

At first, departures came in a trickle. But the pace of the exodus picked up.

The school district lost 300 students the first school year after the Ingleside station shut down. District officials eliminated 17 teaching positions that year.

“As our number (of students) dropped we didn’t need as many teachers,” Mircovich said. “It was pretty tough on everyone.”

The last ship left the Ingleside station in April 2010, and the Port of Corpus Christi took over the property.

Port officials sold its pier to Flint Hills for $8.5 million. The rest of the station was sold to Occidental, an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Houston, in two packages for $82.1 million and $7 million.

None of the experts expected Ingleside to make a comeback.

Not even, Jim Lee, the chief economist at Texas A&M; University-Corpus Christi. He served on a variety of panels that studied the effects of the base’s closure.

“Although we were on the spot in terms of the adverse impacts on the local communities through 2010, we were way off as to what has happened ever since,” Lee said.

Roughly a dozen industrial plants are in various stages of development around the port, and are slated to begin operations in less than three years. Most are slated to be built in San Patricio County.

Port officials say temporarily taking control of the base wasn’t a burden.

They say they were always confident someone would buy it, even at a time when Eagle Ford’s possibilities were still in question.

“(The base) was never something we thought we were stuck with. We always viewed it as a tremendous asset,” said John P. LaRue, the port’s executive director.

LaRue said the base’s new owners may be well-positioned if the decades-old federal ban on crude exports is lifted.

That’s because port officials now feel they are closer than ever to making the Corpus Christi Ship Channel big enough to accommodate larger cargo ships.

The port has gotten authorization to widen the channel to 530 feet from Port Aransas to the Harbor Bridge. It also was approved to deepen the entire channel to 52 feet from 45 feet.

Port officials, however, do not have the estimated $300 million needed to do the work.

“This could be a tremendous advantage for them,” said LaRue, referring to Occidental and Flint Hills.

Looking to the future is, perhaps, the best way for a town relying on the military to cushion the blow when it loses its base.

Consider what happened with Fort McPherson.

Built in 1885, the Army base in suburban Atlanta served as the headquarters for the Army Installation Management Command’s Southeast Region.

The 2005 BRAC, the commission that ordered Ingleside’s closure said the 488-acre base needed to be shut down, too.

The impact, according to the town’s local redevelopment authority, was immediate.

More than 7,800 direct and indirect jobs were lost following the base’s 2011 closure.

Fort McPherson at the time was Atlanta’s seventh-largest employer and was a center for medical treatment for roughly 100,000 retirees.

Filling the void became a priority. The city changed the case’s zoning to allow mixed-use development, and actor-producer Tyler Perry agreed to pay $30 million for 330 acres of the property. He plans to build a film and production studio on the land; the rest of the property will be redeveloped into offices, green space and market-rate apartments.

Housing will be the key to managing future growth in Ingleside, Lee said.

Ingleside’s population has increased by 2.8 percent since 2010.

That’s not much in a lot of places. But in Ingleside, that’s enough to touch off a new streak of housing construction.

The question is whether new home building will keep pace with the growth.

Two new apartment complexes are under construction in the city, promising to bring 400 new much-needed rental units to Ingleside by next year. Three RV parks have opened recently - one on Farm-to-Market Road 1069 behind Little Joe’s BBQ, another on both sides of State Highway 361 near Kinney Lane, a third on Fourth Street.

The city also has gotten more than 50 applications to build new homes.

“That’s highly unusual for us,” City Manager Jim Gray said. “In previous years, we’d get more like 15, maybe 20.”

Construction of new homes also is underway in nearby Portland and Gregory, both communities that Shugart said may live until homebuilding in Ingleside catches its stride.

In the meantime, Ingleside’s school district also preparing for the new growth.

Voters this month approved a $44 million bond to replace Ingleside’s lone high school.

It was designed to hold 250-300 students when it opened in 1964. Enrollment today is 630.

That includes 77 students who have transferred from other districts.

“It’s crucial,” Mircovich said. “We had to make a tough decision to eliminate teachers in the past. And now today, we need every bit of help we can get. Part of that means having the best resources for our students.”

Sliva hopes newcomers will make their way to the Crazy Monkey Cafe, the business she and Shelley LaDuque poured a bunch of their savings into opening on Ingleside’s Main Street a year after the base closed.

The pair re-purposed a former tattoo parlor into a culinary school for children.

“It was a place where kids could learn a fun skill and stay out of trouble,” said LaDuque, who also is an intensive care nurse.

Eventually, the business evolved into a sit-down restaurant that’s open Tuesday-Friday.

“We’re just glad to be here,” Sliva said. “People seem to like what we do … so we’re gonna stay here.”

___

Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, https://www.caller.com

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