Come-as-you-are watering hole goes dry

Published May 7, 2007

MADEIRA BEACH - A business as old as the city closed last week, the latest indication of changing times on the beach.

"Progress decided to chase us off the property, " said Rosie De- Young, the latest and last owner of the Bamboo Beer Garden, which locked up its suds-soaked premises on the last day of April.

DeYoung ran the laid-back bar for the past six years and presided over its demise after 60 years. With the departure of mom-and-pop motels and influx of upscale condos, De-Young's aging, middle-class clientele dwindled to the point where her sales were halved this last year.

DeYoung tried to sell the bar, but the prospective buyers couldn't come to an acceptable rental agreement with the out-of-town landowner. Facing the summer slow season and a November lease renewal at a higher rate, DeYoung threw in the bar towel.

"I'm too tired to run a bar now, " said DeYoung, 57. "It's 24/7. Physically, I'm just exhausted."

Now she is dismantling a business held together by memories and memorabilia. She said she sold some equipment to pay April's taxes and is keeping some items, but to those who ask, she is giving away posters and knickknacks, including the hundreds of license plates nailed to the walls and ceiling.

"It's sad, " she said. "There's a lot of very unhappy people."

Long a home to visitors and locals alike, the Bamboo Beer Garden also has an international reputation, mainly with European tourists who fit into its casual, karaoke atmosphere. DeYoung said she's already receiving messages from overseas stalwarts missing their watering hole. Other regulars note the bar's passing as a canary in the coal mine of the city's shift.

"There's some businesses that are just not going to fit in, " said Bob Shaw, who retired to the city 15 years ago because he liked its small-town atmosphere. He said the bar's closing is an example of the transformation from fishing village to upscale vacation community. "The demographics of this community have changed so dramatically, " he said. "It turned into a four-month economy with 12-month overhead."

Shaw said the bar seems to be going out with a whimper as no one is left to keep it open. To some, the closing is a surprise.

"That comes as a real shock to me, " said City Commissioner John Wolbert. He said he thought the sale was complete and that DeYoung had gone north to take care of family.

Wolbert said the bar was an institution, like the Snack Shack at Archibald Park, another old-time outlet that may soon disappear. But the realities of property values doomed a shoestring business like the Bamboo Beer Garden.

The land was used as a fruit stand when the bar was built in 1947. It has been added to over the years on two lots on about 9, 300 square feet along Gulf Boulevard. The Property Appraiser's Office indicates that the land is worth $790, 000, but because it is next to the John's Pass Village and commercially zoned, it's likely worth more.

City officials say no one has approached them about development there, but residents expect some new development. Shaw says the next move will be telling.

For now, DeYoung is semiretired, working in a dress shop to keep busy. She's pleased to have the weight off her shoulders but tears up when she thinks of good times at the Bamboo.

"I had no choice, " she said, sobbing. "It's taken its last breath."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com.

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