Sure, the building could use a little sprucing up, and maybe some of the sunset-hour music could be a little more oriented to people my age (57) and younger, rather than to the 70 & up crowd. But these are quibbles. The main thing is, the Cafe on the Beach at Manatee Beach is just about the most affordable place around to have a beachside drink, snack or meal, and if you're interested in beach-type curios, toys, and clothes and such, the Beach Shop prices are about as good as you'll find in any beach-facing shop in this part of Florida.
While I was interviewing Cafe and Shop matron Dee Schaefer for this story, I jokingly said that it was one of the few waterfront places my non-rich neighbors in the Fair Lane Acres mobile home park could still afford. And sure enough, on my way out, there was what's-her-name from across the street, along with the people on the corner who just painted their mobile home a brilliant turquoise, sitting on the patio with drinks in their hands.
(So you know: We appreciate colorful paint jobs and interesting yard ornaments here at Fair Lane Acres, unlike -- ahem -- some overly-snooty developments we could name.)
So, okay. The Cafe and Shop at Manatee Beach are not hip and youth-oriented and all that. The women line-dancing to a country tune while Dee worked in her office and my neighbors watched the sunset weren't going to win beauty contests, and they were all way over the cutoff age to compete on American Idol.
But you know something? A whole lot of people in Manatee County are not young and hip. And even those who are young and hip often appreciate a little history, and respect the institution Dee and her family have created.
Look at the Save Anna Maria Island's Cafe on the Beach and The Beach Shop! Facebook fan page. Check out its 1280 (as I write this) members. These people are not all oldsters. Sure, some of them have grey hair, but there are teenagers, too, and every age in between.
If we want to be in Key West, it's less than seven hours away
The idea of a "Key West-style" business on Anna Maria Island may sound good to some, but an awful lot of us think it's a bad idea. If we want a little Key West in our lives, fine. We'll go there. And then we'll come home to little old Manatee County.
When it looked like highrise condos might soon occupy every inch of waterfront land around here, a lot of us groused, "If I wanted to live in Ft. Lauderdale, I'd live in Ft. Lauderdale."
And if we want to patronize a Key West-style beachfront concession with bike and trike and kayak rentals and "eco adventures," we can cross the Sunshine Skyway and go to Ft. De Soto Park, where the "winning" bidder for the Manatee Beach concession, United Park Services, has all kinds of neat stuff going on.
Us non-fancy people need to have places to go, too. The Cafe on the Beach isn't as slick as a South Beach bikini-girl hangout, but when our grandkids visit in the summer, my wife buys an ice tea and hangs out there while the kids play on the nearby playground equipment.
A place for tourists -- and locals, too
Supposedly, one reason county staffers would like to see something fancier than the current concession at Manatee Beach is to attract more tourists.
Excuse me, tourism boosters, but can't those of us who live here have a little beach space, too? And even when it comes to promoting tourism, don't you tend to talk up Anna Maria Island as unspoiled, charming, and quiet?
If tourists want to go to Key West (or Ft. Lauderdale), that's where they'll go. If they want a quiet beach, complete with hokey-looking (but free) trolleys, old-fashioned motels, and all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, they'll come here. And so will plenty of locals, whether they live in hoity Lakewood Ranch or in modest mobile home parks near downtown Bradenton.
Lobbying to keep the current concession holders
The people who currently run the cafe and shop at Manatee Beach can't legally lobby county employees on their own behalf. They can't ask you to stick up for them, either.
But you can do whatever you like (within the bounds of law and good taste, of course) on your own, up to and including (politely) telling your county commissioners what you think, not only now but (especially) during the official Board of County Commissioners meeting, probably in May, where the fate of the Manatee Beach concession will finally be decided.
Robin 'Roblimo' Miller, editor and reporter for The Bradenton Times, has been a journalist for 25 years and is the author of three books for Prentice-Hall. His stories have appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Baltimore City Paper, and many other newspapers, as well as in dozens of technology-oriented trade magazines and on many technology and business news Web sites. In his spare time, Robin makes videos.
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