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How a feisty Florida town fends off malls

Communities can take a lesson from this old pirate's nest: Locals can control their environs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 2008

Popular: Airboats have replaced drug-running as the No. 1 industry in Everglades City, Fla.

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EVERGLADES CITY, Fla.

A fisherman turned drug smuggler turned retired old salt, Floyd Brown claims he can find his way back here – one of the last Florida frontiers – without a compass from anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico. It's a skill, he says, he put to use more than once when he ferried bales of marijuana from Latin America to the Shark River in the 1970s.

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A direct descendant of the 19th century pirates who first settled here in these 10,000 islands, Brown is like many residents in Everglades City. Together they've managed to engineer a modern day coup in Florida: keeping out the crush of condos and chain stores.

Everglades City's moves to preserve its local charm are instructive, teaching communities in Florida and across the US how it's possible to build on the unique geography and history of a place to create its own future.

"A lot of towns, when they use the term character, what they mean is, 'Go away, don't bother me,'" says James Nicholas, a retired University of Florida real estate professor, whose own family has ties to Southwest Florida rumrunners, or Prohibition-era smugglers.

Whether led by former rumrunners or wealthy newcomers, places such as Ybor City, Tarpon Springs, Saint Augustine, and Boca Grande are glimmers of "old" Florida amid the flood of cookie-cutter condos throughout the state's inland and coastal communities.

What's unusual about Everglades City is that it has been less interested in acquiring money and influence than in maintaining the pirate's mentality, says James Kaserman, co-author of "Pirates of Southwest Florida: Fact and Legend." "They like their independence. They like not having to sit in little boxes and follow the maddening crowd," says Jeanette Schwam, a 33-year resident of Everglades City. "That's what their forefathers were.... They don't want it to be a millionaire's cove. They want it to be an individual place."

The area's pirate mind-set remained alive and well until the early 1980s. Then, in 1983, federal law enforcement – with help from the Coast Guard and the Navy SEALs – blockaded Everglades City for three days, arresting nearly every adult male on smuggling charges.

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