In the latest development in the controversy over volleyball in Gulfport, downtown businesses are asking city council to do something about players at monthly tournaments who, they assert, are causing them to lose money.
The merchants outlined their concerns in a letter to council dated October 17, 2016 and signed by nine businesses located on Beach and Shore boulevards, including Neptune Grill, Domain Home Accessories, Tangelo’s Grille and Little Tommies Tiki, among others.
Once hailed as a potential boon for Gulfport waterfront business, the signees say instead that the regular volleyball tournaments have become a nuisance, taking up parking and causing customers to go elsewhere.
“When the tournaments were only a few times a year, we dealt with it and felt that the people who attended might eat at our restaurants or shop in our stores at some point,” the letter reads. “That has never happened.”
In the letter, business owners say that instead of patronizing local establishments, volleyball attendees ask for free water and ice from nearby restaurants or seek to use their bathrooms.
“Something has to change. A business cannot run and be successful when one weekend out of every month is almost a total loss of income,” the letter reads.
The letter concludes by asking council to limit the number of tournaments, and then adds in handwriting in parenthesis, “or enforce alternate parking.”
The city has welcomed volleyball to its courts in an effort to draw new people to the community, generate business for its restaurants and merchants, and expand recreational opportunities.
There has been some pushback, however, from residents complaining about noise late into the night as well as the lack of courts available for residents when they’re all taken up by outsiders.
Councilmember Dan Liedtke, a major promoter of volleyball in Gulfport, said in a November 13 email that the overall effect of having the volleyball players in town has been positive.
“We know many businesses in Gulfport are appreciating the increased foot traffic,” he said. “Some have also developed partnerships with the local beach volleyball groups and are doing productive co-promotions.”
In addition, Liedtke estimated that by the end of this year the city will have earned over $30,000 since it started formal court rentals and related services in 2013-2014.
Among those using the city’s volleyball courts are members of the Tampa Bay Club Sport group who play Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m., the Tampa Bay Beach Bums, who have one weekend tournament a month (six on Saturday only and six on Saturday and Sunday), and VETSports, which has one tournament per year. Bevolley Academy, the Sunday Pro Suzy Group and St. Petersburg College also play in Gulfport, he said.
Liedtke said the November 6 reopening of the renovated beachfront parking lot will put 120 parking spaces that had been off limits for months back in service. In the past year, he said, the city has also increased the number of signs pointing to other parking near downtown, and is currently looking at upgrading the municipal trolley.
However, in their letter local businesses maintain that “the parking issues with these events were a problem before [the beachfront parking renovation] began and will continue after it is completed due to the volume of people attending.”
Councilmember Yolanda Roman, in an October 26 letter to the concerned businesses, recommended that parking for all tournaments be confined to the library and Senior Center lots, with the organizers renting the trolley for transport to the beach area.
She also suggested a meeting between local businesses and league planners as well as having tournament organizers educate players to use the city’s public restrooms or arrange for portable bathrooms.
“I look forward to a resolution suitable to safeguarding our small businesses, while keeping the courts accessible to visitors,” she said.
Gini Smith, co-owner of the Gulfport Beach Bazaar, did not sign the merchants’ letter because she was out of town, but says she agrees with the sentiment regarding the volleyball players. She also supported the idea of using the trolley to transport them to the beach.
“I’m against them taking up all the businesses’ parking spaces but not against them being there,” she said. “The volleyball players and the people with them need to be educated on designated parking spaces. Have them trolleyed in. That would maybe be a solution to all the complaints.”
Asked for his opinion, Mayor Sam Henderson expressed concern about doing away with certain types of events for the benefit of specific groups.
“We host nearly 100 events per year. Certainly some businesses are going to enjoy greater commerce than others depending on the audience,” he said. He added that, “The moment we become an unwelcoming city, just watch how fast our parking problems disappear. There will be plenty of parking in that version of Gulfport.”