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Landmark business may sport expansion

Bill Jackson's, the outdoorsy store in Pinellas Park, wants to add 3,000 square feet for classrooms.

By PIPER JONES CASTILLO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- On Sundays, when their St. Petersburg store was closed, Bill and Harriet Jackson would gather with their sons in the woods.

"Darry and Doug would take machetes and clear paths. Bill would drive through in the Jeep to scare off snakes," remembers Harriet Jackson, co-founder of Bill Jackson's Inc. "I'd follow on foot, pruning."

It took eight years, but in November 1976, the store opened at 9501 U.S. 19, Pinellas Park, equipped with one of the first scuba pools in the country and an indoor shooting range.

Twenty-five years later, the store has the same feel. It has added the "Outback," the wooden deck for kayaks, and an artificial ski slope, made famous in a 1986 VISA commercial, and has annual sales topping $5-million. Palm trees and 200-year-old palmettos are still the main occupant of the place.

But change is in the air. The Jacksons are planning a 3,000-square-foot expansion.

"When it comes to expanding out here, my main concern has always been the trees," Harriet Jackson said. "I understand we need the space though, so I'm willing to lose a few, but I don't want to talk about it."

The expansion is for classroom space. The business holds workshops on all the goods it sells. "Sometimes we have two or three groups needing space at once," Darry Jackson said.

And so Bill, 86, and Harriet, 81, gather again with sons Darry, 52, and Doug, 51, not with machetes this time, but with Pinellas Park officials and with contractor Terry England to discuss the $300,000 project.

"When we bought this land, there was nothing out here except the Highway Patrol and Ed Wright's cows," Harriet Jackson said. "We were alone."

They are not alone anymore. There are 171 businesses on the 2.5-mile stretch of U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park, according to the city's business and neighborhood development department.

"We had a preliminary meeting with the city before coming up with the final plans to determine the direction we can go," England said. "Businesses now have to deal with codes that were not in place 25 years ago, but the fact is, if everyone had built like Bill Jackson, we wouldn't need any codes."

An example of a code that doesn't fit Bill Jackson's is the city's rule that large businesses must have retention ponds.

"The Jacksons have not messed with the original land. They have not paved the flora and fauna. There's plenty of percolation out there. No irrigation problems," England said.

Bill Jackson's Inc. began by accident in 1946, Bill Jackson said. The Atlanta native decided to move to Tampa after World War II to become a builder and to marry Harriet Rogers.

While he worked as a field supervisor for a building company, Bill Jackson would purchase Army surplus at MacDill. "I'd find myself with things like 500 pounds of rat poison and a ton of bleach," he recalled. "I started selling out of my garage." The surplus business grew into a bustling outdoor sporting goods store. "After World War II, hiking and backpacking gear became modernized," he said. "Companies took what the military had created and turned it into family gear."

For more than 30 years, Bill Jackson's Inc. operated in the Bayboro area of St. Petersburg.

As their sons grew, Bill Jackson tested his merchandise on the boys.

"We'd load up the boys in the car, and we'd drive to Miami to check out the new stuff," he said.

"I remember once we were at Southern Tackle in Miami, and they were unloading equipment from Italy. It was Cressi scuba gear. I bought some; we were one of the first in the country to sell modern scuba tanks," Jackson said.

By the mid 1960s, Bill Jackson's was too big for its britches, Jackson said. "We needed a larger place. The boys and I were giving scuba classes at the old Spa pool at The Pier, and that's when we started talking about opening up a larger place, and we pictured it in the woods somewhere."

In 1968, they bought the land in Pinellas Park for about $40,000. "It did take us years to build, but we wanted to do it right. We had a vision of our store in the woods," Harriet Jackson said.

Today, the business has 30 full-time employees and a shelf full of awards, including top honors from the National Sporting Goods Association in 1993.

"We've always made sure to know what we sell," Bill Jackson said. "For example, in the 1970s, we all became great water-skiers, because that's what everyone was interested in." The Jacksons believe their success also hinges on word-of-mouth advertising.

"That's how the VISA commercial came about," Darry Jackson said. "VISA researched places that sold snow ski equipment, and they were referred to us, over and over.

"VISA sent their vice president undercover to our store, and he tried to purchase merchandise with American Express, but our cashiers refused," Darry Jackson said.

"Their advertising agency called and asked us if we wanted to be in a commercial," Doug Jackson said.

As Harriet Jackson gives a tour of her store, she passes through the museum, pointing out vintage backpacks, Coleman stoves, collections of arrows and rocks, and even a suit of French armor.

As she walks through the "Outback," she points to the ceiling windows, her "see-trees." She talks about the grooves and holes in the building. "We built around the trees," she said.

Walking back through the store, she points out the facade of a wooden fishing shack, which displays fishing tackle. "During the original construction, Bill convinced me we had to cut down one particularly beautiful pine, and I was quite upset," she said. "They used it for lumber. It is this fishing shack." The Jacksons hope to complete plans, including approval of the expansion by the city, within the next month.

"As I told the Jacksons at the meeting, I don't foresee any problems," said Mike Gustafson, assistant city manager of Pinellas Park. "They are a landmark and an exciting business for the city. They are an unusual coding case."

If you go

Bill Jackson's, 9501 U.S. 19 N, Pinellas Park, is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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