Grant approved to build giant gator

Artist's rendering of the 100-foot gator

When one thinks of 100-foot alligators, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a sci-fi horror flick. However, Gator Country, a Beaumont park and 15-acre reservation known for its alligators, crocodiles and snakes, plans to create such a monster. 

At a June 17 Jefferson County Commissioners Court meeting, commissioners approved a Hotel Occupancy Tax grant recommended by the Jefferson County Tourism Committee in the amount of $3,000 for a Gator Country project that involves the construction of a 100-foot long alligator landmark. The open mouth of the gator will measure approximately 20 feet tall with the back measuring 12 to 14 feet tall, according to Gary Saurage, owner of Gator Country and cast member of CMT’s “Gator 911.” The gator will be a wooden structure finished with a 25-gauge non-corrugated metal. Saurage said he plans to erect the landmark facing eastbound I-10 traffic alongside the highway in front of the park’s property at 21159 FM 365 to attract passersby.

“As you’re coming from Houston into Beaumont, you’ll see the big, open mouth of the alligator,” he said.

Saurage, who compared his creation to the 67-foot-tall Sam Houston Statue in Huntsville, said the gator would attract families for a great photo opportunity.

“You’ll be able to walk up into the mouth and take a picture in the mouth,” Saurage said. “It’s going to be something. It will be in every magazine you can imagine.”

Volunteers and Saurage himself will perform the labor for the project, which is estimated to total 550 hours, he said.

“We’re going to start next week, and we’re going to push it hard so that we can get it done in 60 days before our tourism season is over.”

Saurage said that a study by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) found that 1,857 vehicles pass Gator Country per hour. He said that the landmark would not only attract tourists to the park, but it would also help bring business to surrounding hotels and restaurants because after spending a few hours at the park, visitors might want to look for a place to eat in the area or a hotel to stay in.

“Our overall goal, as entities working together, is to try to get people to spend money in Jefferson County,” he said.

Businesses from Southeast Texas are welcome to advertise their destination to tourists by placing signs on Gator Country’s fence surrounding the park for no cost, Saurage said.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said he hopes this 100-foot beast will benefit the county rather than terrorize it.

“What we’d like to see is our money being spent on things that will put heads in beds,” Branick said. “This is one piece of the tourism pie. I guess at the end of the day, the question is going to be is it going to pay for itself or put people in hotel rooms. The tourism commission feels like it is a worthwhile endeavor. I hope that they’re correct.”

Bill Bianchi, vice chair of the Jefferson County Tourism Committee and VP/general manager at Eleganté Hotel and Conference Center, said Saurage brought a convincing proposal before the committee with the premise that the landmark would better attract tourism to Beaumont and that some motorists were currently overlooking his park.

“A majority of the commission basically agreed with him,” Bianchi said.

The park applied for a $6,000 emergency Hotel Occupancy Tax grant June 11 through the county to help fund the $12,000 project, but the Jefferson County Tourism Commission only approved $3,000, said Kathi Hughes, liaison between the tourism committee and the Commissioners Court and director of the Ben J. Rogers Regional Visitors Center. The grant was considered an emergency grant because the application was not received during the normal two grant cycle months of March and September, she said.

The funds from the grant come from tax money collected from hotels in the county.

“When you stay in a hotel in Jefferson County, you pay 15 percent occupancy tax,” Hughes said. “Out of that 15 percent, 6 percent goes to the state, 7 percent goes to the city and 2 percent goes to the county. It pays for the running of the Visitors Center, and the rest is given out as tourism-related grants. The Tourism Committee makes recommendations to Jefferson County Commissioners Court on grants.”

The Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau is providing $5,000 to the project — money from the 7 percent the city of Beaumont receives from hotel taxes.

“We see it as an investment,” said Dean Conwell, executive director of the Beaumont CVB and appointed member of the Jefferson County Tourism Committee. “We have problems getting people off the road because there is nothing that says this place is some place special. (The gator) gives us highway exposure. People are going to go over there, take a picture and put it on Facebook. People will get off the highway and hopefully spend some money with the county.”

Gator Country will fund the remaining $4,000 and is looking for volunteers with carpentry knowledge to help construct the 100-foot structure. Interested parties should contact Gary Saurage at (409) 794-9453 for more information.