It’s not your typical beach – no hordes of tattooed partiers, no bag-toting shellers, and it skirts the placid Intracoastal Waterway instead of the Gulf of Mexico.
The narrow stretch of sand along Gulfport’s Shore Boulevard is still technically a beach, though.
“You don’t see a lot of people out there on surfboards and skim boards, but you still see a lot of people laying out in the sun,” said Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson. “It’s a bay beach, but it’s still a very nice beach.”
Henderson and other community leaders view the beach, which stretches for a third of a mile between the Gulfport Pier and the Michael J. Yakes Recreation Complex, as a key component of the waterfront district they’ve been redeveloping in recent years. If all goes as planned, replenishing the anemic beach could dovetail with a plan to upgrade the city’s marina, making it easier for boaters to access the beach from the harbor.
Late last month, City Manager Jim O’Reilly sent a letter asking Pinellas County to fund a beach renourishment project here. The question is whether Gulfport’s beach, which is now only a few feet wide in some spots, meets the county’s renourishment criteria.
It wouldn’t be the first time the county renourished the beach. In 1999, the county trucked in sand from an inland mine. Most beaches are replenished on a more regular basis.
“This is kind of new ground for me,” said Andy Squires, Pinellas County’s coastal manager. “We don’t really monitor that beach. We don’t really have a database of where that beach has gone.”
There’s no strict criteria for beach communities seeking funds to replenish sand that’s been lost through natural coastal processes. Most just have to demonstrate that their beaches are economic drivers, protect coastal development and that chronic erosion or storm forces are an imminent threat.
“A few more [Tropical Storm] Debbies and we’ll have a much shorter beach, so we want to go ahead and get our name in the hat while we have a few years to wait,” Henderson said.
In the coming months, Squires said he and the county’s coastal geologist will survey the beach to determine how much sand has washed away as well as the stability of the beachfront that’s still there.
It’s a beachfront some say is getting more popular with events such as Aquamania, a new festival showcasing water sports. With abundant free parking, Gulfport’s beach also budget-friendly alternative to Fort De Soto, Pass-a-Grille and other south Pinellas beaches that generally charge for parking. There’s also scant development along the beachfront.
“We’re not the gulf beaches, we’re on the Intracoastal, but everybody loves to have a wide open water view,” said Lori Rosso, president of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce.
As owner of Seabreeze Manor, a bed and breakfast across Shore Boulevard from the beach, Rosso said she sees people out on the beach every day, practicing tai-chi or just walking.
“It’s peaceful out there,” Rosso said. “It’s not like Clearwater Beach at spring break.”
Gulfport once had a less-than-appealing reputation, which was part sleepy fishing community, part blighted buffer between St. Petersburg’s rundown and crime-ridden south side and the south Pinellas Beaches.
A wider, more welcoming beach plays into the long-term vision of turning the city into a destination on par with downtown St. Petersburg something city leaders believe an arts renaissance and an infusion of boutiques and restaurants have helped Gulfport start moving toward.
“I’ve seen a complete change in how Gulfport views itself,” Rosso said. “We are now considered a destination. I think that we’ve embraced that identity as a destination.”
Unlike the perennial efforts to replenish beach sand on Treasure Island and Sand Key, which get more than half of their funding from the federal government, money for the Gulfport project would likely come from the county. Chances are, the project would use sand trucked from Florida’s interior instead of sediment dredged from the gulf floor.
Gulfport likely would be one of many contenders for a portion of the county’s highly sought-after bed tax dollars, meaning city leaders would have to get in line behind St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island, and other Pinellas beaches already slated for routine renourishment financed through the same pot of money.
“I really don’t doubt that there’s a need,” said Squires. “It probably won’t fit in very well in the near-term.”
For Gulfport officials, who are looking at least a decade out for community-wide improvements aimed at drawing in tourists, the long-term is OK.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen next week,” said City Manager Jim O’Reilly.
The city is also upgrading its marina to attract more boaters. That project starts in October and will add boat slips and retail space. A hotel at the site and a direct route to Gulfport’s downtown waterfront may also be in the works.
Although the marina is several blocks from Shore Boulevard, officials believe a more attractive beach could enhance Gulfport’s appeal.
“We’re a diamond in the rough, and we have a lot of opportunity here,” said Gulfport Harbormaster Dennis Frain. “When the economy comes back we don’t want to be caught not maintaining our facility for the next round.”