Dee Schaefer and her husband started running the Cafe on the Beach 20 years ago. This summer they may lose their lease to a company that runs beach concessions in Pinellas County and, Dee says, charges $6.95 for the same little sun visors she sells for $4.50.
When the Schaefers took over Cafe on the Beach from its previous operators, "it was a pit," Dee says, and talks about how they ran drug dealers off and warned misbehaving teens to either act decent or leave. And it was a tiny operation back then. "We had 24 seats, six tables, and six petunias," she says. "If we turned (those tables) twice on a Sunday we were happy."
Now the Cafe on the Beach has over 300 seats. For the last seven years the restaurant section has been operated by a sublessee. The Schaefers still run the attached gift shop. And Dee is the "Queen Bee" of the whole operation, a title she does not give herself but that we have heard others use -- in an admiring way -- when she was out of earshot.
On Wednesday, April 21, Dee received a letter (via fax; reproduced below) from Manatee County purchasing official Rob Cuthbert warning her and her coworkers not to try to influence County employees regarding their decision to turn the lease on the Manatee Beach concession over to Tampa-based United Park Services, which would bring in scooter and kayak rentals, among other income-generators.
In a telephone interview with The Bradenton Times, Cuthbert said he is unlikely to ask for an immediate lease termination, as his letter pointed out he could do if the Schaefers didn't stop asking customers to plead their case with the County, and if they didn't remove any signs describing their plight from the property.
In the video attached to this article, Dee says she didn't know it was illegal to ask friends for help keeping her business. She also denies an allegation that she attempted to lobby a County employee on her family's behalf during a telephone call.
Dee says several of United Park Services' plans for the property are unrealistic; there is little room for expansion or additional services, and even if a new concessionaire succeeded in bringing in more customers, there would be no place for them to park because, even without added amenities, people "are already parking (on road shoulders) all the way up to the CVS" store a block away.
There is a Cafe on the Beach Facebook page Dee says one of her grandchildren put up without her knowledge that had over 1134 fans when these words were typed. There is also a separate -- but linked -- Save the Cafe On the Beach and the Beach Shop online petition that had 765 signatures at 10:55 p.m. on April 22, 2010.
This is in adition to the 1000 signatures Dee and other Cafe and Beach Shop employees collected on paper in three days before they were told to stop. (Schaefer says the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce has a similar petition that is still circulating.)
The Schaefers Will Have Another Chance to Make Their Case
Both purchasing official Rob Cutchbert and County Commissioner Joe McClash have told The Bradenton Times that nothing is final until the Board of County Commisioners vote on the matter -- and that there will be a public hearing first, where members of the public are welcome to express their support for any one of the four bidders for the Manatee Beach concession. (The Bradenton Times will tell you when and where that hearing will be held as soon as we know ourselves, so please stay tuned!)
A county clerical employee who handles phone calls and emails for a Commissioner said she had received "hundreds" of calls and e-mails supporting the current Manatee Beach concession holders. Even the mayor and comissioners for the City of Holmes Beach, where Manatee Beach is located, have sent letters to the County Commissioners asking them to support the current cafe and store operators.
While it is illegal for bidders themselves to attempt to sway county employees or elected officials or to get other people to do so on their behalf, it is entirely legal for citizens to freely express their feelings on the matter. This means that if you want to tell your county commissioner -- or a friend or neighbor -- that you prefer one potential Manatee Beach concession lessee over another, you are free to speak your mind. The one thing you can't expect, though, is for your county commissioner -- or any county employee, for that matter -- to respond in any meaningful way. Toward the end of the April 13 county commission meeting, two commissioners asked the county attorney for advice about what they could say if constituents asked them about the Cafe on the Beach, and were told to say nothing beyond, "It's going through the staff process and that there are restrictions on discussions of the bid, which are there to keep the process fair."
The letter Dee Schaefer received (via fax) from a Manatee County official on April 21, 2010:
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