, Port Arthur, Texas

November 27, 2012

West column: Palms at Pleasure Island has new lease on life

Bob West
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — It’s no longer the longest of long shots that golf will again be played on Pleasure Island. Matter of fact, barring another  hurricane on the Southeast Texas coast in 2013,  it’s virtually a sure thing that The Palms at Pleasure Island is going to re-open sometime next fall.

Pretty much written off after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ike in September of 2008, new life is being breathed into The Palms by Port Arthur’s Renaissance Group. Rolling the dice that a casino gambling bill will get through the Texas Legislature next spring, that voters will approve and that Port Arthur will be granted one of three resort casinos, Renaissance expects to break ground soon on restoring what was once the area’s most beautiful golf course.

Best news for golfers is that no matter whether casino gambling passes, Renaissance is contractually obligated to the Pleasure Island Commission to bring back The Palms. However, the fate of gambling in Texas will determine how much money is put into the golf course and, by extension, how good it’s going to be.

Proof that Renaissance is dead serious can be seen from repairs already done to the Ike-ravaged clubhouse that sits atop a hill in the middle of the property. With any eye to hosting weddings, wedding receptions and other special events, thousands of dollars have been poured into upgrading an elegant facility and sprucing up scores  of surrounding palm trees.

Kevin Johnson of the Renaissance said the electricity is already on, he expects the clubhouse to open within two weeks and that it will house the group’s offices. If the necessary permits have been received from the city, an open house is being targeted the week before Christmas to show off the facility.

As for the golf course, which not only took a devastating hit from Ike but also from rampaging wild hogs, Illinois-based Turf Solutions, which specializes in golf-course renovation, spent the past week traipsing the course and putting together notes for a feasibility study. Johnson is expecting to get their report within the next week.

“The people with Turf Solutions were really impressed with what there is to work with,” said Johnson. “They have the ability to look at a piece of property and envision what kind of golf course could be developed. Since most folks picture Southeast Texas as being flat, I think they were surprised with the elevation changes.”

The plan, according to Johnson, is to break ground in late January or early February, hope for a mild winter and have golfers booming drives and rolling putts by mid October.

If there’s a surefire winner in this, it’s the Pleasure Island Commission. It leased the golf course land to Renaissance for $1 and there’s an agreement in place to sell land south of The Palms for a casino. If gambling passes and a casino is built on Pleasure Island, the lease price on The Palms goes way, way up. If gambling fails, golf will still have returned to the Island.

Renaissance, of course, is betting heavily that Texas will finally put a stop to the billions of dollars flowing into border states from Texans who enjoy gambling. On virtually any day of the year, parking lots at casinos in Lake Charles, Shreveport and on Indian reservations in Oklahoma are packed with cars bearing Texas license plates.

Expectations are strong that the state legislature is going to put together a gambling bill in its upcoming session. If the bill passes, a decision to approve gambling would go before voters in Texas, possibly as early as November.

“We feel comfortable on making the investment we’ve made toward Pleasure Island, based on the way we expect the legislation to be postured,” said Johnson. “The exciting thing for Port Arthur is that we’re looking at 3,400 direct jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs over a period of five years.”

Johnson estimated that between lobbyists, lawyers and work that’s being done at The Palms, the seven-year-old Renaissance Group has already sunk $1 million into the project.

Among the encouraging factors on gambling passing is that ferocious opposition from horse tracks and dog tracks in Texas seems to have been defused. One of the proposals being floated is for 14 horse and dog tracks to add casino gambling. That proposal would also call for three land-based resort casinos in Galveston, Corpus Christi and Port Arthur. And three Indian reservation casinos.

Nothing, of course, is etched in stone, but the vibes are better than they’ve been going back to the mid 1980s when there was high anticipation of gambling passing and Port Arthur getting at least one casino.

Renaissance, meanwhile, will be focusing short term on getting The Palms up and ready for play. One of the criteria for being granted a so-called resort casino will be a championship quality golf course and other tourist attractions.

Golfers who loved The Palms in his original form should probably expect some alterations because of how much erosion has impacted along the Intercoastal Canal.

“One of the consultants we talked to said it’s going to be necessary to narrow the course, and he didn’t see that as being a problem,” said Johnson. “His opinion was that some of the fairways were wider than necessary and there’s plenty of room to do some rerouting of holes.”

Johnson also made clear that the amount of money put into the golf course will be determined by gambling’s fate.

“We want to develop a quality golf course,” he said. “The question is, how much do you put into it, based on the outlook. With a casino venue, it changes your business plan. You would have a higher level of play and more play. You would have the funds to put more into the course. On the other hand, if by some chance the legislation stalls for two years, we’d be positioned with a good course that we could upgrade.”

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at