Farewell to Vero Beach Boardwalk after almost 90 years of service?

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Another thing that made Vero Beach special was written off by the city council.

It took just 30 minutes, with only one objection, from the grandson of the city’s first mayor, for the City Council to attend a staff presentation and vote 4-0 not to replace the cement boardwalk at Humiston Park.

Instead, to save about $800,000, the city would demolish what remains of the boardwalk, which was undermined during Hurricane Nicole in 2022, and build a sidewalk on the west side of the dune.

In short, more important than tradition

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Why did we move here? What do we want from downtown Vero Beach? A place where many more people want to move to?

Just like that, almost a century of Humiston promenade history was gone.

At 11 a.m. in a fairly empty council chamber, it was easy to forget the countless thousands of residents and tourists who used the boardwalk every day for decades.

In this half hour on a Tuesday morning in 2024, the city’s results mattered more.

Although recognizing finances was a challenge, former Mayor Tony Young lobbied the meeting to discuss another issue for the boardwalk.

“I grew up on the beach, under the boardwalk, on the boardwalk,” said Young, a retired Army colonel who is currently working to build a permanent review stand and World War II tribute at the city’s Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary.

“(The boardwalk is) part of the fabric of Vero Beach,” said Young, who co-chaired the city’s centennial celebration in 2019. “It’s part of who we are.”

The Vero Beach boardwalk dates back to Waldo Sexton

The first mention I found of the boardwalk in the Press Journal archives was in 1937. It quoted Waldo Sexton, who built The Driftwood nearby, as saying he wanted to build a pier and boardwalk from what is now Beachland Boulevard to “ Ocean Front Park” – probably Humiston, just south of The Driftwood.

On March 3, 1939, under the heading “Scenes in the Municipal Beach Park,” there was an image of a wide wooden boardwalk, with benches and a large pavilion. The Junior Chamber of Commerce had built locker rooms to supplement the showers in the park.

Over the decades, numerous advertisements aimed at tourists have touted the park and boardwalk.

Charles Gollnick, the city’s head lifeguard, made special mention of it in a column in the August 9, 1956 Press Journal.

“We have one of the few boardwalks in Florida, 550 feet long, with plenty of width for strolling, and wide benches,” Gollnick wrote. “Not only that, next time you’re on it, pay attention to how high it is so people can easily see what their kids are doing in the water.”

Banks: from meeting places to gossip centers

In 1960 there were plans to expand the promenade. A Press Journal article said that umbrellas and the breeze made it comfortable for “visitors and housemates alike” to use the promenade’s “long and sturdy green benches as meeting places, resting places and centers of gossip.”

I took my grandparents to the boardwalk. I walked over it on my beach route and found it busy most of the time.

The reality is, as Young noted, that a sidewalk won’t have the same view or atmosphere no matter how beautiful the city tries to make it. He recommended the middle ground: a wooden-style boardwalk for about $1.5 million (compared to about $2 million for a concrete boardwalk).

Lack of FEMA funding poses a challenge

But council members – Vice Mayor Linda Moore was not present – ​​refused.

It turns out the Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse the city less than $300,000 for the boardwalk. Installed in 1973, it was beyond its design life, FEMA told the city.

The city has many other projects to fund, said City Manager Monte Falls, noting that staff recommended the sidewalk at $709,000.

Council members suggested that the vast majority of park and boardwalk users are tourists and non-city residents, but only the 17,000 residents in the largely built-up city are responsible for the park and others. In the past, leaders in the county, which has grown to about 175,000 residents, have declined to contribute.

In 2022, after the city tried to get a $450,000 County Tourist Development Council grant for a two-story lifeguard tower in Humiston, the County Commission ratified a years-old policy that prohibited municipalities from even receiving the grants to request.

A defeatist attitude cannot save it

Two years later, the city has a more than $1 million problem, one that has drawn tourists to the beach at least since the 1930s, when it was still made of wood: the Humiston Boardwalk.

Now that it’s 2024, the province should help sustain a goose that lays golden tourist eggs.

And instead of taking a defeatist stance, the city should meet with the county — publicly — to ask for help with the boardwalk and replacing sand on the beach for city property.

If the county doesn’t want to participate, would you blame the city if it started charging non-city residents to enter the parks and use the boat ramps?

The private sector – businesses and individuals – should also rally to this cause, just as they did in 2015, when GoPlayVero raised money for playground equipment in the park.

Young has raised $650,000 for the World War II tribute. And nothing against the tribute – it will be an important part of our community – but I suspect that in a month or two the boardwalk will attract as many visitors as the tribute does in a year.

In Sebastian, leaders are seeking $1 million in state grants to rehabilitate a city-owned building on the Indian River Lagoon and renovate Riverview Park. The city has committed more than $1 million to match these grants.

Will removing the Humiston boardwalk create a slippery slope?

Why hasn’t Vero Beach done the same in an effort to save the old boardwalk?

Or have city leaders resigned themselves to withdrawing from the Atlantic Ocean?

Will future leaders cite the retreat as a precedent the next time the Conn/Jaycee Park boardwalk washes away?

We old-timers have seen some of our favorite maritime establishments – from the ice cream parlor at Conn Beach to Jack Baker’s Lobster Shanty – demolished for private homes or clubs.

At least they were privately owned. But closing a 1930s public promenade?

Ironically, earlier Tuesday, Councilmember Taylor Dingle spoke about the importance of city identity and history. He suggested the city have a flag like the one he saw in a 1956 parade photo downtown. The flag had a flower and the words: “The Hibiscus City, Vero Beach, Fla.”

Dingle brought his wife to the stage and the two showed off a replica of the flag, one they had made.

Although I initially thought his presentation would be a waste – the city has much more pressing problems – Dingle proved me wrong. The timing was perfect.

The history and character of our community are indeed irreplaceable.

They are worth investing in.

This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at [email protected], phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman.

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