KEMAH — Frans Gillebaard, whose 1980 purchase of an abandoned building along the Kemah waterfront created what is now the iconic Kemah Boardwalk, died Friday. He was 73.
Gillebaard suffered a stroke several months ago and had been hospitalized with seizures, said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.
For 37 years, Gillebaard was a mainstay in the Clear Lake business community. He was one of the original members of the Clear Lake Area Economic Development Foundation, the predecessor to the Bay Area Houston Partnership. He was a tireless advocate for the country’s space program, taking a record 14 trips with local officials to Washington, D.C., to lobby for space flight, Mitchell said.
The Dutch-born Gillebaard also provided an important sounding board for local economic development officials, Mitchell said.
“He always asked the hard questions,” Mitchell said.
Gillebaard was born in 1939 in Amsterdam and moved to the United States in 1952. Before moving to the Clear Lake area, Gillebaard worked for Holland Southwest Inc., his family’s international trade business.
In 1980, Gillebaard purchased an abandoned building in Kemah, reopening it a year later as the Flying Dutchman Restaurant & Oyster Bar. Seafood lovers flocked to the eatery and, seven years later, Gillebaard opened the Brass Parrot Restaurant next door.
With both restaurants serving thousands, Gillebaard continued to add restaurants to the waterfront, adding the Kemah Cantina. By 1996, Gillebaard had developed 2 acres of the Kemah waterfront, making it a go-to destination for locals looking for tasty seafood with a seaside setting.
By 1997, the eateries became so popular that Landry’s Restaurants acquired all three. Today, what began with Gillebaard’s first restaurant has evolved into the Kemah Boardwalk, a 42-acre destination with 12 restaurants, midway games and 14 amusement rides.
And the Flying Dutchman is still standing.
“If you’ve ever eaten at the Flying Dutchman, that was him,” Mitchell said.
Gillebaard’s impact wasn’t limited to the Clear Lake area. When one of the staff of the Flying Dutchman became ill and couldn’t come to work, Gillebaard’s wife, Diane, reached out to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The exemplary care the man received, despite having no insurance or money, sparked a longtime relationship with the medical school. In 2003, the Gillebaards donated $6 million to the medical school.
In a 2003 profile in UTMB Magazine, Gillebaard said he and his wife’s philanthropy originates from their parents.
“My father and Diane’s mother were both unusual characters,” he said. “Both were smart, take-charge people and both had the strongest influence on our lives. They instilled in us the feeling that you have a responsibility to your fellow man. That’s the example Diane and I want to follow.”