Beach towns often have an ever-changing cast of residents and businesses. But Quintana Island has a rare constant: Debbie Alongis and her husband Steve. Debbie was a single mother when she moved to Quintana from recession-hit Kalamazoo, Michigan in early 1980. She came to help her brother Jeff operate a small bar and burger joint called Jeff's at the Jetties. "The locals came in shorts and flip flops or bathing suits," she remembers. "And then you would have Dow executives come. The food was excellent."
It was there that she met Steve, a local boat captain, and he would offer her a job as a deckhand. Quintana at that time was a sleepy town of mostly older, retired couples. Despite its small size, it operated as an incorporated municipality with a mayor and city council. Debbie remembers there were only 17 registered voters when she arrived. But the town had a good future: "It was a little like Mayberry. Everyone knew everybody. There wasn’t a person you didn’t wave to as they passed by, and a lot of that still exists today."
She also recalls the natural beauty and wildness of the island. It was common to spot bobcats, armadillos and an occasional coyote. Sometimes townspeople would find notes washed up in bottles on the beach. Debbie's grandson found one from a family that had picked up and sailed to Chile, a find that made it to the pages of The Facts newspaper. "The town seemed to just embrace me, and I felt safe, I felt secure." she remarks. But Debbie did not just sit back and relax through her years on the island. She and her husband were central to its growth and changes.
Debbie and Steve ran several businesses on Quintana. While Steve continued his work as a boat captain, Debbie started a lawn-mowing service. It became so successful that he quit his job and joined her. Later, Debbie's father and brother started another business close to the burger joint, called the Quintana Breeze. It was more upscale—a French restaurant—but failed to catch on because of its isolated location. Debbie and Steve then redeveloped the Breeze into a community center for Quintana and ran it several years before selling it to Freeport LNG for a meeting facility.
Her brother had been active on the Quintana city council and this encouraged her to get involved, starting in 1994. She held council positions on and off for nearly 17 years. She ran for mayor and held that office for eight years and was city secretary for two. "Funny story about running for mayor," she laughs. "No one ran against me. And although the election was on a Saturday, we had our congratulation party on Friday night!" During her time in office, the city would win three consecutive Keep Texas Beautiful Awards, given to communities that excel in beautification and recycling.
Over the years of her community service, Debbie was also instrumental in establishing several Quintana parks. The Alongises had spoken to the Port of Freeport about developing a nature park east of city hall. They worked on one lot, had put in some benches and mowed a trail to make it accessible when Freeport LNG acquired most of this land for the regas project. But after talks with FLNG, the company offered to purchase and donate a complete city block for an expanded park that would be called Xeriscape Park. There was also a parcel of land across the street from the Alongises’ home that they had another idea for. "We would be in our yard and we'd see people just stop in the middle of the road. And they'd get out and put up their tripods and their cameras and their eight-foot lens. And it didn't take us long to figure out they were looking at birds." With a grant from Houston Audubon and Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the blessing of the city council, they were able to buy the land for a bird sanctuary. The crowning touch would be birding tower on the property made possible by a donation from Freeport LNG and sporting the plaque The Alongis Birding Tower. The Neotropical Bird Sanctuary is now a destination for birders from around the world, particularly during fall and spring migration seasons.
Another park for the island, however, initially had a bumpier reception. When the county first approached the city council about a permit to build the Quintana Beach County Park on the far east side, there were concerns about their proposed RV camp facility. "The city was adamantly against it," said Alongis. "They hated it. They had in their mind that the park was going to be a home to 'trailer trash,' and of course it turned out to be one of the best things for Quintana." Not only did the park attract well behaved family crowds, it also hosted what would become some beloved Quintana events: summer educational programs like Nature’s Wonders; the headquarters for the biannual Adopt-a-Beach event; celebration of Halloween with Ghosts of the Gulf Coast where park rangers hosted a historical walk on the beach featuring a pirate ship (Jean Lafitte), Stephen F. Austin colonists and Civil War re-enactors; and Christmas Tidings on the Gulf featuring a visit from Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus with dancing and songs from local schools. Recently, the park added, with help from Freeport LNG, a new education center for school and business group use.
Another controversial issue on the island was access from the mainland. Since 1957, the one and only way to drive to Quintana had been a swing bridge. For the most part, it worked well for a small community with light traffic. But when the bridge had mechanical problems, it could delay drivers for hours. "My nieces and nephews in Michigan were jealous of my daughter because she would get "bridge days" when she couldn't get to school," remembers Debbie. "But there was a lot of opposition that a high bridge was going to ruin the island, open it up to traffic. However, I don’t know one person—once the bridge was built—that didn’t love it."
One the biggest and most lasting changes to the island would be the facilities built by Freeport LNG. Although there was some initial opposition by residents, Debbie remembers more pushback when the county park was proposed. "We would not have this town today if it wasn’t for industry," Debbie considers. "The town had probably a $17,000 budget a year when I got here. Now we have $1.2 million. FLNG has been a very good neighbor, they join us in any program or anything we’re doing—sometimes just a phone call, and we get help."
In a ritual they follow each morning, Debbie (serving again on the Quintana city council) and Steve (currently the mayor of Quintana) like to welcome the morning sun as it crests the eastern horizon of the island. "We do our coffee on the porch every morning. My husband sits and watches the sun come up. And then he feels he can go to work. We aren't gonna get that anywhere else. It's just the serenity, the peace, the tranquility. That's what's keeping us here. We have a history."