Photo: Fran Ruchalski, The Enterprise / The Enterprise
The coronavirus outbreak has not stopped progress on the final public stretch of the Port Neches Riverfront, a recreation and commercial entertainment component planned more than a decade ago.
Construction on a $695,000 walkway, envisioned as a way to entice more residents to the park and restaurants with decks and water views, is expected to begin within a month and could be completed in about six months, City Manager Andre Wimer said.
“They don’t anticipate it will actually take that long,” Wimer said. “They’re allowing some time for weather … and also if there are any COVID-related impacts to construction.”
The work, aimed at giving people an opportunity to enjoy a bit of nature, comes when spending time outside is one of few relatively low-risk activities in the era of coronavirus.
The Port Neches City Council last week approved a host of resolutions to move forward with that final step and set the groundwork for future expansion at The Wheelhouse Restaurant. After initial skepticism, the restaurant’s success has been a boon for interest in future private development in the area, Wimer said.
Among the unanimously passed resolutions was the approval of the exchange of property between the city, Port Neches Economic Development Corp. and The Wheelhouse. This will allow for construction of a walkway connecting the Indian Pointe Subdivision to Riverfront Park.
After making water and sewer improvements and doing roadwork nearby, the walkway is the last of the infrastructure improvements the Economic Development Corp. planned in an attempt to attract development.
The city previously had kept a piece of land along the river with the intent of constructing the walkway on it. However, much of that land eroded prior to the construction of a bulkhead.
The council also approved a resolution to move forward with the construction of the walkway itself. That work is expected to be completed in at least 190 days, Wimer said.
The walkway project will include a guardrail, lighting and a courtyard area. Wheelhouse owner and president Bert Lamson previously told The Enterprise he believes it will be yet another draw for developers and an additional method of transportation to bring enough customers to support his and a second restaurant.
The council also approved an update to the terms and conditions agreement between the city and The Wheelhouse. The document allows the operation of and construction on the actual restaurant.
The approval was largely pro forma to accompany the land transfer. However, it included a couple of key changes.
The first removed language regarding the initial time frame for operation of the restaurant and what would prompt the early sale of the property. Such clauses were initially included had the restaurant not been successful.
However, with the business doing well, they no longer are deemed necessary, especially with plans for another expansion in the works. That addition largely will be made possible by the land The Wheelhouse acquired in exchange for the property the walkway will be constructed on.
The tract, about a third of an acre, would allow for the construction of additional parking. Mayor Glenn Johnson also pointed out that it would allow the restaurant to move its large trash bins from along the main road.
Wimer said the timeline for that expansion is unclear, in part because of the impact coronavirus has had on the restaurant industry. However, he said, the owners have assured him they still want to move forward.
The Wheelhouse’s most recent expansion – a palapa finished in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic – has given the restaurant additional outdoor space at a time when restaurants have had to limit their indoor occupancy.
Various regulations regarding restaurants during the pandemic repeatedly have imposed less-restrictive requirements on outdoor dining options. Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent order totally exempted outdoor dining from occupancy limits.
Also planned to move forward despite coronavirus-related delays is the construction of an Iguana Joe’s restaurant, Wimer said.
Developer Victor Ybarra previously told The Enterprise that he had anticipated being ready to start construction around June. The plan was to make this restaurant the most outdoor-focused in the chain.
Like many developments, that has been delayed. Ybarra was unavailable Friday to give an updated timeline.
“Obviously COVID has had an impact on a lot of businesses. But as far as the work we’re doing, it needs to proceed, which is what we’re doing,” Wimer said. “When the situation settles and the time is right, we will proceed.”
Wimer said since the city acquired the property some 15 years ago, the vision always has been to create a space where residents can be outdoors and enjoy the waterway.
There have been fits and starts along the way. However, it’s just serendipity that the process would near completion with one restaurant booming and another on its way amid a global pandemic that has made even more people lean toward spending time outside.
While the walkway is the final improvement previously planned to be taken on by the city, one more could be on its way.
Grant money from the state of Texas is expected to provide the money to refurbish the boat ramp near Riverfront Park, Wimer said. Although the timeline of that project and many other details still are unknown.