Plan for restaurant at park sparks dispute
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
MADEIRA BEACH -- Every few months, Alex Archibald comes back to the beach where he grew up, just to check on his mother and the beachfront park that bears his grandfather's name.
He notices changes that trouble him: a plaque commemorating the park's dedication lying in the sand in disrepair. The causeway connecting Madeira to the mainland is no longer named for David Welch, a beach pioneer with Archibald's grandfather Albert.
But there is always Archibald Park, free from condos and T-shirt shops, one of the last spots on the Pinellas beaches where the Gulf of Mexico is visible from Gulf Boulevard.
Now the city is planning a restaurant there, and the descendants of Welch and Archibald fear that the park is in danger of becoming less accessible and its original purpose less remembered.
The restaurant, they say, crosses a line their grandfathers drew in the sand.
Welch, described by historians as a man so humble he didn't show up for his own bridge-naming ceremony, might not mind that the bridge connecting Madeira Beach to the mainland is now named after Tom Stuart, a more recent civic leader.
But Alex Archibald minds.
"I think the city officials and the people who live there have no clue about the history," said Archibald, 58, a defense consultant and retired Air Force officer who lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Albert Archibald and David Welch were two of the beaches' biggest land-holders in the World War I era. Archibald was the biggest land holder in Treasure Island, then called Coney Island. Welch owned the most on Sand Key between Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach.
In the early 1930s, Archibald and Welch decided to donate a portion of their joint holdings to the federal government in hopes of luring a Veterans Administration hospital to the area. They got their wish: Bay Pines brought $3-million to the struggling, Depression-era economy and provided jobs to 1,000 unemployed men.
The government could have the 500 feet of beachfront, the developers agreed in 1933, as long as it wasn't used for commercial gain.
"I guess in the 1930s they were very far-sighted to think that someday there wouldn't be any beaches for the people to go to," Alex Archibald said. "That's one of the few places on the beach in Madeira Beach where you can actually drive and actually see the beach without seeing the condos."
Madeira Beach took over the park from the federal government in the 1970s and soon reached an agreement with the Disabled American Veterans, allowing the organization to raise money by selling concessions from the old beach house at the park.
The arrangement seemed ideal: Provide refreshments and suntan lotion to beachgoers and benefit veterans -- something Archibald Memorial Park was always intended to do.
But by the 1990s, the city was rethinking its arrangement. City commissioners thought they could get more money for the Snack Shack's prime location, and city employees investigated how much Madeira Beach might be able to charge for rent in the open market.
In 2000, pressured to find someone who would upgrade the property the way the city wanted, the DAV found restaurateur Frank Chivas of the Salt Rock Grill and offered to sublease the Snack Shack to him.
Bill Huie, the Federal Lands to Parks program manager at the National Park Service, approved the arrangement between Chivas and Madeira Beach but questioned the DAV's acting as the "middle man." With that, the DAV was out of the deal.
Chivas would pay the city $2,000 a month or 5 percent of gross revenues, whichever is greater.
Then the pioneers' descendants spoke up, and the federal government decided to reconsider the project.
Federal lawyers are reviewing the plans, Huie said. The agency is considering whether the restaurant, slated to open sometime around Easter as Archibald's Grill, will cross the line into commercial activity.
"How much commercial development do you have in a park?" Huie asked. "Is this going to be a destination restaurant, or is it something people will go to to have a hamburger after you've been swimming?"
Huie added that he sees distinctions between the old "Snack Shack" that the veterans operated and the planned new restaurant.
"We haven't asked for any menu," Huie said, "but from what we've been provided, it doesn't seem to be the Snack Shack that preceded it."
Even if the federal government signs off on the project, the Archibalds and the Welches might have something to say about it. The families objected when the city took over the property in the 1972 and made sure their families' intentions were honored. They threatened to step in and take back the land if they weren't.
"We were trying to make sure that the right thing was done," said Robert Welch Hull, a grandson of David Welch and a consultant for the federal defense and energy departments in Las Alamos, N.M. "The intention was to make sure it was maintained in perpetuity like is was supposed to be."
Herbert Lewis, a past commander of the local Disabled American Veterans Chapter, helped run the old Snack Shack. He traces the situation to the mid 1990s, when the City Commission began talking about trying to make more money off the concession stand.
Lewis said the city had long wanted to turn the old Snack Shack into a "three- or four-star restaurant."
"I'm in full sympathy with the Archibald family on this," Lewis said. "I don't believe that the city is acting in good faith with the covenants of the deed. The deed says what the deed says."
City Manager Jim Madden said the city would move forward with its restaurant plans only if the federal government approved. The Archibald and Welch families say they are trying to persuade the city to stick to the old promises but would consider hiring lawyers and fighting the municipality if necessary.
Madden notes that the land is zoned as recreational open space, leaving the descendants few options for the property if they did fight to get it back. The county property appraiser's office values the land at $4.13-million.
The fact that the DAV no longer is involved with the park frustrates Alex Archibald as much as the arrival of the new restaurant.
Said Archibald: "That land was donated for the express purpose of it being used, one, for veterans, and two, that it be commercial-free."
-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks