The April 6 Gulfport City council meeting featured a packed house at the Catherine Hickman Theater, as more than 100 people came following news of a recent eviction notice the city, at council’s direction, sent to the Boca Ciega Yacht Club from the building they’ve occupied for over 50 years. The city did not enforce social distancing as people sat wherever they could fit for the staggering four-and-a-half-hour affair. The majority of the meeting involved discussing, arguing – and occasionally shouting about– the city’s potential redevelopment of the Gulfport Marina and surrounding city-owned land into a more publicly accessible area, and the future of the BCYC. By the end of the meeting, the city agreed to rescind BCYC’s 90-day eviction notice and return to their current month-to-month lease agreement until further meetings and discussions can be had about the Marina.
Boca Ciega Yacht Club Evicted, Then Saved
While other topics were discussed during the meeting, none were as dominant as the debate raged over the future of the Boca Ciega Yacht Club and the Gulfport Marina at large. After hours of tense debate, discussion, and the occasional shout and boo, council agreed to allow Boca Ciega Yacht Club to stay temporarily at their current building, but will return in later meetings to discuss making the land around it more publicly accessible.
At the March 16 city council meeting, council authorized sending a 90-day eviction notice to Boca Ciega Yacht Club, not as part of a stated agenda item with room for public comment, but as a casually worded proposal in Mayor Sam Henderson’s closing comments. After receiving the notice, BCYC members, defenders and opponents filled the Catherine Hickman Theater Tuesday night to make their voices heard before council.
The city’s plan, taken from a 2016 meeting, and still in its conceptual stages, is to redevelop the city-owned land surrounding the Gulfport Marina into a public park by replacing the existing BCYC and Lions Club buildings with a single, larger, multi-use facility that these and other organizations could lease as needed, along with extra parking, a living shoreline, public bathrooms, and an open event area – instead of reserving the land for the use of the two groups only. The city expects money for the redevelopment to come from the $5 million federal dollars granted to the city as part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID-19 stimulus bill that passed last month.
Members of the public, for more than two hours in total, took the stand to speak on the plan, most of them defending the club’s importance to the local community.
“Tonight I’m going to be lying awake: What could I have done? What could I have said… How many people have been hurt? How much division and anger exists now in my dear, dear Gulfport?” said former city Councilmember Dawn Fisher, the first to speak on the issue, becoming emotional as she left the stand.
“I feel betrayed as a citizen and as a sailor,” said George Anderson, who says he moved to Gulfport because of the BCYC.
Richard Walters spoke about the importance of the Christmas Boat parade, the annual “Funday” event, and the club’s recent $120k investments into their existing building, made at the request of the city “in good faith.”
“Two years later, the mayor and the city council has decided to evict us with no cause, to give a very small portion of land back to the people. It is really a ruse to gentrify the area, to destroy old Florida, and push out the hardworking common folks who have made many contributions to the city, businesses and citizens of Gulfport for 55 years,” Walters said.
Much of the debate centered around the level of inclusion that the BCYC has presented to the rest of the city, and whether the public truly feels welcome there.
“What you’ve gotten to enjoy as either a guest or a member of Boca Ciega Yacht Club, you’ve gotten to enjoy it, but as soon as a regular person who doesn’t feel like being part of the club wants to enjoy public land… you get to that gate that says ‘no entry except for BCYC members.’ It is exclusive,” said Mayor Sam Henderson, explaining his push for the eviction.
“A lot of the people in this city – the vast majority of the people in this city – have never gotten to go out on that little point and see where the blue herons nest; they’ve never gotten to go and sit at a picnic table and enjoy sitting by the water right there,” he continued.
While no accusations of discrimination were leveled by the city at BCYC, many of those who spoke felt the need to defend the club’s reputation in the wake of a pair of lawsuits over alleged discriminatory practices. Terry Mitchell, a transgender woman, stated that BCYC is the only boating club in Pinellas where trans people are openly accepted.
Retired attorney Lee Nell spoke to remind council that the club had prevailed in both of the discrimination suits leveled against it, and claimed that the remaining stigma of the suits was “driving the city’s actions related to BCYC instead of the actual facts.”
Not all agreed with this view of the club. Over three hours into the meeting, by which point the crowd had become more agitated and prone to shouting over different speakers, Kim Gillespie, the only Black woman to speak that night, took the stand.
Turning to face the crowd of nearly 100 people, she asked, “How many of you would want me to join your yacht club?”
“Absolutely,” shouted one voice in the crowd.
“Come on down,” echoed another.
“It’s sorry that it had to come to this point when your back is against the wall to accept me,” Gillespie said, prompting a wave of protests from the crowd, which had to be quieted down before she could continue.
“I’ve belonged to several fishing clubs in the Tampa Bay area. I’ve been fishing these waters for 35 years; I know the water. I walked into that yacht club four years ago. And I wasn’t treated very well. It’s public land; my tax dollars are on that land. Unless that land is opened up to the public…don’t hold anybody hostage to this city, to keep exclusivity in this city. It’s not right,” she said, leaving the meeting after speaking.
Others discussed environmental concerns, like the planned renovations disrupting local bird sanctuaries or mangroves. Henderson and City Manager Jim O’Reilly assured that the redevelopment plans would leave both undisturbed.
At one point, a series of volunteers and members of the local Sea Scouts, including a pair of teenagers, spoke about how the current plans would cause the “slow death” of the group.
Henderson later responded to these accusations specifically, claiming that he and other city members had actually met with some of the Sea Scout leaders who had spoken at the meeting, and the city had assured them that they would work to accommodate the youth sailing group.
“We sat with the people that run that program and [they] made it seem like we were giving them the boot, and had those two Scouts come up here and made it seem like they were losing the best thing they had going for them, and that was pretty crappy to do,” Henderson said. At previous meetings, the mayor has also stated that the Sea Scouts would have a home in Gulfport, no matter the outcome of the redevelopment plan.
Around the three-hour mark, members of the crowd began shouting over and heckling various speakers, including the mayor, who at one point said, “I’ve let everybody speak for a long time and I’m going to say what I’ve gotta say right now. If you wanna vote me out next time, more power to you, that’s fine.”
Councilmember April Thanos criticized the city’s plan, citing other parks in the area that people can go to, that the new structure would be built in a flood zone, and the costs of new construction and maintenance complicates things for the city while leaving the existing buildings and clubs does not.
Councilmember Paul Ray also expressed concerns, saying that while he supports the idea of making the land publicly accessible, he doesn’t want to start tearing anything down until more planning is done, more meetings are held and the proper funds are secured. Ray made it clear he would like to see more public input on the issue.
Councilmember Christine Brown supported the plan, citing her desire to open the land to public use, but clarified that she wants the BCYC and Lions Club to remain on the site, but in a new, state-of-the-art building.
Councilmember Michael Fridovich, who abstained from most of the discussion on the topic, eventually requested that they table the issue for later meetings, to give council time to do more research on the concerns people raised.
“You want to do this twice?” Henderson joked, as the meeting approached hour four.
After discussion, council agreed to rescind the 90-day eviction notice, and return to a later meeting with a new month-to-month lease agreement with BCYC, with the caveat that the lease only applies to the building itself, and that the city will still assert control over the land around the Municipal Marina and start making it more publicly accessible.
“You guys win,” the mayor said to council. “I’ll go with you.”
Citizens Respond to Brown’s Comments
While the majority of public comment at Tuesday’s meeting focused on the fate of the marina and BCYC, a half dozen people condemned Brown’s comments at the end of the March 16 city council meeting, where she accused her recent opponent, Mike Bauer, of paying a political website to write a widely circulated “hit piece,” as she called it, about her. She also accused Thanos of conspiring to remove her and other members from council.
“Your tirade on the dais was inappropriate and sad. Your unsubstantiated pay-for-hire mudslinging conspiracy theory had no place during a city council meeting,” said Caron Schwartz, adding that Bauer has since stepped down from the citizen-run Gulfport Sustainability Committee since hearing the allegations.
“I went back through some old videos and I noticed that even at the very first meeting that Ms. Thanos attended… I noticed that she was never welcomed by anybody,” resident Margarete Tober said.
Several people also criticized the mayor for his role in enabling Brown’s comments about Thanos and Bauer. One citizen, Ken Simmons, simply approached the podium to say that Brown and the mayor should be “censured for their inappropriate comments and behavior at the last meeting” before returning to his seat.
New Board Appointments and Council Rules
Council voted in favor of a laundry list of appointments to local municipal boards where a member’s term was set to expire.
Council appointed Joe Szemer, William Oetting and Kelly Wright to the Board of Adjustment until 2023. For the Planning and Zoning Board, council appointed Robert Craig and Jeri Reed until 2023, and Mary Hanrahan to finish Diane Griffith’s term expiring next April. Council appointed Biff Lagan as Trustee of the GPD Trust Fund until 2025. Finally, council appointed Roz Barbieri, Karean Dorn, Angelena LeBeau and Caron Schwartz to the Senior Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Aging until 2024.
Council also approved a new set of rules and policies for the coming year. Moving forward, councilmembers will be forbidden from promoting any political candidate during a meeting. Also, when a councilmember makes a request for information, the city manager must now provide copies of that information to all other councilmembers. If the time needed for city staff to prepare the information exceeds two hours, two other councilmembers must first approve the request.
Events, Projects and Contracts
Council approved the Kiwanis Club Beach Volleyball Tournament scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, April 24 and 25 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Organizers estimate about 150 attendees each day.
Council also unanimously approved a request for federal funding to build a new multipurpose building on 49th Street South to house police, fire and EMS officers, and a request by Teresa Griffin and Scott Mullins to use the former site of Wood Bros. Gun Repair on 9th Avenue South for Hot Fix Adhesive, which manufactures products used in quilting and sewing and ships them to local retailers.
Council agreed to a $145,740 contract with the Caladesi Construction Company to re-roof the leaking roof at the fire station, and also voted to continue two existing contracts: One, costing $35,000 a year, is for Granicus MediaManager, software the city has used to record, broadcast, caption and archive the city council meetings since 2013; the second is a two-year, $76,272 per year contract with High Sources Inc., which provides janitorial services for the city.
Council had planned to discuss the Capital Improvement Program Budget for this year, but tabled that discussion until May 4.
Overheard at the April 6 Gulfport City Council Meeting
“I had to come here to publicly acknowledge what [Joe Guenther] did for Gulfport Little League and youth baseball in Gulfport. I wanted to thank you, Mayor, and Mr. O’Reilly, you watched me grow into baseball, he used to be my coach when I was a young kid… and he had a hand in stirring my pot to get me where I needed to go… I just had to come back here publicly to thank all you guys in the City of Gulfport. The support that we get from the local businesses here is tremendous.” – Trevor Mallory, President of Gulfport Little League and former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, accepting a $5,600 check from the recent St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser hosted by O’Maddy’s
“Last year, the [LGBTQ Read Out Festival] was about 145 participants at the library; this year we did an entirely virtual event and we drew nearly 1,000 registrants who participated in the event across two and a half days…We are also particularly excited to tell you that our registrants were not just from the United States, or even from Florida, but came from 21 other countries, including Tanzania, Ukraine, Canada, India, Ireland, Belize, the UK, Australia, and more.” –Milton Wendland, as part of a presentation on the LGBTQ Resource Center’s recent “Read Out” Festival of Lesbian Literature
“Currently our noise ordinance is set at 65 decibels between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m….the ordinance is meant to cover both residential and commercial. As far as I understand it, it does not adequately serve the restaurants and bars at 65 decibels. For example, a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer registers at 75 decibels. Normal conversation, ambient noise, in fact tonight, in this room, before the meeting began, was around 70 decibels.” – Kelly Wright, owner of the North End Taphouse, requesting an increase in the noise ordinance so bands can play without violating it.
“I have a request for the council as far as the Shore Boulevard building between Caddy’s and Salty’s with all the plywood up. There’s a lot of concern in this town about buildings and the way they look and how they’re built, and if we’re being gentrified or not. The plywood on those buildings looks like Asbury Park during the crack epidemic… Can we please do something? We have a ton of artists in this town that could paint those plywoods to make them look nice.” – Dawn Ingianni. Mayor Sam Henderson replied that since the building is privately owned the city is limited in what it can do.
“I don’t know how many of y’all were here at the time when the Casino had a restaurant in it, Bahama Bill’s? I just wanted to let everybody know that does remember that great restaurant that Bahama Bill has passed away and there is a service coming up for him.” – Councilmember Christine Brown