Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pensacola Beach Deja Voodoo


"We want to still have a view of the Gulf and great public access."
--Beverly Boswell, Pensacola Beach

Every ten or fifteen years the Santa Rosa Island Authority or its hireling manager gets the urge to re-make Pensacola Beach. They claim the beach is falling behind the "competition" and something needs to be done. Then they throw out age-old, never-resolved questions and issues for the public to chew over--
  • "Does the beach look modern enough?"
  • "Shouldn't we remain quaint and old fashioned?"
  • "Is there enough parking?"
  • "We need to be more pedestrian-friendly."
  • "We don't have enough entertainment."
  • "The rock music is too loud at night."
  • "Do we have enough booze joints."
  • "Shouldn't we ban alcohol on the beach?"
  • "How can we attract more free-spending, oversexed college kids?"
  • "We need to be more family friendly."
Invariably, an expensive consulting firm is hired, a couple of meetings on the island are staged, and a plan is produced which -- Joila! -- calls for throwing up a shopping mall on Casino Beach. It's the answer to all those vexing questions.

It always ends that way, like magic. Raise a bunch of doubts about the economic viability of Pensacola Beach, then propose the solution of an expensive, snazzy commercial development. It's how commercial beach consultants roll. There's no money for them in leaving Mother Nature alone.

The last time this happened was in 1994-1998, when the Island Authority embraced a plan that called for breaking lease contracts with a string of tent merchants who once flanked Tiffany's- On- The- Beach. Once they were gone (Tiffany's being the one successful holdout) the SRIA went so far as to install below-ground utility lines in anticipation of ... Yep, you guessed it.

The consulting firm they'd hired back then produced a slick booklet graced with an "artist's conception" of a two-story mall sitting squarely on Casino Beach. While it would have blocked all views of the beach and the Gulf of Mexico until visitors had passed through the mall itself, the development did include a handsome water fountain -- exactly like the kind you might find in a suburban mall in Peoria or Topeka.

In a rare victory for beach residents, that plan eventually was halted by opposition from three county commissioners who hadn't yet been paid off, aided by a series of distracting hurricanes and tropical storms. The old commissioners are gone by now, although some of them still may be reporting to their parole officers. We haven't had a devastating storm since 2005. So, Hey! Let's double the toll bridge fee (to attract more visitors, don'cha know) and use the money to build a multi-million Parking Garage/Mall Combo!

If history is any guide, that's where this is headed. And that's probably why Beverly Boswell is worried.

Oct. 29 am
At last night's informal meeting, barely 75 island residents attended. They would be, for the most part, only the more naive, newer residents or a few consciously willing to be stage props.

The words "natural beauty" popped up a number of times with the beach planning consultants. So, too, did "parking garage."

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