A Florida Story

Developers and beach lovers vie for the soul of a small coastal town

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What's happening right now to Treasure Island, that funky beach town due west of St. Petersburg, happens, eventually, to every beach community in Florida. Money comes to town, and the people who live there have to make a choice.

Do they try to keep their small-town ambiance, with bohemians and retirees living down the street from each other? Do they let their town morph into a wealthy enclave of million-dollar homes? Or do they go for the big beach glitz?Mom and pop, Architectural Digest or Marriott?

One can visit many parts of coastal Florida to see how this has played out. Longboat Key, near Sarasota, has a beautiful beach, secluded homes, low-rise condominiums and an exclusive reputation. Clearwater Beach has big hotels, a resort mentality, fun in the sun and wall-to-wall tourists. St. Pete Beach has a mixture of both: The main part of the island has a row of big hotels on one side of Gulf Boulevard, commercial strip malls on the other and an old forgotten downtown; keep going south past the last bridge to the mainland, however, and the Pass-a-Grille section is a mixture of quaint, perky and classy, with a long stretch of public access and no buildings on the beach.

Treasure Island has a touch of all this and more. A towering neon thunderbird and a gigantic Caribbean pirate stare down at a Cape Cod-style town square. Cabanas line a few acres of stunning, wide rough-sand beach — dredged up, several times, from the Gulf of Mexico. You can buy an authentic Chicago dog, McDonald's hamburger or Sloppy Joe out here, but a fresh grouper sandwich is hard to find. You can see the ocean, park on a whim and walk out on the beach.

There are tony out-of-sight mansions and classic beach 'hoods still paying homage to the retro 1950s. Eclectic Sunset Beach, the city's southern tip, is a survey taker's nightmare. Artists, bums, the wealthy, the bohemian and Randy "Macho Man" Savage are crammed together between high-end condos and a string of popular beach bars that appear to have been tacked up last weekend by the Gilligan crew.

More than 100 hotels, motels and rental condos perch on this 3-and-a-half-mile-long sandbar of a city. Most were built in the '50s and '60s and give the city a retro-goofy barefoot charm that people either despise or love.

During much of the year, you can rent these places for $40, even $25 a night. Right on a Florida beach! Bring your own groceries, cook barbecue ribs on the ancient pits by the pool (if there is a pool), drink beer from your cooler, cruise The Dollar Zone, sneak in and use the Jacuzzi at the hotel next door, and watch a trophy sunset for free.

Good karma? Bad business? "You could say both points of view are correct," says Realtor Mike Seinitz. "But everything is at a standstill right now. A decision must be made."

It so happens there's an election next week. Here are some of the competing interests:

* The hotel/business coalition has the most money. They feel the beach is theirs because they serve the tourists who spend the money. And they want looser zoning restrictions and high-rise hotels.

* Many wealthy homeowners don't want that kind of change. Even as property values and taxes soar, they're not keen on sharing their sleepy town with hordes of new tourists.

* Some property owners want to sell out. They want the most money for their property, even if it means the city loses its charm.

* Politicians are either honest, crooked or crazy; in any case, they feel it is their charge to control the future.

* The low-end locals fear any change that might force their rents up, their seedy bars to close and their fixed-income, beach-bum butts off the island.

* Activists are the foot soldiers, seeking to protect quality of life from the greedy enemy. They rally the apathetic to fight against tall buildings on the beach.

The DevelopersThat scene at the $25 mom and pop motel drives Harry Black nuts. Where's the commerce? Dollar ain't changin' hands seven times like the Chamber says it should. Every poolside barbecue screws a local restaurant. Every cheap T-shirt screws the fancy clothier.

"That tourist is not the future of Treasure Island," says Black, president of the local hotel association. He believes rules permitting 10-story gulfside hotels are necessary to attract the big chains with their $195-per-night suites. That's the only way, he says, to save this languishing Florida beach.

It is also a template for the homogenization of almost every Florida beach on the Rand McNally. Funky culture and small town charm, the big money asserts, is not as good for business as their proven formulas. Up and down Florida's fruited coasts, political and real estate shenanigans have shrunk beach cultures into museum displays, or worse, into rustic themes for restaurants and bars.

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