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Having a good time motivates denizens

The largest beach city's residents accept hordes of tourists and surges in home prices to live an island life.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001


The largest beach city's residents accept hordes of tourists and surges in home prices to live an island life.

ST. PETE BEACH -- James Herman thinks he has all of life's necessities, all outside his door.

"Sun. Air. Earth. Water," he said. "Embrace it. Love it. It's paradise."

His attitude toward beach life isn't uncommon in St. Pete Beach, the largest and most influential of the beach towns. Residents were lured by the beachfront, easy access to entertainment -- even when the tourists aren't in town -- and a laid-back lifestyle that is difficult to duplicate.

For much of the year, St. Pete Beach is crowded with visitors, making patience a valued virtue. Local residents learn the restaurants that will require a long wait and get used to their retail stores' year-round displays of beach noodles and Styrofoam coolers.

In the Pass-a-Grille neighborhood, where homes line streets commonly traveled by beachgoers, local residents have difficulty backing onto their driveways on heavy beach days.

In a county known for its lack of hotel rooms outside the beach towns, St. Pete Beach dominates. The ambience of the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa and the pampered resort feel of the Tradewinds Beach Resort, the county's largest, make St. Pete Beach a tourist town even during the summer.

Economics have always defined the beach towns, once because the well-to-do were most likely to have time and money to enjoy its resorts, and today because homes on or simply near the water can be exponentially more expensive than their mainland counterparts. Today's Pass-a-Grille for example, attracts buyers with its quaint beach bungalows, but purchase prices lead those same buyers to raze the house to make way for something larger and more fitting for the value of the property.

Yet the character of beach people, and of the towns they occupy, goes beyond their income level. At the 42nd Street, a bar in the Belle Vista neighborhood of St. Pete Beach, cook Jarodt Roll defines his clientele as "people who aren't so full of themselves."

Bartender Karan Lydon attributes the city's character to its baby boomer retirees, who earned enough money to retire at an early age and want to enjoy themselves in a fun place to live.

"They came down here to have a good time," she said.

Eleven beach cities and towns line the three islands that make up Pinellas County's west coast. Only Clearwater exists mostly on the mainland, with a bridge connecting it to its beaches. South of Clearwater are Sand Key, encompassing all the towns from Belleair Beach to Madeira Beach, Treasure Island, which is its own city, and Long Key, incorporated as St. Pete Beach.

St. Pete Beach, called St. Petersburg Beach until 1994, when the City Commission changed the name to further distinguish its city from St. Petersburg, was once four individual municipalities, and some on the beach will tell you its residents still act as if it's still divided.

Especially the folks at the island's southern tip in Pass-a-Grille, which was the first city on the gulf beaches and stood on its own for 46 years until joining St. Pete Beach.

"You've got a lot of folks down here who were born down here on this little island," said Ken Herman, who lives in the neighborhood and, along with his wife, Margaret, recently refurbished the home of Zephaniah Phillips, the first man to build a home on the gulf beaches. "They weren't born in St. Pete Beach. They were born in Pass-a-Grille."

In his book, Surf, Sand and Post Card Sunsets, Frank Hurley writes that Pass-a-Grille is "part of St. Petersburg Beach politically, but not spiritually."

Decades after Pass-a-Grille incorporated in 1913, St. Petersburg Beach incorporated on the city's north side, including Corey Avenue; Belle Vista Beach incorporated in 1949; and Don CeSar Place, in 1950. Now, like Pass-a-Grille, those former cities are known simply as names of neighborhoods.

Consolidation came in 1957, against the will of voters in St. Petersburg Beach and Pass-a-Grille, Hurley writes. But support was strong enough in the other two towns to pass consolidation, with a citywide count of 758 for one city, and 753 against.

Those divisions are still visible. When University of South Florida architecture students took a close look recently at how St. Pete Beach can plan for the future, it divided the city along lines similar to the old incorporated areas of St. Pete Beach.

The students' four sections were the Blind Pass Road area, defined by its post-World War II homes; Corey Avenue, which is St. Pete Beach's historic "main street," even though many in Pass-a-Grille prefer to cling to their old Eighth Avenue main street; the resort area near Dolphin Village, once part of Belle Vista Beach; and Pass-a-Grille.

The city's most northern and southern sections are facing the biggest changes these days. Blind Pass Road, where many young families have settled, faces a Department of Transportation widening project next year, which is bound to change the nature of the neighborhood. And in Pass-a-Grille, city officials are struggling to get a handle on a redevelopment boom that saddens many in the neighborhood.

Margaret Herman said her husband's parents decided to move to St. Pete Beach after visiting the city in December a couple of years ago.

"His dad says, "You know, I've been to a Christmas parade; I've been to a boat parade. There's always something to do. And I've never been to a Christmas parade in my shorts before.' "

It's a sentiment shared by many folks in St. Pete Beach, including Belle Vista's James Herman, who is unrelated to Ken and Margaret Herman.

"Every day, I can put on swim trunks and be at the beach in 10 minutes," he said.

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