Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Cautionary Tale of Two Cities

Once upon a time there was a sleepy little beach town named Destin, lazing its days away along the powdery white sands along the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's panhandle. It was a favored getaway for folks in inland Georgia to the north, New Orleans a couple of hours to the west and even Texans, who enjoyed the laid back lifestyle of the place, the opportunity to let go of all one's cares along the emerald waters of the coastline.

Beach homes dotted the land along the beach there, propped up on stilts, rustic, unpretentious, with enough room between them to maintain privacy but still have a nodding acquaintance with their neighbors. The beaches were uncrowded, a few restaurants served up local seafood to sunburned visitors, a few bars offered ice cold beers on hot summer days, fishermen spent quiet hours doing what they love most in "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village". It was a good place. It looked a lot like this.


Photographs by Arturo Mennillo and are courtesy of: Arturo's Studio 1-850-835-7737 or check out the website at: http://www.arturosstudio.com.

Then it got discovered. The first condominiums were built in the 1970s, although Destin was not incorporated as a municipality until 1984. Developers began to arrive, contemplating how to make the most profit from slices of real estate they had purchased along the beach, and they were followed by the hordes of businesses needed to support a growing population of both residents and tourists. It seems like in no time flat the place was crawling with towering hotels, condos, timeshare resorts and faux "Mediterranean-style" homes and shops that crowded what was once the funky central "core" of the town. Now the city's population of around 12,000 balloons to 40,000 during the tourist season. The traffic gets really bad, and you can't even see the beach any more from "downtown" unless you're lucky enough to find room somewhere along the front line of highrises towering over the beaches.

It looks like this. And it's more popular than ever.


I'm not passing judgement on whether Destin's "progress" is a good or bad thing. For the people who live or visit there now, it's a wonderful place and they love it. The people who seek what Destin used to be find it further southeast, in places like Mexico Beach or Cape San Blas on Florida's "Forgotten Coast". There are still hundreds of miles of undeveloped beaches along Florida's Gulf Coast, with plenty of opportunity to live a rustic lifestyle. You just won't find any of it within Destin itself.

Once upon a time there was a funky, dusty little beach town called Puerto Penasco (aka Rocky Point) along the Sea of Cortez just an hour's drive south of the Arizona border. Fishing and shrimping were the main businesses, and it was a favored getaway for residents of Arizona, who liked to call it "Arizona's Beach". Rustic cement block homes made up the core of the town, with RV parks and camping spots dotting the landscape. Arizonans of the more adventurous type were the main visitors, along with the Spring Break crowd. The beaches were uncrowded, a few restaurants served up local seafood to sunburned visitors, a few bars offered ice cold beers on hot summer days, taco stands offered dollar tacos from rickety stands, fishermen spent quiet hours doing what they love most in "The World's Aquarium". It was a good place. It looked like this.


Then it got discovered. Developers moved in, contemplating how to make the most profit from slices of real estate they had purchased along the beach. They built highrise condominiums and expensive homes on both sides of the town, flanking it in with upscale development that bore little resemblance to anything Mexican. Most of the RV parks were sold, including a couple in or near the core part of town, with more modern highrise condo developments set to replace them.

It seems like in no time flat the place was crawling with new development, threatening what was once the funky central "core" of the town. Before that could happen, though, the real estate bubble burst, the world economy shuddered to a halt and what many regard as unsustainable, runaway development ground to a halt. The core area of town (the Mirador) was given an unexpected reprive, time to think about what would be best for it down the road.

Today the Sandy Beach area north of town looks like this. Stalled developments in the Mirador area central to the town itself would look much the same.


I'm not passing judgement on whether Rocky Point's "progress" is a good or bad thing. For the people who live or visit Rocky Point now, it's a wonderful place and they love it. The people who seek what it used to be can still find it further north and south, in places like San Jorge or El Golfo de Santa Clara on the Sea of Cortez. There are still hundreds of miles of undeveloped beaches along Sonora's coast, with plenty of opportunity to live a rustic lifestyle.

Puerto Penasco will never be the same as it once was, and progress is not automatically a bad thing, especially for the Mexican people who need to make a decent living and have better lives than they had in the past. The town will grow again, more development will come and businesses will follow, eventually it will be unrecognizable to those who knew and loved her once upon a time.

There is no moral here. I'm just positing that the disastrous events of recent years may have been a blessing in disguise, as it may allow Rocky Point to avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in other places that experienced rampant, uncontrolled growth. What I object to is the kind of development that does not take into consideration the best interests of the area's people and its sensitive eco-system.

Rocky Point still has the opportunity to decide what it wants the core areas of town to be when it grows up, whether or not such "intangible" things as views of the beach and ocean should be preserved, whether or not they want to crowd out the local population to favor "richer" foreigners, and so forth.

I hope they use the time well.

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