A Piece of Island Paradise

There’s no sinking feeling to Galveston’s real estate boom.

by Leigh Bell

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The San Luis Resort recently opened its H2O pool bar.

Seems like Galveston is the city with nine lives. The strip of island known as the Jewel of Texas before being ripped apart, first by a series of hurricanes in the early 1900s and later by labels of high grime and crime, shines once again. Folks, we’ve found a diamond in the rough.

Real estate is hopping. Business is good, and strips like “The Strand” and Postoffice Street (think the travel-size version of Austin’s 6th Street) have revitalized nightlife in a city once linked to blue hairs and kitschy cruise ships.

If a recession looms, Galveston doesn’t know it. The coastal city is peppered with brand-spanking-new high-rise condos, brownstones, and other developments.

Take the new Emerald by the Sea, a 15-story oceanfront complex with an infinity-pool deck, a movie theater, and an in-house concierge. Ninety percent of the 121 units are already sold, says Theresa Hill, broker with Personette and Associates, a company that handles sales and marketing for
the condos.

H2O bar also offers food, massages, and spa services poolside.

Former beach bums are already moving into the glass-covered twin towers of Palisades Palms. And the recently built brownstones downtown took advantage of a building ruined by fire in Hurricane Rita, says V.J. Tramonte of Joe Tramonte Realty, which represents the townhomes.

If you’re the HGTV type, Galveston has a surprising amount of historical homes, including many larger ones built back in the day for ship captains.

“Galveston is kind of getting to be known as a hot spot mainly for the cost, as compared to buying on the east or west coast,” Hill says. “We are still very reasonably priced . . .   you just can’t have a national weather report and you just can’t have a national real-estate report. It’s educating the people that we’re still OK.”

The entertainment biz is steady, which means people are still spending cash on creature comforts like nice meals, martinis, and beachfront hotel rooms. All this while most of America pinches pennies on the sidelines of soaring gas prices and threats of a national economic implosion.

“It’s still a buyers’ market in Galveston,” Tramonte says. “We are just trying to get people to come down here and not listen to the doom and gloom that you hear every day in the news.”

And maybe that’s just the reason Galveston’s economy went from trot to gallop in the last year. The 50-mile trip from Houston requires far less gas than, say, a jaunt to Austin, Corpus Christi, and Padre Island, plus real estate remains relatively affordable after available property increased following recovery from Hurricane Rita.

“Buyers can still go there [to Galveston] and have plenty to choose from,” says Karen Derr of Karen Derr Realty, which has offices both in Houston and Galveston. “It’s not like a Florida or bubble-and-boom market. We’ve all decided that’s not healthy. A steady market is probably the best.”

Derr says the majority of purchases in Galveston are second homes for Houstonians. Owners represent a little of every demographic, from empty-nesters who want to get away to young professionals looking for an investment. Only about 30 percent of Galveston is primary residences.

In fact, $232 million of the city’s tax income–a big chunk–comes from accommodation, food service, arts, and entertainment, according the Chamber of Commerce.

“Each weekend we have an extra 60,000 people [in the city],” says Ronny Palmer, manager of Yaga’s Tropical Café and Club located on The Strand. “And we haven’t seen a drop [in clientele]. We haven’t felt the pinch that everyone is talking about.”

The city has a surprising amount of cultural arts, and a cluster of young, beautiful people are drawn there by the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas A&M at Galveston. You might find them on Postoffice Street, sipping mixed drinks at 21, and then saddling up to fresh shrimp at the Saltwater Grill. Or shoe shopping on the Strand.

Galveston just obeys a different clock than Houstonians, a clock that doesn’t move as quickly. Even if you’re just 50 miles away from the cement jungle, Galveston still feels like a mini-vacation.

“Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas—we all love it,” says Derr, who has a second home in Galveston, built in 1876, that doubles as her office. “The dining has just gotten better and better. The galleries. It’s not just a beach town.”

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