It’s shortly after 10:30 a.m. on a recent Friday morning when Sam Henderson bounds into the modest offices of Gulfport’s City Hall, maximizing a casual Friday in checkered shorts, a blue short-sleeved shirt and what I think are some version of Birkenstocks.
The 43-year-old Gulfport mayor has generously offered to give me a tour of his city in his wife’s 2011 Nissan Altima, after informing me that his car’s A/C is on the fritz. This being Gulfport, a tour by car is something that you can do in fairly short order, as the city’s circumference is roughly only 2.8 miles long.
This small community resides just southwest of St. Petersburg and is accessible off of I-275 from the 22nd Avenue South exit, where you take the road for a few miles before it instantly changes into Gulfport Blvd. Lots of folks call it “quaint,” an adjective often ascribed to another Pinellas town up the Gulf Coast — Dunedin. But Dunedin and Gulfport are not synonymous. “Diverse,” “laid-back” and “just weird enough” are other shorthand descriptions that locals offer about their beloved Gulfport.
Henderson looks a bit bushy-eyed on this particular morning, but then why wouldn’t he be? He worked until midnight the night before at his other gig, serving drinks as a bartender at the Peninsula Inn & Spa on Beach Boulevard (his annual salary as mayor is $9,600).
The mayor is currently finishing up work on his Masters in Florida Studies at USFSP. He’s looking at public lands in Pinellas County for his thesis with a focus on the Pinellas Trail, from a public access, management and economic perspective. He’s in the second year of a three-year term. He’s not sure yet, but says he’ll probably run again in 2016, and waves at most (but not all) of the people we come across in this tiny town (population 12,500 — less in the summer as the snowbirds depart). He succeeded Mike Yakes, who retired in 2013 after 27 years of serving the city.
According to the mayor and most other folks we spoke with in the past week, things are going very well in Gulfport these days. In addition to the various festivals that bring in tourists and revenue, the city’s infrastructure needs are being addressed in part by their success in acquiring funding from the state, the feds and Pinellas County on a number of projects. Those projects include a $400,000 Brownfields grant from the EPA to evaluate and assess potentially contaminated properties along the 49th St. corridor; $500,000 in state money to address storm water runoff and drainage into Clam Bayou and Boca Ciega Bay from the 49th St. area watershed; and $180,000 from the Pinellas County Library Cooperative for upcoming renovations to the Gulfport Public Library. There’s also the possibility of obtaining half a million dollars from the Tourism Development Council for beach nourishment at Gulfport Beach and $1.6 million from the feds from the RESTORE Act in the wake of the B.P. oil spill.
One amenity that Henderson waxes enthusiastic about as we slowly move through town is the startup of a Gulfport loop for bicyclists connecting with the Skyway and Pinellas trails.
Sitting down with the mayor and other city officials, you learn that there’s really not much controversy in this town — other than a rash of stolen bikes this year (more on that later).
In fact, most people will tell you the last truly controversial issue that roiled the community occurred a few years ago, when the City Council (including Henderson) voted 5-0 to ban smoking on Gulfport’s beach, becoming the first community in the state to do so. But when Sarasota attempted a similar ban, litigation followed, and ultimately the Florida Attorney General’s Office ruled that municipalities’ smoking bans were in violation of the state’s 2003 Clean Indoor Air Act, making the Sunshine State one of the only states to do so. Gulfport then had no choice but to rescind its ban.
More than 200 coastal communities have enacted total smoking bans on their sands, with many more passing partial bans, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. These include county-run beaches in Los Angeles, New York and Hawaii, state beaches in Maine and some local beaches in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North and South Carolina and Rhode Island, among others.
Henderson says debating that issue was “very contentious,” and wasn’t a lot of fun at the time. “I look at it as a dark time,” he says in retrospect. Some others interviewed by CL act surprisingly reticent about the issue.
Henderson hails from Asheville, North Carolina, but came to Gulfport by way of Cleveland, where he lived and worked for years doing Brownfields remediation. He and his wife and daughter (who will be a senior in high school beginning next month) came to Pinellas in 2006, where he said he fell in love with the city while getting a tour from his realtor. “A little more Old Florida,” he gently laughs, than other localities he was checking out in the county.
Among the issues city officials have been dealing with are ways to alleviate the parking problems that manifest on weekends and other big nights during the year, a problem that isn’t unwelcome, since it means that the waterfront district is becoming more popular. After conducting a survey of residents, officials have opted to put up signs directing motorists to areas where parking is available on major arteries elsewhere in the city.
WMNF DJ and high school teacher Cheryl Mogul says the popularity of the programming at the historic Gulfport Casino (which includes tango dancing on Tuesday nights and salsa on Thursday) makes it impossible sometimes to find parking. “It’s packed all the time,” she complains.
“We are a victim of our own success,” admits Barry Rubin, president of the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce. He says on weekend nights and even on some Thursdays, “it’s nearly impossible to find parking,” adding that it’s a testament to the quality of the bars and restaurants in the downtown area.
The city breaks out the Gulfport Trolley for special events and when it’s needed, and last weekend began using the Miami-based transport service called Swoop, which for now uses one six-seat gas-powered golf cart to move people from any part of Gulfport to another, gratis (though tips are welcome and probably expected) and is in operation from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Another issue that irks Mogul is the trash that’s left behind on the beach. She says she recently complained to Mayor Henderson and ultimately ended up talking to one of his aides. “I was appalled,” she said after walking along the beach recently. “This is Gulfport, and there’s not enough cans. That’s why I called the mayor, because it really pissed me off, all this trash coming out of these tiny little receptacles.
Concerns about trash on the beach are what led in part to the creation of Gulfport Neighbors by longtime resident Margarete Tobert in 2011. With help from sometimes over a hundred volunteers (including some youthful offenders fulfilling their community service), the group does beach cleanups on every other Sunday afternoon, and will revert to once a month at the end of summer. She says it “saddens her” to see diapers laid on the beach along with lots of cigarette butts right in front of ashcans. The group also provides volunteers for the various special events that take place, like the GeckoFest and the Tangerine Blues Festival, and holds quarterly “Junk in the Trunk” events where they can dump unwanted items to the 49th Street Neighborhood Center.
Former City Councilmember Barbara Banno says city officials are focused on keeping Gulfport a “quaint city and keeping the history behind it,” but others acknowledge that at least in the downtown core, there’s really not a whole lot of room for development anyway.
“We’re 2.8 miles, if you take a good ride around the city, there’s not many areas where you can develop in massive quantities,” says Ward 3 City Councilwoman Yolanda Roman (the city is broken up into four wards, with an individual councilmember representing each, and the mayor acting as the tiebreaker).
She refers to a new Dollar General store on the more industrial part of town on 49th Street. “That’s development, depending on what you’re talking about. That brings revenue and employment to the area and really rephrases 49th Street.” Former Gulfport Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob Newcomb says that there are now 32 businesses between 49th and 58th Streets in the city, whose owners are now branding the area “The Strip.” The Chamber’s Barry Rubin says there’s also more people shopping on 22nd Avenue South. “You would never see that before.”
One discordant note did make the news last week — Gulfport Police reported that bicycle thefts and vehicle burglaries are up dramatically through the first six months of the year — from 48 and 27 to 82 and 74, respectively. That’s led to a new policy of stopping any cyclists who violate “statutory” bike regulations. When that happens, officers will check bicycle serial numbers against a database of known stolen property.
They’re also using new technology to set up so-called “bait bikes” that can be electronically tracked by using an embedding tracking device. Once the bike is taken by a potential thief, a text-message alert will be sent to an investigator, who can launch a mobile app to track the movement of the bicycle.
But bike thefts notwithstanding, city officials and longtime residents insist it’s never been better in their city.
“It’s just a fun, happy place,” says Marianne Wysocki, a Western Michigan transplant who’s lived in the town since 2001. “It’s a very thriving community for such a tiny area.”
“People need to come on and see us,” says Barry Rubin, the current president of the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce. “If they haven’t been down to Gulfport in the last couple of years, they haven’t been to Gulfport.”
Consider yourself invited.