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Market forces

As condos come, a longtime crab shack will have to go. But where?

By Rick Gershman
Published March 23, 2007



PALMETTO BEACH - Patricia Davis watched her customers file in on a recent Saturday morning, hungry for fresh seafood. They parked along Bermuda Boulevard. They walked down the Crab Hut dock, which extends into McKay Bay. They bought crabs and shrimp, mullet and yellowtail. Saturdays are always busy, said Davis, the Crab Hut owner. They have been ever since the seafood market opened. As Davis talked, crabbers and fishermen arrived with fresh yield from a morning on the water. Some are family members, such as Davis' stepfather, a lifelong fisherman. He has been delivering his morning take to this spot for decades. Soon that all will change. After 29 years, the Crab Hut has about six months to close up shop or move.

Davis' landlords have a deal to sell this property, at 1002 Bermuda Blvd., to a developer planning a retail and condo complex across the street.

The Crab Hut likely won't be the only casualty as expected redevelopment comes to Palmetto Beach, a blue-collar neighborhood south of Ybor City. It's one of the last areas around Tampa where waterfront property is still reasonably priced.

And as Davis' business faces eviction, city code enforcement officials are cracking down on some of the undermaintained crab shacks that line this stretch.

Palmetto Beach, long known as a quiet, sleepy neighborhood, is about to wake up in a big way.

- - -

This isn't the first time Davis has faced serious challenges.

She grew up across the street, in a little yellow house that also will be replaced by the new development, Bermuda Vista.

A bright student, Davis - who goes by "Trish" - considered college. But her father pulled her out of school in ninth grade, demanding she work at the fish market.

His name: Willie Crain.

As everyone here knows, he's on death row, having been convicted of the 1998 slaying of 7-year-old Amanda Brown.

The convicted child molester still maintains he did not kill Amanda. Her body never was found, though detectives discovered her blood in Crain's home and on his clothing.

This business, in fact, originally was called Willie's Crab Hut.

By the time of the murder, Willie Crain had long since stopped managing the market. However, he did sell crabs he caught to his daughter's business, and others.

In any event, Davis said, some in the community cursed her and her family for years afterward.

But her family has persevered, sometimes in surprising ways. Davis' stepfather, Richard Crain, actually is Willie's brother. Davis calls him her dad, though technically he's also her uncle.

Through it all, Davis always knew she at least had a place to come to work. Now everything's up in the air.

She isn't upset with landlords Freddie Hevia and Lori Carrillo, who own the nearby Dixie Neon Co. She has been on a month-to-month lease for years, and doesn't blame them for selling.

But Davis, 41, is worried about trying to relocate a business that supports most of her relatives, including her immediate family.

Her son is a premed student at the University of Florida. And she and her husband share their home in Dover with their pregnant daughter, son-in-law and a grandson.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do yet," she said. "I don't know where we're going to go."


- - -

Plans for Bermuda Vista include 74 condominiums, a mix of townhomes and lofts, plus 10,000 square feet of retail space. Prices will begin in the low $200,000s.

It's the brainchild of financial planner and Christian talk radio host Gary Gauthier. His show, It's Your Money, is on local station WTBN-AM 570 and 910.

Bermuda Vista's residences will face McKay Bay, and the maximum elevation of the complex is planned for 60 feet.

Were the Crab Hut to remain, it would be in the waterfront view of most homeowners. But the developer said he didn't buy the Crab Hut property because he was concerned about views.

Gauthier (pronounced go-tee-AY) said he wasn't sure exactly what he wants to do with the property where the Crab Hut sits, but it's not going to be a seafood market.

The developer, who lives in Largo, is quick to note that the development's style - brick buildings, pitched roofs - will be compatible with the look and feel of Palmetto Beach.

"We're putting in something very nice, and it's going to be completely positive for the community," said Gauthier, who plans to move into Bermuda Vista with his 6-year-old son.

He said he feels for Davis, but she should have taken advantage of previous opportunities to buy the property.

"I'm not trying to keep people from making a living," Gauthier said. "I'm not buying her. I'm buying her lease. The sight line has nothing to with it. I just don't want to be in the crab shack business. I feel bad for her, but she's been given plenty of time to do something about this."

- - -

Everyone knew developers eventually would stake a claim in Palmetto Beach, just minutes from downtown. Bermuda Vista is just a pioneer in the process.

Just look past the crab shacks that dot the shoreline to the long waterfront stretch of Bermuda Boulevard, looking out on McKay Bay. It's a developer's dream.

Those crab shacks are exactly what has defined this neighborhood to so many for so long, said Darlene Guzman, president of the Palmetto Beach Community Association.

"They add a little nostalgia, and I know that's how a lot of the old-timers would like to keep it," she said.

"We're a hidden, sleepy little community here. Not much has changed in a long time."

But change is afoot, and Guzman said she doesn't consider that a bad thing.

The city's code enforcement board has been cracking down lately on the shacks, including one at 602 Bermuda Blvd. that can't even be accessed from the shoreline any longer.

Code enforcement also cited crab shacks at 902 and 1102 Bermuda, the latter of which has a deck built over the remains of a houseboat.

"We don't mind the crab shacks, as long as they're kept up, maintained and safe," Guzman said.

Palmetto Beach is not anti-redevelopment, Guzman said. Even many who enjoy the area's "old Florida" appeal, she said, support the Bermuda Vista plan.

"Most of the people I've spoken to here in the neighborhood are pretty excited about the project and think it's going to be a big asset to the community," said Guzman, who has lived here 33 of her 49 years.

"At first I was kind of upset over the development, but once I saw the project, I liked it."

Still, all new waterfront development can have an adverse effect on fishing communities, said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"The runoff from development directly impacts crabbing, fishery habitats, shore birds, all of that," he said.

But change is coming no matter what, Guzman said, and at least most neighbors feel this project is a good fit.

"We can't stop development, and these buildings, I think, complement the area," she said. "Plus it's bringing in retail, which we need because we have to go pretty far to go to anything."


- - -

Davis and her family will look for new digs, but even if they find something, it won't be the same, she said.

She hopes the regular clientele, which includes former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, will adjust to a new location.

"It's just going to be very hard," she said. "I've been calling around and seeing what we can find, but I'm not sure what we're going to be able to do."

As Davis talked, her stepfather headed down the dock. Richard Crain is still going strong at 70, with thick, leathery skin betraying a lifetime fishing on the waters around Tampa Bay.

"This is all he's done," Davis said.

She looked over at her mom, who works here too. Frances Crain, 63, waited on the dock, wearing a Crab Hut T-shirt.

This too, is her life. Always has been.

Now, as Palmetto Beach begins its transformation, it's up to Davis to find a place where her mom and stepfather can still make a living.

She sighed.

"They're too old to start over."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Rick Gershman can be reached at or 226-3431.

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 08:05:20]

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