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'Plantation Inn' raises eyebrows

New owners have a name in mind for Gulfport's Bayview Hotel. A few have another name for it: "dumb.''

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


GULFPORT -- It can be a cultivated planting of trees, a large farm where products such as sugar, rubber or coffee are grown, a subtropical estate worked by resident laborers.

Regardless of what innocuous definition the owners of the Plantation Inn & Spa had in mind when they renamed the old Bayview Hotel on Beach Boulevard, the word "plantation" also conjures images of slave labor and the Old South.

Some Gulfport residents are questioning whether that's the appropriate image for what could become the premier destination in the city's waterfront business district.

"Not every black person is going to be annoyed by the name "Plantation,' " said Janet Gentlewind, a Gulfport resident who called the St. Petersburg Times and Gulfport City Hall to question the name. "But I thought, What a dumb move to come in and put up a big "Plantation' sign on Beach Boulevard."

In Florida, about 300 businesses -- from golf courses to animal hospitals and appliance stores -- use the word in their names. Housing developments, including the Plantation of Carrollwood in northern Hillsborough, hope the term recalls grandiose homes set on spacious properties. The antebellum-style Plantation Inn in Citrus County's Crystal River is a popular golf resort.

The owner of Gulfport's Plantation Inn & Spa, which will house a salon, restaurants and a bed-and-breakfast inn, points out that she couldn't even copyright the name because it is so commonly used.

In fact, the owners said after being contacted by the Times, they might change their name simply because St. Petersburg also has a Plantation Inn Apartments, and they don't want any confusion.

In Gulfport, questions from people like Gentlewind have caused a minor stir. The city has received a handful of phone calls from people concerned about the name, and a couple members of the Historic Preservation Committee questioned the name when the site plan came before them.

The hotel's owners say the name comes from their British colonial design for the three-story building, constructed near the turn of the century. Alexandra Kingzett, president of the company that owns the hotel, said the term "plantation" is used for estate farms worldwide and only has a bad connotation in the United States.

"I was kind of disappointed that the race card would even be played," Kingzett said. "It never occurred to us. How that would be linked to slavery and oppression, I have no idea."

The project recently received city approval, and Kingzett's company must pull building permits within a year. She said she would hate to change the name at this point but might have to "if there was a complete public outcry."

That hasn't happened. But incidents like one witnessed two weeks ago by Steve Smith, a Gulfport artist who has lived there since 1970, suggest that not everyone would feel welcome at a place with such a name.

Smith said he was running in the Beach Boulevard neighborhood when he noticed a black family on the sidewalk near the Plantation Inn & Spa, waiting to be seated at the Backfin Blue Cafe next door.

As he ran past, he overheard their conversation.

"One woman was obviously upset," Smith recalled. "She said, "I don't care. I don't want anything to do with a business named like that, "The Plantation.' "

Smith said he had been disturbed by the sign announcing the old Bayview as the future home of the Plantation. His feelings were solidified when he overheard the woman on Beach Boulevard.

"I thought, "I gotta write these people and tell them it's a stupid idea,' " Smith said. He said he thinks the name selection is an example of "stupidity rather than bigotry."

Gulfport isn't the only place where the word has met resistance.

In Atlanta, a county commissioner beat down a proposal to name a street "Plantation Way," comparing such a name to "Auschwitz Avenue" or "Swastika Boulevard."

And in Rhode Island, some legislators have fought to change the state's name to get rid of the word "plantations." The state's official name is the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a lengthy moniker some find too reminiscent of the days when the slave trade boosted Rhode Island's economy.

Gentlewind, the Gulfport resident, said she already sees too few African-Americans taking part in activities along Beach Boulevard. She fears that the name Plantation Inn & Spa would make minorities feel more unwelcome.

"As far as mixing in the historic part of Gulfport, you never see them," she said.

Mike Konefal, Gulfport's planning and development supervisor, emphasized that the city does not approve business names, only site plans. He also pointed out how important the renovation of the Bayview Hotel will be for Beach Boulevard.

The huge old building, complete with an antiquated elevator shaft that will become an attractive clock tower, has been the missing link in the business district's redevelopment.

"The city is supportive of this project because of the benefits of the project," Konefal said. "It sat vacant for 10 years. This is a big, positive addition and redevelopment."

Kingzett, the Plantation's owner, said she thinks the few people who have voiced opposition to the name would feel different if they had a more worldly view of the term "plantation."

"I think it's much ado about nothing," she said.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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