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Fishing, tourism create boom

The quaint village has been transformed into a grouper fishing capital, with bustling shops and pricey residences.

By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

The quaint village has been transformed into a grouper fishing capital, with bustling shops and pricey residences.

Patricia Hubbard has not forgotten the Madeira Beach of her childhood, a time and a place she calls "idyllic." People left their doors unlocked, their car keys in the ignition. Motorists going opposite directions down a two-lane Gulf Boulevard could pause for a few moments and chat.

The chief financial officer of Hubbard Enterprises Inc., which includes Hubbard's Marina, the Friendly Fisherman restaurant, and nine retail shops in John's Pass Village -- a family enterprise worth about $9-million -- cannot afford to dwell on the past. Hubbard has asked City Manager Mike Bonfield to apply for a federal grant, upon which her family has pinned hopes for a shuttle to Key West. The Hubbards have paid a $100,000 deposit for a more than 100-foot ferry similar to a Hovercraft, which would transport passengers from dock to dock in about 31/2 hours.

In a development some laud and others lament, Madeira Beach is shedding the persona of quaint fishing village. The boom extends well beyond John's Pass and its more than 120 retail shops, now in the midst of city-sponsored revitalization. Realtor Sally Harkness has seen the changes firsthand.

"It's unbelievable," Harkness said. Before the start of 1999, gulf-front real estate appreciated 11/2 to 2 percent a year, she said. The past two years, prices have risen 30 to 40 percent a year.

"It used to be that if people wanted to spend $150,000 for a two-bedroom condominium, I could give them eight to choose from. Now it's $250,000, minimum, and there are only one or two. And those sell in a week or less, with multiple offers."

Although the average age has not changed much the past decade, many observers believe that younger buyers -- professionals in their 40s or early 50s -- are fueling the bull market on waterfront property. Kris Gawron was a systems engineer who vacationed in Madeira Beach, where his parents live. Gawron, 47, and wife Maggie, 34, both originally from Krakow, Poland, sold their home and a townhouse in Arvada, Colo., to buy the Skyline Motel and Apartments for $850,000.

The Gawrons invested more than $120,000 for renovations, including a new dock with a boat on the Intracoastal Waterway. They advertised and built a Web site. The Skyline grossed more than $180,000 last year, Gawron said, or more than double the income of previous owners.

Tourism aside, perhaps nothing so defines Madeira Beach as its commercial fishing fleets. About 100 boats, each carrying crews of three to four, sail from five days to two weeks primarily in search of grouper.

"There are more grouper landed in John's Pass than any other place in the world," Barbara and Edward Lafreniere wrote in their 1993 book published by Pineapple Press, The Complete Guide fo Life in Florida.

Mike Duncizer, treasurer of the Southern Offshore Fisherman's Association, estimated that 75 percent of the grouper caught and eaten in the United States comes through John's Pass. But Duncizer, who supplies commercial fishers, and his customers at Fisherman's Ideal Supply House are keeping a close eye on legislation being considered by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a quasi-governmental agency. The council convenes July 9 in Duck Key to consider new restrictions on "longline" fishing, which would affect about 70 of the 100 commercial boats operating out of Madeira Beach.

Scores of local restaurants serve fresh fish and a degree of companionship for seasonal tourists. Some tourists have been coming to the Apple of Madeira Beach Family Restaurant and Lounge for more than 30 years, said Pat Shontz, who with husband, George, opened the restaurant in 1962.

"I grew old on this corner, honey," said Pat Shontz, 68. The restaurant at 100 Madeira Way has drawn seasonal tourists, many of them from England and Germany, for up to 30 years.

"Our employees stay for years," she said. "The tourists know them. When they come back each year, it's a big celebration. When they leave, it's a sad thing."

But tourists do not drive the economy by themselves. Beth Evans quit her accountant's job for Sheraton Hotels, went to culinary school, and a year ago launched the Purple Pelican Cafe Co. at 14705 Gulf Blvd., which complements a bagel-and-omelets menu with the works of local artists and gift items made by friends and relatives. Evans and friend Theresa Chapmon, who owns a decorative hardware business, in January started a professional networking meeting for women along the beaches.

Neighborhoods throughout the beaches fill the rosters of a 60-team adult softball league, which plays three games a night Sunday through Friday, year-round, at the Madeira Beach Recreation Center.

The city is conducting "visioning" workshops, speculating about a pedestrian mall along Madeira Way, the city's version of downtown. But some locals rue the transformation of their sleepy town by million-dollar homes and condominium complexes.

Charlotte Varnadore, 74, who moved here in 1967, is a frequent speaker at City Commission meetings. She says her young neighbors party too loudly and too often and contends the city is too interested in attracting tourists.

Until his death in 1992, Wilson Hubbard had allowed her to fish through Dumpsters for scrap aluminum, which she would carry off on her electric golf cart. When Patricia Hubbard took over part of her father's job, she put a stop to Mrs. Varnadore's practice, saying she was an insurance risk.

Madeira Beach is really two communities, not one, said community police Officer Tony Peyinghaus of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office: one city during weekdays, another on weekends, when the population triples with visitors from the Tampa Bay area.

Like other insiders, Peyinghaus alluded to "kind of a mix" in Madeira Beach. "You have a very stable section who live in large, expensive houses, and then you have blue-collar workers." The populations "keep us busy" on police calls, he said, often for domestic disputes or alcohol-related complaints.

Still, he said, "It's a safe community."

By the numbers

  • Population: 4,511

  • Average household income: $52,822
  • Charter boats: 30-40
  • Gambling ships: Stardancer Casino Cruises, 150 153rd Ave. ERestaurants: 42
  • The buzz on the bridge: Some commissioners favor a fixed, high span for John's Pass Bridge. Business owners prefer a low drawbridge. The bridge will get revamped either way. Columns now 60 feet apart will move to 100 feet to allow for two-way boat traffic.
  • - Sources: The Yellow Pages; City Manager Michael Bonfield; a paper, "Fishery Communities: The Case of Madeira Beach, Florida," by Linda Lucas

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