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Largest sand castle may return to beach

Treasure Island commissioners are interested in the attraction, but they worry it would create too much traffic congestion.

By KATHY SAUNDERS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


TREASURE ISLAND -- Promoters want to bring the world's largest sand castle back to the beach.

Treasure Island commissioners, while registering strong reservations about the likely traffic problems, said they like the idea.

Jerome Katz of Special Events of America on Tuesday asked the commission to approve the event before he pays several thousand dollars for a traffic study. They wouldn't do that, but they gave him enough of a nod to go ahead.

"This item is a marketing event, and it can be a bonanza for the hotels, motels, the shopkeepers and anybody who wants to participate in it," Katz told commissioners.

But he didn't have to tell them about traffic.

In April 1985 and 1986, huge sand castles constructed on Treasure Island's beach attracted about 400,000 visitors each year. The second sculpture, called the Lost City of Atlantis, made the Guinness Book of World Records. Katz says that castle is still the standard.

If Atlantis returns in 2001, it is expected to remain longer, the promoter said, and should draw closer to a half-million viewers. Next year's castle also is expected to be a record-breaker, at 200 feet wide, 300 feet long and 60-65 feet high (or five to six stories).

"I, for one, loved it," Mayor Leon Atkinson said of the 1980s castles. "But I am scared to death to see what happened on our roads happen again. I was grossly inconvenienced by that thing."

Weekend traffic gridlocked the city's length of Gulf Boulevard and tied up Central Avenue from the beach to the bridge.

Atkinson, who lives on Gulf Boulevard across the street from the beach, said he couldn't park in front of his own house. When he was able to park, he couldn't leave.

"We were lucky that we didn't have an emergency somewhere," said Atkinson. "This place was totally locked up."

Katz offered a few possible solutions.

He wants to build the sand castle in October 2001, rather than in April when college students are on spring break. The attraction would remain for 17 days, instead of 10 days as in the past.

His proposal is to build the castle on the main stretch of the city's beach, behind the Thunderbird and Bilmar beach resorts, and open the attraction to visitors from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

"We would try to keep events scheduled so that they would not interfere with residents going to work," Katz said while offering to pay for and coordinate all traffic control and security issues with the city's police chief. He also said he would hire off-duty police officers.

He plans to lease 60 school buses to transport visitors from various locations in St. Petersburg, including Tropicana Field and Tyrone Square Mall. He said he plans to offer discount coupons to local businesses as incentives for individuals to use the bus system.

But commissioners said they were not convinced that the bus system would work.

"How is he going to make people not drive?" said Atkinson.

When Katz finishes the traffic study, City Manager Chuck Coward said he will need to hire an expert to review it, possibly at the promoter's expense.

Aside from the traffic study, Katz said he would pay the city $200,000.

Coward also said he had concerns about the environmental impact of the castle, particularly on the beach. It also could mean a delay in other city projects, he said.

"You are talking about a two-month disruption or endurance by the community," Coward told commissioners.

Katz said the castle would be constructed by sand sculptors and a team of about 20 to 30 builders. It will take 18 days to build and another seven days to replace the sand that is scraped off the beach. He will need environmental permits for the project, and he will have to pay for the safe removal of sea turtle nests if any are uncovered during construction.

David King of the Thunderbird said he was concerned about the noise from tractors and other equipment while the castle is being built.

"That construction can be very annoying for my beachfront guests," he told Katz.

But other business owners pleaded with commissioners to approve the sand castle.

"Any major event is going to cause some inconvenience," said Dan Lenehan, owner of the Sunset Beach Cafe. "This has not been a good year for business."

The sand castle will help the businesses between Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach, he said.

"You can't help but love this huge sand castle," he said. "It's just a nice image."

Former commissioner and downtown property owner George Makrauer suggested the promoters use local radio broadcasts to control traffic, such as those that warn drivers entering major construction zones.

"If Treasure Island does not make the most of this opportunity, some other community on the Pinellas beaches is going to," Makrauer said, adding that the city staff should be able to handle the additional workload.

"That's what the city manager and his staff are here for -- to make the quality of life on Treasure Island better," Makrauer said.

Debbie Stambaugh, executive director of the Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has not yet endorsed the sand castle, although board members believe it would be good for local businesses. The chamber could make money by selling beer at the event, she said.

Katz said the event would be promoted heavily in every community within 200 miles of Treasure Island.

The sand castle would be the center of other events as well.

Katz said he could host competitions in volleyball and skateboarding as well as concerts, a carnival, fireworks displays, nightly laser light shows and food festivals.

"Through the use of local companies and organizations to coordinate and present these activities, substantial revenues should be generated to the local business community as well as local charities," Katz said in his proposal.

Commissioners Butch Ellsworth and Mary Maloof said they liked the idea. Commissioner Stephanie Lavino declined to comment. Commissioner Barbara Blush did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

"I'd like to see it back," said Ellsworth. "I feel there probably is a way to protect our residential areas. I think there is a way to do this."

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