How a feisty Florida town fends off malls

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

patrik jonsson
Popular: Airboats have replaced drug-running as the No. 1 industry in Everglades City, Fla.
Rich CLabaugh–STAFF

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.

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.

After the bust, things began to change. Through zoning ordinances, town referendums, and a tough-minded activist mayor who few have dared to cross, the town has kept out all fast food restaurants and hotel chains, including Holiday Inn. Instead, fish houses and back country lodges fill the local scene. One chain restaurant, Subway, managed to get in through its licensing deal with BP gas stations.

"We're conspiratorially minded and we think they're after running us all out," says Bob Wells, a longtime realtor in Everglades City. "We're changing, but we change on our own."

Everglades City (pop. about 700) is not too far from the glitz of Marco Island and Naples. Yet the area is still too rustic and mosquito-ridden – as well as beachless – for many people.

Despite its distasteful quirks, Everglades City is able to thrive for several reasons: The boom in Florida ecotourism has provided enough local employment and tax dollars to diminish the allure for outside developers.

A weak dollar means that the airboat business has increased by one-third since last summer.

Then there's the 10 percent of Florida tourists who make it a point to see historic attractions beyond Disney World and the beaches, according to a 2006 study by the University of Florida.

Moreover, "Old Florida" hideaways like Martin County, Boca Grande, and Sanibel Island have proved that the Florida state constitution does protect local self-determination, says Mr. Nicholas.

Florida Hometown Democracy (FHD), the 2008 referendum effort aiming give voters the final say on local development, argues that elected officials are too busy bringing in new residents and businesses to protect the character of Florida communities.

On the other side are construction interest groups, including Floridians for Smart Growth and Save Our Constitution, who have been fighting the Hometown Democracy petition. The Florida secretary of state determined in February that FHD did not meet the deadline for the November ballot. In June, the FHD filed suit in federal court to reverse that decision, and a ruling is expected in a couple of months.

"Maybe there are a few out-of-the-way places, but developers are working on those. Other parts of the country should look at Florida and use it as a cautionary tale," says Lesley Blackner, an attorney who leads the push by Florida Hometown Democracy.

But others see a glimmer of good news. "It would be great if Everglades City offers another way that some of these conflicts can be mediated and people can get some common ground," says Tim McLendon, an attorney at the University of Florida's Center for Governmental Responsibility. "Because, in the end, even people who move to those places don't want to destroy them completely."

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