Gulfport has long been known for its quirkiness and unique character. Tuesday, December 5 at the Gulfport City Council meeting, council and city staff took on the difficult task of trying to define that character. This led to a long and passionate discussion about Gulfport’s past and also its future.
The main agenda focused on protecting the architectural and commercial character of the Gulfport waterfront. The discussion was to be centered around the Waterfront Redevelopment District (WRD) project and Fred Metcalf, Director of Community Development gave a presentation about the steps taken to date.
Metcalf was the first to bring up the Gulfport “character” that is appreciated by both visitors and residents.
“Much of the waterfront’s character now is from 100 years of property owners doing whatever they wanted,” said Metcalf. This drew a chuckle from the audience and council.
Metcalf talked about the WRD and, despite it being a framework that has tightened zoning laws since its beginnings in 1993, still has left room for character with future commercial and residential builds.
“New character is still allowed by owners as long as it is within established code,” said Metcalf. “There is flexibility built into the zoning code for both the owners and for [city council] and you both have to work together towards a compromise between what you would like to build and what we’d like you to build.”
There was much discussion about how to keep Gulfport’s essence in future commercial and residential builds, but most in attendance seemed to agree it wasn’t all about the buildings and aesthetics.
“The people make Gulfport,” said resident Margarete Tober. “Not all of this other stuff.”
Mayor Sam Henderson agreed that character can be hard to define.
“It seems like what we are really trying to do is preserve the feel of Gulfport,” said Henderson. “We all have different ideas of what that character is. People are interesting and they have different means and ideas so that’s why we can’t define the character, it’s subjective.”
Others saw improvement as character.
“I lived here since high school. I was in St. Pete then, and you didn’t come to Gulfport,” said Councilmember Christine Brown. “All the changes that have come in the last 30 years are amazing. Not living in a cookie-cutter community is our character and our people are our character.”
The topic shifted to formula stores, or chain stores as many people know them, and how to handle them in the future.
“As far as formula stores, I’m less concerned about what goes in than what it looks like,” said Councilmember Michael Fridovich. “Also, what constitutes a chain store? If a restaurant downtown has another store are they a chain store? Chain stores are owned by mom and pops. We had people that owned a T-Mobile store in Gulfport. It’s a formula store but it’s privately owned.” He added, “We can control whether they put a big sign or billboard out there.”
“When it comes to formula stores I care a whole lot more about someone that comes in and wants to fit in and cooperate with the community by how they run their business and what they are willing to do to compromise to fit into our town,” said Henderson.
He continued: “It seems like what we want is to not change too much, not to become too cookie-cutter or not to become as our city manager [Jim O’Reilly] says Anywhere U.S.A. The way we do this is by finding a balance between what peoples’ rights are with their personal property and with a tool we have not mentioned today, that is the most powerful thing we have, which is the site plan review and setting terms for our conditional uses.”
Henderson went further to assuage the fears of some residents about future development.
“I wish everyone could step back from this concern that we’re going to lose this town,” he said, “and just understand that there are so many tools in place that we already have, and we can address these things piece by piece.”
He added: “Every time that a Dunkin Donuts or the Culby group build, or the next project that makes people nervous or afraid they are losing the character of their town, that’s where we can decide what to do.”
Council voted 4 to 1 to discontinue the discussion of Zoning, Characteristics and Criteria in the WRD for now, deciding that council didn’t need to ban formula stores or establish a WRD task force to research potential changes, an idea proposed by Barbara Bano of Gulfport Merchants Association. Ward 3 Councilmember Yolanda Roman cast the dissenting vote.
Pension Increased Passed Unanimously
Also on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting was a ordinance to give those on a Gulfport pension a cost-of-living raise of three percent. This was the first cost-of-living increase and review for Gulfport employees since 2006. Ordinance 2017-14 passed by a unanimous vote.
Roaming Coyotes in Gulfport Addressed
Councilmember Brown brought up ongoing issues of the many coyote sightings in Gulfport and the potential dangers of them walking amongst the people of Gulfport and their pets.
“I’m asking council to consider reaching out to animal control people about the coyotes,” said Brown.
“Pinellas County [website] has a whole bunch of information on that,” said Roman.
Brown then asked the Gulfport Police to look into options and provide council with information.
Henderson added, “Please don’t do anything that involves poison because you are going to end up getting cats and dogs.”
And, said Councilmember Dan Liedtke, “Don’t leave your dogfood outside.”
Bell Expenditure for Williams Pier
Mayor Henderson brought up a potential allowance for a bell to be rung at sunset/moon rise on Williams Pier.
“Are they going to ring it just at sunset or all day long?” asked Liedtke.
“That’s my only concern, that people that may have enjoyed across the street too much start disturbing the neighbors to the east,” said O’Reilly.
Council decided to table the issue for now and continue future discussion.