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Why Placida matters to Gasparilla Island

April 11, 2024
By Garland Pollard

This week, we have a story on the sale of Eldred’s (pictured here). Of course, we all know it needs a new custodian. Its current, old Florida, charming and useful state, cannot survive when the property is so valuable. It is literally the tip and entrance to not only Gasparilla Island, but a lifeline for residents of Little Gasparilla Island, where ferrymen and shuttles bring supplies, visitors and HVAC vendors. 

We also have a story on the little Placida Bunkhouse, which sits at a park near the South Gulf Cove Publix, and the beginning of the Cape Haze Pioneer Trail. Charlotte County, which has left the little cottage to rot, is finally commissioning an architectural survey to find out how much of it is left. They will then need to find out what to do with it. It needs a home somewhere.

The two stories are connected. 

Last week, we updated residents on the efforts of Charlotte County Parks and Recreation, which is an essential partner as owner of the expanding Placida Park, and custodian of two fishing piers and the remnants of all the other old Seaboard railroad infrastructure, which is now the Cape Haze Pioneer Bike Trail. 

It is all connected.

In recent weeks, we have also reported on the closure of the Gasparilla Estates Mobile Home Park. Its redevelopment (it has excellent and valuable waterfront lots, by the way), will be watched closely. 

We are all connected.

The Beacon has also reported on the success in a recent Lemon Bay Conservancy tarpon pull, to check on young tarpon as these fish mature over years. Talk about the future? That little Placida-reared tarpon, desperate for life swimming about the tip of Cape Haze into brackish swamps, might live until 2074!

They are all connected. We are the ultimate keystone species.

A few months ago, a reader asked us about why there were seemingly so many stories about Placida in the paper of late. Well, we have always had the news from Placida; it is just that it happens to be a place where much is happening as the price of real estate on Gasparilla Island skyrockets. (And truth be told, our early newspaper offices were originally in Placida, just across Placida Road from the Palm Island Ferry.) It’s our gateway.

With the improvements to the Community Center and Boca Grande Health Clinic, we can fully say that the island is nearly built out. There is also no room for more retail. There is hardly room for new pickleball courts on Wheeler, though we are sure it can be squeezed in.

What people loved about Placida was not a particular thing. It was a feeling of not only being able to see the water, but to see people connected to the water doing things. It is eminently satisfying, and of modest scale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched the Working Waterfront Sea Grant program in 2013. The program was, and is, an attempt, to make waterfronts assets for us all, understanding our keystone status. The charter set it out clearly:

“Imagine Boston, Charleston, San Francisco or Seattle without fresh seafood, pleasure boats or shipping vessels. It is an impossible task. The history, culture and identity of these communities are inextricably linked to their “working waterfronts,” which are places for active, water-related commerce and desirable areas in which to live and work.”

They went on to say:

“When working waterfronts are converted to other uses, the loss of water-dependent businesses often has negative economic impacts on surrounding communities and related working waterfront jobs. As these resources disappear, the coastal cities and towns built around them can lose their cultural and community identities.”

Here in Florida, that program offers the Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Florida Forever Grant Program. It does not cover the purchase of land, but it does cover any other efforts to help preserve working waterfronts.

Let us imagine things that are not outside the realm of possibility. Let us imagine a mostly recovered Charlotte Harbor estuary, fully functioning, with oyster gardens hanging from every dock, and mangrove estuaries across Cape Haze, Lemon Bay and Coral Creek restored. How do we, as the keystone species, sustain it?

There is much potential. The Mercabo project, as important as it is, cannot be repeated. A $40 million price for Eldred’s is, yes, beyond the GICIA, as impressive as previous efforts have been. 

These places need to be developed properly. No one group, entity or individual can or should take all of this on. It requires conversation, ideas, plans and thinking. The idea is brought up, and is then tested.

At some point, we will need professional help, a planner like Andres Duany or Leon Krier, who can shepherd a process.

Right now, we wonder:

What is the role and mission of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority? 

Can their mission be expanded to ensure ferry access to Little Gasparilla? Or at minimum, how will the traffic on the bridge be impacted when and if there is a larger development at Eldred’s?

What can be done with the umpteen empty lots along Placida and Gasparilla Road, other than storage units, which there should not be one more of? 

Small scale retail is needed. Think the J.McLaughlin building. That building is a simple, square, white box, with handsome lettering on the front. Symmetrical and small in scale, the building even survives the ugly telephone and power lines on its front. Vernacular retail buildings like The Temp are not expensive to build, and can house galleries, restaurants, shops and little stores.

What can cottages look like across the cape? 

The 3-garage box can be reinvented, with inspiration from the island’s and Punta Gorda’s vernacular frame cottages, which have withstood every storm that has taken us down.

What does pedestrian, bike and kayak access look like in Placida?

Can we get rid of the Burma-Shave style “No Parking” signs that string all along Placida Road, in favor of a better system?

All ideas should be heard. All voices are important. The craziest ones should be considered. The serious ones should be vetted.

These are not difficult questions. This is not hard. It is actually an interesting task ahead.

Email, and we will put them out there in upcoming issues.

Garland Pollard is the editor of the Boca Beacon.