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An Island of Absurdity in a Sea of Madness

RICHARD ESTRIN
Contributing Columnist
estrin@lbknews.com

Last week, the owners of the Whitney Beach Plaza had good news. They told this newspaper of plans for renovations that could turn their shopping center into – gasp! — a shopping center. But as soon as those welcome words were out, thunder rolled down from the tops of local anthills whose occupants think they live on Olympus. A shopping plaza can never succeed here, the self-appointed pundits thundered in their godlike wisdom. A service station can never work, they decreed as their words were enshrined in printer’s ink. Whatever might work cannot work.

How do they know? How the hell do they know?

Oh sure, they know everything. The idea won’t work, they say, because it hasn’t worked. Never mind what’s obvious: that the idea of a revitalized shopping center hasn’t worked there because it was never tried. (Forget the success of the Centre Shops, where it does work.) After Publix arrived on the island, the Whitney Beach Plaza was simply allowed to rot for years. Don’t take my word for it. Use your eyes. When was the parking lot last repaved? When Ulysses Grant was in the White House? When was a paintbrush last applied to most of the walls? Use your eyes. Why would any sane merchants open businesses there?

And yet, there are some. There is a thriving beauty parlor. The outstanding restaurant is packed in the season even though the half-deserted plaza looks like a good place for a mugging after dark. Many locals constantly wish for the service station to reopen at the corner, too. I hear it frequently because I am involved. Once again, I must confess to readers: I am a local resident, an office tenant of the plaza, and a commercial real estate broker marketing the old service station. None of those credentials or conflicts can be claimed by the pundits showering their omniscience down on us like pigeon droppings from on high.

But here’s a funny thing: I don’t remember seeing many of these all-knowing folks among the customers when the Market was operating at Whitney Beach. As a frequent customer myself, and counting myself as a friend of its owners, I will tell you what I told them: People loved that beautiful store if they could find it, but many fatal mistakes were made. Too much time and money were spent on a fraction of the Plaza property until a skilled architect was brought in. And even then, nothing much was done to stem the decay of the remainder. When the Market finally opened, in a retail business where potential profits should be reckoned by the square foot, the store had too much useless space. The business was too labor-intensive: too little self-service, too much payroll. In a food business that should depend on advertising special sales and loss leaders, there was virtually none.

Now, we locals are being chastised for opposing an overlay at the site. We have not opposed an overlay. We do oppose the idea of building a behemoth to stand four or five stories “over parking” – it adds up to five or six stories in all – in a neighborhood where the tallest buildings (at Cedars) are only two stories “over parking.” In a neighborhood where most buildings are only one or two stories high, period.

We doubt the wisdom of building a hotel at a location whose only tourist attraction lies across a busy highway without pedestrian crossings. In a place where no safety measures are realistic or likely. What would our local pundits say if they are caught in traffic stalled by hundreds of tourists running hither and yon among the cars and trucks – and by ambulances sent to fetch the bodies, too?

Then there is the wildlife – the manatees and other endangered species – that would be threatened by tourist boat traffic on Bishops Bayou. And there is the wetlands issue that might involve the Corps of Engineers if docks are to be built. What will happen if such a hotel is built and then goes broke?

But never mind. Forget all that. I look forward to the day when we forget about businesses altogether. I anticipate a time when the great “visioning” proposals become reality in my neighborhood. The prophets tell us that we can turn Longbeach Village into an amusement park. I am eager for the day when tourists tramp over my property and peer into my windows. I can hardly wait to run out to greet them in my Mickey Mouse suit, shouting: “Hi there, boys and girls. Welcome to Ditzy Land!”

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5 Responses for “An Island of Absurdity in a Sea of Madness”

  1. David Baughman says:

    I too have a long history on the north end and with the plaza, but only as a nearby resident and a customer.
    the plaza stores that interested me over time were the art store, Isabella’s breakfast and lunch restaurant, the hardware store, liquor store when it also carried basic items like sun screen and when Tiny’s was out back, and, the current restaurant and the cleaners.
    I never cared much for the grocery versions that came and went because they couldn’t carry enough variety of items to eliminate the trip to Publix anyway.
    Maybe we could combine the bank and gas station properties to set up a mini northern St. Armands with small cooperative satellites of some of those stores, sharing space and employees with varieties of goods and artsy products set up in a walkable circle with a nearby indoor outdoor lunch/dinner enterprise like the nosh a something that existed at Bay Isles.
    lastly, maybe the trash from such an enterprise could be ground up and made into a filler to support the permeable groins and structures being bandied about to stave off the erosion on the beaches!!

  2. Anne Arsenault says:

    Usually I get angry at the rantings of the LBK male egos, but Richard is correct. When I moved to Whitney Beach, I thought I would have all that I’d need to age in place. I loved the market, the P.O., the beauty salon, the restaurants. I still use whatever is there, but most of the time I have to drive off the key to get the services I need.
    I am now the only full-time resident with my home on Whitney Beach Gulf-side. I did not realize I was moving to a tourist town where most services close down for 6 months. This place is a ghost town for 6 months. I much prefer the way it was.

  3. Ghostrider says:

    “… a behemoth to stand four or five stories ‘over parking’…. ”

    Ahhhhhh the long-term desires of the money-men. A middle school or a satellite college campus might save you but alas that three-story townhouse development is all but a done deal. It’s called the Florida Keyes.
    The Village needs to visit Coconut Grove in Miami to understand the Grand Plan.
    It’s a waiting game and time ain’t helpin’ you.

  4. geneonlbk says:

    I have been watching the Whitney Plaza slowly slide into a slum for the past 25 years. Not even the proposed application of lipstick and a new bonnet will help the holes in the roof, pealing paint, dilapidated carcase we see presently. Lazarus does not live on Longboat.

    http://lbk-folk.blogspot.com/2011/05/where-angels-fear-to-tread.html

    see link above for more discussion.

  5. William Kary says:

    To suggest that “vision” exists on Fantasy Island is viewing it through rose colored glasses. Big ideas are expressed with small wallets. Even when the Market was open the Villagers would drive right past it on their way to Publix and if and when they did “have’ to shop there they walked in with their PC bags from Whole Foods.

    Very well stated Richard!

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