‘Winter Texan’ population almost back to normal on the Rio Grande Valley border

Border Report

Retirees from up North bring big boost to local border economies each year

DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — Retirees Nancy and Gary Morgan, of Ontario, Canada, are Winter Texans who proudly wear their mobile home resort park ID badges with tiny dangling Texas charms to show each year they have returned to the Rio Grande Valley since 2012. But they’re missing the 2021 icon.

Like many Canadians who typically winter in South Texas, they were unable to return last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and border restrictions imposed by Canada, Mexico and the United States to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

But this year, the Morgans and thousands of other retirees have returned to South Texas after border restrictions were lifted on Nov. 8 to those who are fully vaccinated.

“It’s like a big family here so it’s a very nice park. And we’re missing lots of snow and cold weather,” said Gary, sporting a cowboy hat as he and Nancy attended a park meeting on Thursday morning at the Palm Shadows Mobile Home and RV Resort Park in the border town of Donna, Texas.

On this foggy morning, the meeting lounge was filled with hundreds of Winter Texans from across the United States and Canada.

The lounge at the Palm Shadows Mobile Home and RV Resort Park in Donna, Texas, was filled with residents on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, for a park meeting. About 80% of residents who winter on the border returned to the park this year. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

A small percentage are “converted Texans” because they live here year-round, having moved down permanently from colder climates to enjoy the border culture, Gulf Coast breezes, and sunny year-round golfing weather.

But most, like 79-year-old retiree Larry Johnson, make the trek annually and stay for a few months.

“I like playing golf and I can do that down here all winter,” said Johnson, of Casey, Iowa.

After 30 years working for the federal government, Johnson retired and has traveled to the RGV every winter for the past 25 years.

We missed it. We make a lot of good friends down here. It’s a real nice environment.”
⁠— Retiree and ‘Winter Texan’ Larry Johnson

Every winter except 2020, that is.

“We chose not to come down last year because of medical problems,” he said as he prepared to head out to the golf course with fellow park buddies.

“We missed it. We make a lot of good friends down here. It’s a real nice environment,” he said.

Kristi Collier, who founded Welcome Home RGV to organize activities and draw retirees from up North to the area’s 300 mobile home parks, told Border Report that the number of returning residents has dramatically increased since mid-December and after the New Year.

Kristi Collier runs Welcome Home RGV and helps collaborate the 300 resort parks in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“It’s so refreshing to see so many of our Winter Texan friends back this year. With the pandemic, last season was almost non-existent, quite frankly,” Collier said. “There’s a lot of things to do here in South Texas even if you want to social distance from others, from golfing to the island to walking trails and bike trails, all the things you can do outside that you can’t do in Iowa in the winter.”

About 100,000 Winter Texans call the Rio Grande Valley home. Most arrive around the holidays and leave by April before the sticky, triple-digit heat returns.

A 2017-18 survey of Winter Texans by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley found they generated about $530 million for the local border economies.

But Collier told Thursday’s crowd — most of whom arrived half an hour early for the free donuts — that they help generate more like $700 million.

She thanked them for returning and joked that they are a fun-loving lot who tend to “travel in packs.”

“You know you found a fun park when you follow the Bud Light beer truck in at 8 a.m.,” Collier said.

Resort and RV parks in the Rio Grande Valley, like Palm Shadows, in Donna, Texas, generate millions of dollars for the border economy. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Johnson said he returns each year in time for the park’s annual Halloween party when “everybody dresses up and we have a good time in the lounge.”

Deena Byrd is assistant manager of Palm Shadows Mobile Home and RV Resort Park in Donna, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Deena Byrd, assistant manager and activities director at Palm Shadows, said they are one of the few RGV parks with a beer and wine license, and that’s a big draw. Other activities they offer include frequent dances, quilting, crafting, golf and bowling leagues and even stained glass classes.

They have over 530 available spaces and Byrd said this year they are filled to about 80% of capacity. Last winter, only 20 to 25% of residents stayed during the pandemic.

“We’re very pleased and happy that they’re back,” Byrd said.

Most are Midwesterners, she said, from the I-35 corridor. But they also have residents from Wyoming, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York.

Canadian visitors, also called snowbirds, make up a significant percentage of Winter Texans, although U.S. immigration laws prevent them from staying more than six months at a time.

Hundreds of ‘Winter Texan’ retirees live at Palm Shadows Mobile Home and RV Resort Park in Donna, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Perri Sloan, of Winnipeg, the capital of the Canadian province of Manitoba, has returned to Palm Shadows for the past 12 years, except for last winter due to border restrictions. She says the warm tropical weather is the biggest draw for her and she’s soaking it up now.

“We missed last year. Glad we are back,” she said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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