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. 


  1. As a native, I can only count the days before I can stop working and leave Florida once and for all.

    Our state is a human cesspool where every land developer seeks to pave everything in site (but it brings jobs you know).

    We're awash in the worst flotsam from third world sewers like New York, New Jersey,Michigan, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. Once you cross the line of demarcation that runs from just North of Jaxsonville to Perry, the whole state is a septic tank.

    I will be moving up to the South just as soon as I can and leaving my beloved Florida behind. We have few indigenous Floridians and those that remain our so outnumbered by the dregs of the world, we have no voice.

    1. I personally take offense to be deemed one of the 'dregs of the world'. I came to Orlando in 1957 at age three. Been to all the pre-Disney 'Tourist Attractions' and many Historical sites throughout the state. While I will agree that Central and Southern Fla.'s population is now a hefty mix of Migrants and immigrants, that does not make them ALL 'the dregs'. Change was going to happen. Slowly as some have wished it would have or as rapidly as it did, change was going to happen.

  2. I do appreciate any and all efforts to reclaim Florida land and waterways as it is an important step to be taken. People and developers have been abusing it for years. My aunt was active in getting the water ponds done but that was not enough. Florida is a state in threat of disappearing by greed and overpopulation. I havent lived in my home state for 50 years but I still love it. I have supported local owners to preserve their business. Just to do a little can mean a lot.

  3. Excellent post Rick. Thanks.

    I am afraid that the politicians are letting their personal interests (aka re-election) to cloud their judgement at the moment of taking decisions. Let us take as example the situation at the Silver River and the water someone to extract from the river.

  4. I have lived in Florida for most of my life (moved to Lake City at age 8, still here at age 52) so I am a native as far as I'm concerned since I know no other home. I love Florida and I think the whole state is beautiful... with the exception of where I live now. Broward County. I invite leaders from other parts of the state to come here and witness what happens when you do not take the warnings of environmentalists seriously, you do not take historical places seriously and all you really take seriously is $$$. This county has been paved over from one end to the other. We do not get rain at 4 pm every day anymore. As a matter of fact, we are always under drought restrictions. We no longer get any winter, it is always hot and muggy. We are completely over populated, and far too much by people who consider "other places" home. I had an earth science teacher in high school that predicted this back in the 70's. So if a humble earth science teacher knew this, why didn't the "great" leaders and politicians of this state know it? They did. They just didn't care. This makes me so sad and I don't believe I will ever leave Florida because it is my home. But I will not stay in Broward. I'm out when I retire.

  5. Read adopted Floridian John D McDonald's commentary on his beloved Florida in the Travis McGee series of novels. He nailed our sproblems

  6. I personally arrived in 1970 prior to the opening of Disney. There was few opportunities here, unless you wanted to pick fruit? That seemed to burgeoning. We are intellectual beings that seemed to politically pay attention to Urban Planning but seldom practice it. Many of the “One Horse Town” mentality of the politicians of the time are responsible for what has transpired since. Starting with foundation and sticking too it would have eliminated many of our current problems. Desalinization plant should have been built in no later than the early 80's. Kick backs, political slush funds, and bribes have even circumvented many of the rules and regulations of development. You can always tell what politicians received the most kickbacks as they retire in some other state? We as a people also have a short memory many people don;t even remember Rosie O'Grady's let alone the Seminoles, Mr. Flagler, and even Walt Disney himself.

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