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Let the good times roll

The renovated Gulfport Casino gets ready to relive its heyday as the lively milieu of the old fishing village.

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
James Booth, foreground, installs track lighting while his Pelican Electrical Group co-worker, Kurtis Marsh, puts crystals back into the chandelier.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001

GULFPORT -- A hurricane destroyed the first one. City officials declared the second one too dangerous to remain standing. And the third one has gone through a handful of additions and renovations.

But the building so clearly and simply labeled "Gulfport Casino" since it was first built in 1905 remains a staple of the little fishing village that today has a steady population of more than 12,000.

On Thursday, after nearly two years of interior and exterior renovations, the city-owned and operated Casino will hold the grand reopening of its ballroom.

The first phase of renovations was completed in October 2000. Construction crews worked on the piers, roof, railings and decking, repainted the exterior, created a west-side main entrance, and installed new support columns, wiring, plumbing and air conditioning. The building will be sturdier, safer and more comfortable, City Manager Bob Lee said.

The second phase of renovations, which closed the building since May, is what most Casinogoers will notice and appreciate, Lee said.

The bar that once occupied the ballroom's southern end has been moved to the west wing, opening a view of Boca Ciega Bay from the five windows that had been blocked for decades.

The new work on the interior includes renovated restrooms, new lighting, and a refurbished bandshell stage. The hard white maple dance floor remains unchanged.

Still ahead: a five-slip dock on the east side of the Casino that will allow boaters to moor, join the festivities or venture into Gulfport's Waterfront District. The west and south walls facades of the Casino will be decorated with colored and patterned concrete.

Contrary to its name, the Casino has never served as a venue for blackjack and poker. In the early 20th century, the Casino was a ferry and trolley station for Boca Ciega Bay vacationers. It quickly became a gathering place for public events -- speeches, dances, sports competitions, weddings, church services and celebrations.

Lynne Brown, Gulfport's vice mayor, said that from the Casino's 1905 beginning as a dock, trading post and gathering place, it became a vital part of the Gulfport market and social scene. Even as poor material, harsh weather, and natural wear and tear aged the third building built in 1934, residents and Casino lovers rallied around the building to get it rebuilt.

When Gulfport first applied for a grant from the state's Division of Historical Resources in 1998, it had to convince state officials that hard-earned tax dollars were not going toward a gambling center.

"There was a lot of effort to educate them about the Casino," Lee said. "Our funding was in jeopardy until this was cleared up."

The $275,000 state grant supplemented the $605,000 generated from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

Gulfport Mayor Michael Yakes, 57, a lifetime resident, said he remembered the Gulfport Platter Party where bands would come and play at the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era.

"The casino is our icon. It is the center of the community and at the core of the community's personality," Yakes said. "It brings me back to the good times and the gatherings of where friends would meet."

If you go

Gulfport Casino's grand reopening is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday. The open house will feature live music, swing dance demonstrations, refreshments, and an open dance floor. Admission is free. For more information, call (727) 893-1070.

The casino at a glance

1924: The new structure had the now-familiar "Gulfport Casino" declaration above its entrance and served many of the same purposes. But the rickety wood could barely hold the lively dancers and was torn down because of code violations

1934: The Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the local Civil Works Administration built a new Casino that was renovated in the 1950s, 1980s and in the past two years. The latest makeover opens up the building on the southern side for a view of Boca Ciega Bay.

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