Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Salvaging the Sunshine State

The quality of life for Florida residents is at risk. Our state is not threatened by hungry sharks, killer hurricanes, or even giant snakes. Ignorance, apathy, and resignation of Floridians has contributed to our state's decline, and I’m calling on them to help make a difference in 2014.

In the early 1940s, Floridians numbered a mere 2 million. Florida's population is predicted to break 20 million by the end of 2015. The state averages 750 new residents every day.  The results of such rapid growth have been detrimental to the state’s historical and environmental resources.

Some of the states most valued historical resources were the creation of two Henrys. Henry Plant and Henry Flagler. In 19th century Florida, the only means of transportation in the interior of the state was by steamboat or horse. That changed when the two Henrys began expanding the railroad systems in the state and building enormous resort hotels like Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, now Flagler College. Its builder, Henry Flagler, created an empire of resorts stretching from St. Augustine to Miami. One of his hotels was the Hotel Ormond in Ormond Beach, a grand Guilded age palace. It was razed in 1992 to make way for a condominium. All that remains today is a cupola in a park across the street.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, now Flagler College
The Ormond Hotel owned by Henry Flagler
The surviving cupola from the Ormond Hotel

The other Henry, Henry Plant, built railroads on Florida's Gulf coast.  His masterpiece, the former Tampa Bay Hotel, is now home to a museum and the University of Tampa.

Another of his most impressive surviving structures, the enormous Belleview Biltmore Hotel, is at risk of destruction. Its current owners have let it fall into a sad state of disrepair and have applied for a permit for demolition so they can build… wait for itcondominiums! To preservationists' dismay the buildings fate becomes more apparent with every rainfall.

Ironically in 1988, around the same time as the demolition of Henry Flagler’s Ormond Hotel, the Walt Disney Company built the Grand Floridian, an enormous resort inspired by the Victorian era beach resorts like the soon to be demolished Belleview Biltmore.

My question for Floridians is do we want to preserve our historic resources for future generations or create memorials to them after they’ve been demolished? I believe it is important to understand the places and people in our past. To do so gives us a foundation for making decisions about the future, and keen insight as to who we are as a society and individuals.

Other examples of disappearing historical resources are less grandiose. One of the last remaining fishing cabins from Lake Apopka is proudly displayed at the Oakland Nature Preserve near Winter Garden. In the early 20th century, Lake Apopka was one of the premier bass fishing destinations in the country, with dozens of fish camps along its shores. But pollution from agriculture destroyed the fish population and 100s of millions of dollars are being spent to restore the lake, which is the 3rd largest lake in the state.

From the State Archives of Florida

Lake Apopka

Similar efforts are underway to restore the damage we’ve done to the Everglades, at an even higher price tag. A recent editorial in the Orlando Sentinel questioned the logic of allowing environmental problems to grow unchallenged until they are intolerable and require billions of dollars to correct.

This summer the Indian River lagoon was site of a catastrophic loss of large numbers of dolphins, manatees, and pelicans. The cause, toxins caused by excessive nutrient pollution, is well known. Yet state lawmakers seem resigned to spending millions on studies and quick fixes while ignoring more difficult, long-term solutions.  The old wisdom that an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure, does not seem to be of use in this state. There are those that argue that regulations to protect the environment are job killers. But it is well-documented that heritage and eco tourism in the state are multi billion-dollar industries, and these resources are non-renewable; once they’re gone, they cannnot be replaced.

It’s not just the wetlands that are disappearing: Florida loses 450 acres of forest and 410 acres of farmland to development every day. Our current rate of development in is unsustainable if we want to maintain our quality of life. What can be done to make sure Florida’s abundant treasures aren’t lost for future generation to learn from and enjoy?

Here are my suggestions:

Get lost. Go out and explore. Don’t take the Interstate, take the surface roads. 

Visit mom & pop business. Shop local. Eat at small diners and visit vintage roadside attractions. 

Dive in a spring, take a hike, go jump in a lake.  Spend more time enjoying nature.

Learn about it. Read historical markers and books about Florida.  

Stop and smell the roses at botanical gardens. Volunteer at your favorite museum, state park or local non-profit.

Speak up, take a stand, write a letter or an email. Only takes a few minutes.

Support the preservation of historic buildings. Frequent businesses that re-use old structures, like this restaurant in an old gas station. The buildings often have character and charm that is absent in newer construction.

But most importantly vote.

Vote like the future of the state depends on it. It does.

Personally, I will be voting in the next election for candidates that support a Florida with intact historical and cultural resources, undeveloped spaces for wildlife and recreation, and most importantly, clean water.