Hot ticket: Private border wall bolsters demand for South Texas riverboat tour

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Private-wall builder says he has 'commitments' from 50-100 landowners to build throughout South Texas

MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — The Riverside Club is a popular South Texas hangout for retirees and Winter Texans who want to enjoy a taste of Americana while gazing at another country from the banks of the Rio Grande.

The laid back, honky tonk-style bar has for years appealed to seniors in cowboy hats, boots and shorts who enjoy sipping drinks while hootin’ and hollerin’ on the concrete dance floor.

But nowadays, a surprising number of patrons are packing the restaurant’s riverboat tours — many eager to see a newly built private border wall just upriver.

A retired couple from Nebraska said they hadn’t visited the area in 12 years and were shocked by the restaurant’s newfound popularity. They now winter in Arizona but said they drove to South Texas “on a whim” in hopes of seeing the border wall. The couple said they didn’t tell their children so they wouldn’t “get in trouble for making the drive.”

In years past, the restaurant operated one daily ride on the “Riverside Dreamer,” a 55-foot-long, 44-passenger pontoon boat. But the afternoon trip up and down the river often got canceled if the weather was bad or there weren’t enough riders. On Tuesday, however, at least four riverboat tours were completely booked — including two, two-hour rides.

In fact, all of the riverboat rides for the remainder of the week are sold out, according to the owner whose restaurant serves up traditional diner fare like burgers and chicken-finger baskets. Riverboat tours cost up to $13 an hour or $24 for two, with discounts for seniors and youth.

The owners of the Riverside Club did not want to be interviewed but did acknowledge that their business has had a definite uptick since border-wall construction began in October on private riverfront property nearby.

Even though federal plans have their own property behind the government-built border wall, the restaurant owners have been notably mum, compared with the vocal opposition from many of their neighbors. Outcry against a border wall at some nearby properties — like Historic La Lomita Chapel, and the National Butterfly Center — has even prompted Congress to exempt those properties from border-wall construction.

Nevertheless, the club’s owner told Border Report on Tuesday they don’t give media interviews, and they did not allow cameras in their restaurant.

Tommy Fisher, the Fisher Sand & Gravel Company CEO who built the controversial 3-mile-long private border wall, said the restaurant owners have told him business is booming, in part because of curiosity about the wall.

“The gentleman who runs the Riverside Club told me his business has been super huge since we built the wall,” Fisher told Border Report on Tuesday. “The boat tours run constantly up and down the river now.”

Tommy Fisher, president and CEO of Fisher Sand and Gravel Company, on Jan. 4, 2020, is seen on the banks of the Rio Grande where his company was building a private border wall on private property south of Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Fisher said his 18-foot-tall galvanized steel border wall is already built, but crews are waiting for the concrete to dry on the adjacent road they laid next to the bollards. Fisher wants to sell the border wall to the Department of Homeland Security for $14 million, or $16.5 million with 10 years of upkeep included. So far, they have not made an offer.

That could change, however, because the Trump administration on Tuesday announced it was waiving federal procurement rules relating to border wall construction. How, and if, that pertains to purchase of a private border wall, however, is yet to be seen.

Read a story on Trump’s waiving of procurement rules for border wall construction.

If Fisher manages to sell this showcase private border wall to the government, he said he has 50 to 100 private landowners that have given him “firm commitments” for him to build private border walls on their property up and down the Rio Grande.

“We’ve signed option agreements with them so the moment the government signs on we’ll be ready to go,” Fisher said Tuesday, adding that this includes landowners in the Texas counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Zapata. “We’re working our way all the way to Del Rio.”

A segment of 3-mile private border wall is seen on Jan. 15, 2020, south of Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“I just really feel comfortable in the product that we built and it’s the right thing to do. It can be built faster, it’s more economical and lasts longer and I believe it truly provides a high-security value to the nation because it’s on the border,” Fisher said.

Read a Border Report tour of Fisher’s private-border wall site.

Fisher has twice taken Border Report onto his construction site and each time boats, kayaks, canoes and even rafts could be seen traversing the area.

With 176 patrons riding on Tuesday, it’s clear that the river tours are now a viable business. One waiter said there is such demand to see the border wall that the boats are even filling up in cold and rainy weather.

Tuesday was 90 degrees and sunny and many patrons showed up before the scheduled boat tour only to find a dreaded “SOLD OUT” sign at the bar.

One boy stomped out mad as an elderly gentleman tried to explain to him that although they could see boats, no tickets were available to ride. The child did not seem to understand the concept as he kicked a rock in the packed parking lot.

Another family from North Dakota tried to convince a waiter to help them get tickets because their children were only in town visiting for a week.

“I’m sorry,” the restaurant staffer responded. “But you can book now for a ride next week if you want.”

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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