Gulfport: A Quaint & Quirky Pinellas Beach Town

Editor's Note: Gulfport is a finalist in the Best for Food category in Rand McNally's Best of the Road competition. The top towns will be highlighted on Rand McNally's website, in the 2013 Rand McNally Road Atlas, and on USA Today's travel site. You can vote for your favorites at Best of the Road. Here is a reprint of a feature story about Gulfport that first appeared in 83 Degrees on Aug. 24, 2010. New information about the 2011 Gecko Fest activities is at the bottom.

Tucked away just off the beaten path in South St. Petersburg, Gulfport is like a time-warp back to the '60s. It has been described as Tampa Bay's very own Margaritaville or maybe Key West before all of the shops and tourists. There's a bohemian, eclectic character to this small 'burb that attracts painters, sculptors, glass blowers, musicians and kayakers.

The best way to experience it for the first time is to come on the first Friday or third Saturday evening of the month for Art Walk, when the downtown area is filled with artisans selling tie-dyed clothing, hand-carved wood boxes, jewelry, homemade soaps and candles. Musicians play rock 'n roll or jazz, sometimes from their front yards.

Take Beach Boulevard, the town's main street, which starts at one end with a green linear park, continues through the downtown area, and ends at Boca Ciega Bay, a Gulf of Mexico inlet with a white sandy beach for swimming and kayaking, a small marina for boaters and a fishing pier.  

In the heart of downtown, Craftsman-style bungalows, often painted in Caribbean-style colors, have been rehabbed into restaurants, quaint boutiques and galleries. Outdoor cafes are common and small jungle-like front yards are the norm. Dogs are welcome and big shade trees that line the street are decorated with blue twinkling lights at night.  

The concept of walkable, in-town lifestyles, where people can live-work-and-play, is the newest trend for many master planned communities like Celebration in Orlando or the Panhandle's Seaside. But Gulfport is the real, authentic thing. 

Moving To Gulfport

Joanna Pheil and her husband Scott moved to Gulfport in 1991, when the town's reputation was more gritty and run-down than artistic and trendy. "Our friends thought we were crazy back then," she says. "Of course, now it's became cool and fashionable to live here."    

An artist who trained as a potter, Pheil has a small open-air studio at the back of her home for her business: Garden Designs in Clay. She hand-cuts, paints and fires white earthenware clay signs and garden stakes that have cute little sayings, some inspirational, some humorous. Several boutiques and garden centers in Gulfport and surrounding communities feature her popular clay art.  

In addition to the art studio, the couple's backyard includes a large fish pond and "the girls," five egg-laying hens with their own little hen house. Gulfport passed an ordinance last year allowing residents to own up to 10 chickens -- but no roosters, which can be too noisy for an urban environment.

"The Outpost shop in Gulfport carries a T-shirt that reads, 'If you're too weird for Gulfport, you're too weird,' "says Pheil. "Everyone gets a laugh out of it, but that's one of the things we like about this community. There's a lot of diversity and you can be yourself here."

Gulfport residents take their unique lifestyle quite seriously. "Our quaintness is obvious and the people who come here and buy Gulfport properties are attracted by its quaintness. We want to keep the integrity of that," says Mike Yakes, who grew up in town and has been mayor since 1991. High-rise condos, chain restaurants, big hotels and brand-name stores are practically non-existent.  

Chase Kosterlitz, a 24-year-old University of South Florida graduate who just got his degree in anthropology this summer, is one of the newest entrepreneurs to set up shop in town. His business, Water Monkey, fills a unique niche. When it's windy, he offers kiteboarding, and when the water is calm, there's stand-up paddleboarding.  

"It's like going on a magic carpet ride," he says about both sports, the latest trend in water recreation. He offers lessons and equipment for rent, launching right at the Gulfport waterfront.

Gulfport's location is ideal for business, he says.  "There's easy access and it's not far from the highway for people coming from Tampa," says Kosterlitz. "I also like that you don't have to deal with the big crowds like at some of the other beaches in the area.  There's also plenty of parking and when you're done on the water, there are a bunch of restaurants and pubs that are within walking distance."

Finding The Right Mix

After a period of decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the downtown core got a boost when the city designated Beach Boulevard as a waterfront redevelopment district.

Mixed-use zoning gave the go-ahead for artisans and other entrepreneurs to live on-site and have a small shop, studio or gallery out front.  
Restaurants and boutiques began moving in. Historic lighting was added to Beach Boulevard, along with brick paver crosswalks, giving the district a festive feel.  The decision was made to offer free downtown parking and not to install parking meters. Then dozens of special events like Art Walk, Gecko Fest, the Pink Flamingo Home Tour and a weekly Farmer's Market were created. Visitors started coming.

Lori Rosso moved to Gulfport in 2002 after burning out from a high-powered 20-year career in Washington, D.C. Now she's the president of the local Chamber of Commerce and the owner of the Sea Breeze Manor, an historic inn that faces the waterfront. 

Rosso was originally going to open a bed & breakfast in Sicily – until she discovered Gulfport. "There's a sense of community and cohesiveness that can't be found at more transient beach towns," says Rosso. "This place is quirky, with old Florida charm."

Last year the city expanded the boundaries for mixed-use zoning to one block east and west of the main boulevard. It's a strategy that promotes both economic development and affordable housing, says Mayor Yakes.

Long-time Gulfport resident Kurt Zuelsdorf owns Kayak Nature Adventures. He offers kayak and paddleboard rentals, as well as a two-hour tour of Clam Bayou Nature Preserve, a 165-acre mangrove estuary within city limits.  "People who come here like it because it's not Disney, it's a little bit of old Florida," says Zuelsdorf.  

Originally from a small town in Wisconsin, Zuelsdorf says when he first discovered Gulfport and wandered around town, people said hello.  That surprised him. "Other places we visited in Florida didn't have that same welcome home feel," he says. "It was an easy decision to move here. In Gulfport, I can be myself, run a small business and live affordably. And the waterfront is great."

Outdoor sports aren't the only reason to visit the Gulfport waterfront: There's also swing dancing at the Gulfport Casino.

The Casino – not a Las Vegas-style black jack casino – but a 1930s-era ballroom with a 5,000-square-feet dance floor, dominates the downtown waterfront. The city leases the venue for special events, weddings and for dance parties. 

On Wednesday evenings, the place is packed with some 200 people of all ages dancing East Coast Swing, Shim Sham, Lindy Hop and the Charleston. "It's one of the best ballrooms anywhere for dancing," says Sam Mahfoud, who owns Swing Time, a local dance company.  He's organized the Casino's weekly swing dance parties for the last eight years. 

 "The Casino has that vintage swing dance feel with chandeliers and the original floating wood dance floor," says Mahfoud.  It's the perfect fit for a community like Gulfport.

Looking Out For The Geckos

No other place but Gulfport would celebrate Florida's ubiquitous little lizard, the Gecko, with an annual costume ball, a pub crawl of local restaurants and a day-long GeckoFest street party, complete with strolling performers, musicians and a parade of costumed characters wearing gecko-themed apparel. 

In 2010, six local Gulfport artists volunteered to put their own unique, bold stamp on an imaginatively hand-decorated large steel gecko, each of which was auctioned at the Gecko Ball. The steel geckos decorated by artists Barbara Nicolazzo, Owen Pach, Keith Stillwagon, Frank Strunk, Catherine Weaver and Victoria Anne Wenners were displayed in locations throughout the Gulfport Art District.

NEW INFORMATION: In 2011, the Gecko Fest will be Saturday. Sept. 3rd. Two other events lead up to it: Gecko Pub Crawl on Saturday, Aug. 13th, (a pub crawl involving locations in Gulfport and St. Pete Beach -- with free trolley rides in between); and the annual Gecko Ball on Saturday, Aug. 27th. This year's theme for the Ball is "The Lizard of Oz." The Pub Crawl and Gecko Ball are ticketed events. The Gecko Fest itself is free admission. Proceeds from all events benefit a different local charity each year. For more and updated information, visit the Gecko Fest website.

Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with a passion for swing dancing, tropical gardening and collecting shells.  She shares a home office with her faithful cat Milo and dog Bear. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.