If I could live anywhere in the world, I would still choose Florida. It’s March, and it’s already in the 80s, the sun is yellow and warm overhead, and the water is about 30 seconds from my front door. I just bought myself an early graduation present – a beautiful green standup paddleboard – and I can’t wait to do some serious mangrove exploring with Calypso.
One of my favorite places to take Calypso is Bird Island, a spoil island just south of the Don CeSar boat ramp. We don’t stop or get off the board, because doing so would certainly result in getting beaked to death by angry mama pelicans, but I love how Calypso’s hot dog-shaped body gets tense and crouches low on the board as we approach the island. Fortunately for me – and the birds – she’s not much for jumping off the board to take a swim, so everyone leaves happy.
As much as I love the southern tip of the county and I love living by the beach, if money were no object, I wouldn’t choose Pinellas county. We’re too crowded with hotels and t-shirt shops along the beach. I’d probably choose Siesta Key or Pine Island or Big Pine Key, because I don’t care for the development along our strip of coastal paradise.
Let me be crystal–clear on this: I would love to see a hurricane level St. Pete Beach (sorry, guys) and restore it to coastal pine forest and cabbage palm thickets.
That said, we need the hotels.
Do I like the crowds they draw every year? Um, no. None of us do, not even the people working in the hotels. Do I enjoy the obstructed view of the Gulf? Of course not; none of us moved here for the view of the skyline. Do I think the city’s comprehensive plan allowing some hotels to climb to 12 stories is too high? Absolutely; I much prefer one-story mom and pop hotels.
But we need that comp plan. Without it, the hotels suffer. And let’s all be clear: without the hotels, we’re screwed.
I’m a realist. I can only afford to live here because we have the Tradewinds, Sirata and Don CeSar paying a premium in taxes. I don’t like them, but I know that we need them. Take a look across the bay at Gulfport and its financial picture: pretty grim. They get precious little money from property taxes. They also have no large plots of land given over to commercial. These two things are related. We can have that in St. Pete Beach, but then we all have to make some tough choices. Gulfport lost its dispatch to the Sheriff, it sucks money out of its marina and sewer funds to keep the city afloat, and it’s still not generating enough money. I shudder to think what budget time’s going to look like over there this year.
We do not have those problems here. We have money to add some pretty nifty stuff to our parks, like solar lighting. We can afford to subsidize a pool that, like most pools, will never turn a profit. We have funds to take every last scrap of city land and make parks, however tiny. You can thank those hotels for that, whether you like them or not.
I can hear the chorus of naysayers now, complaining that the hotels want to much and the comp plan is crap and selling paradise out from under us. And I have one thing to ask those people:
Are you really that dim, or are you just unwilling to accept that you moved to St. Pete Beach and not Siesta Key?
Because it’s not Siesta Key, you know. Maybe it was like Siesta Key or Anna Maria Island a long time ago, but the Don Cesar went up in the 1920s. Unless you – not your father, not your uncle, you – lived here before then, you have no cause to complain.
Consider this passage, taken from a 1939 tour guide to Florida:
“Conceived and publicized as a winter resort, St. Petersburg’s leading industry is its tourist business, grossing more than $50,000,000 annually.”
The tour guide also notes the Don CeSar and hotels in Pass-A-Grille. Even in 1939, tourists wanted to know where to sleep on the beach. Hotels are not a new concept here. Why act as though they are? This is a sort of paradise, yes, but it’s not pristine. That ship sailed almost a century ago. We’re a compromise between Big Pine Key and Pensacola, whether we like it or not. I wish everyone would stop acting like babies and fighting a comprehensive plan that does its best to work a compromise between the hotels and the people who choose to live by them.
As long as these lawsuits contesting the comprehensive plan drag on, no business in its right mind will come to St. Pete Beach. While that suit some just fine, please remember that empty buildings don’t magically revert to charming cottages and sea pines, and empty storefronts and shuttered hotels won’t magically disappear; they’re going to slowly crumble into the Gulf. That’s really not how I envision the beach. Like I see, it’s a compromised paradise, but I’ll take it.
Because until I have the money to head off to Big Pine Key or Anna Maria, I’d rather see a 12-story hotel than an abandoned, derelict building. I mean, I can’t afford a less-developed paradise, but I’m not about to punish an entire city because of it.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.