tampabay.com

It's official: Courtney Campbell is scenic

Thanks to the efforts of a group from around Tampa Bay, the parkway linking Clearwater and Tampa is now a Florida Scenic Highway.

By STEVE BAAL
Published November 7, 2005


CLEARWATER - Every fall, Martha Coomer and Rita Wieyerbacher flee the Indiana winter and head south to sunny Dunedin.

The trip is a 900-mile haul, yet the two always drive a little bit out of their way in order to cross the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

"There's a shortcut," Coomer said. "But crossing this causeway is just so beautiful. It always makes us feel like we've really finally arrived in Florida."

The state would seem to agree. Four signs were unveiled Friday declaring the Courtney Campbell Parkway a Florida Scenic Highway.

Two of the signs will be placed on the bridge; one will be placed east of Bayshore Boulevard; and the fourth, east of Rocky Point Drive. The causeway's designation as a scenic highway also will be highlighted on official state road maps and guides.

The Florida Scenic Highways Program was the state Department of Transportation's response to legislation enacted in the early 1990s that called for measures to "preserve, maintain, protect and enhance Florida's outstanding cultural, historical, archaeological, recreational, natural and scenic resources."

The designation makes the parkway the 14th scenic highway selected by the DOT. Clearwater Vice Mayor Bill Jonson, who is chairman of the Courtney Campbell Scenic Highway Corridor Advisory Committee, said the designation means a boost in tourism, and the city can apply for more grant money for preservation and improvements.

"That's great news because many drivers actually make plans to visit scenic highways," said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This will increase awareness of the Courtney Campbell. It's a great stretch of roadway that features many amenities that visitors to our area enjoy: the water, natural habitat, beaches, fishing."

The idea of getting the designation started about five years ago when Jonson got involved with Scenic America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving scenic byways across the nation, among other things.

Driving across the Courtney Campbell after a meeting about roadways one day, Jonson said he realized, "Duh! We've got a scenic byway right here we need to preserve."

Jonson contacted Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena to help form what would become the Courtney Campbell's advisory committee, a consortium of public and private interests including the DOT, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Tampa and Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

"This has truly been a grass roots, hands-across-the-bay effort," said Jonson. "There were a lot of hurdles to overcome to meet the state's requirements."

To be eligible for scenic designation, the Courtney Campbell had to meet certain program criteria. The roadway had to "tell a story," providing a driver with an educational experience drawn from the history, culture, ecology, and recreational resources available. Parkway advocates also have to ensure that funds are available to continue to manage and maintain the road.

The original roadway was built by Ben T. Davis, a Tampa entrepreneur hoping to provide a shorter Pinellas-Hillsborough link for mid-county travelers than the already completed Gandy Bridge in St. Petersburg.

Work on the span began in 1927 and finished in 1934, and was at the time the longest water fill project in the country. Davis owned and operated the roadway that he named after himself, charging 25 cents for a car and driver and a nickel for every additional passenger.

During World War II, the federal government purchased the causeway, eliminated the tolls and in 1944 transferred it to the state. Clearwater resident Courtney W. Campbell, who was the Florida road commissioner at the time, led a major repair and beautification project that created a unique wayside park system. In 1948, after Campbell left to become a member of Congress, the roadway was renamed in his honor.

Over the years, the roadway's amenities have been upgraded and improved, making it a popular gathering spot. Boaters use the ramp on the northwest side, while pedestrians and bicyclists use the access roads as a pedestrian path along both sides of the roadway.

On the north side, lush native vegetation offers a tropical forest feel. On the south side are the beaches, and a rocky seawall that invites fisherman.

"We come out a couple of times a week," said Joe Groves, as he and Robert Sherlock, 32, both Clearwater construction workers, prepared to cast from the rocks near the west end of the bridge. "It's a nice break in the day. It's pretty and quiet and nobody bothers you."

More than 50,000 vehicles pass over the Courtney Campbell every day, but enthusiasts claim they don't hear the passing traffic.

Roger Graves, 51, a night-shift nurse at the VA hospital in Tampa, said from his sand chair at Ben T. Davis Beach, "This is a great place for me to come and decompress. I love the view across the bay. The water is gentle. It's just really peaceful."

The beach on the Clearwater side of the causeway has also proven to be an attraction for locals and tourists.

"Any time we get a free afternoon, we pack up the dog and this is where we come," said Tim O'Conner of Land O'Lakes, playing with his Doberman puppy, Jack. "It's really only a 30-minute drive down the Veterans (Expressway), and the ride across the causeway is beautiful."

Margaret and Tony Taylor, annual Clearwater winter visitors from Birmingham, England, relaxed in chairs by the water. "It's an absolutely fantastic place," said Tony Taylor. "You certainly won't see anything like this in England."