GULFPORT — Sailing the Caribbean with friends two years ago, Alison Ritchey imagined living on a tropical island — sunshine, palm trees, turquoise water — quintessential paradise.
A few weeks later she bought a 1950s block home near the Gulfport Marina. She plans to paint the front door coral blue.
Innkeepers during this tourist season are welcoming people like Ritchey on a daily basis from her home state of Washington, or Pennsylvania or Quebec.
Realtors say the market is hot for colorful bungalows in the town’s three-mile limits, even the fixer-uppers.
Residents welcome the attention, and so do the restaurants and shops, which have filled nearly every empty retail space in the past year along Beach Boulevard, a tree-shaded brick road that ends dramatically at the city’s waterfront casino, a throwback to 1930s Florida.
City leaders are looking for ways to bring more people here this year with a revamped marina for seafaring visitors, a bicycle trail that connects with St. Petersburg and even a free shuttle for locals to save parking spots in the cozy downtown waterfront district.
They likely would be loath to welcome a high-rise condo to accommodate the growth, though. There’s a white sandy beach here on Boca Ciega Bay, but this isn’t a typical Florida beach town, at least not in 2014, and that’s the main reason people end up here.
“Gulfport was a fluke,” said Ritchey, who says settling down here is still some time away as she travels frequently for a national sales job based out of Seattle.
“I just felt it. I can’t describe it any other way. It felt like a great community.”
At the southwestern tip of a peninsula, between bridges leading to the barrier island beaches, Gulfport isn’t an obvious tourism spot.
For a time, before the turn of the last century, an early settlement here diminished after a steamship accident that cut off the only easy mode of transportation for visitors.
Tourists today can buzz by car from downtown St. Petersburg to Treasure Island or St. Pete Beach without knowing they’ve passed it by.
“We have both a big blessing and a curse at the same time that our main commercial area is not on the main road,” said Bob Newcomb, executive director of the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce.
The waterfront district hasn’t changed radically from the 1920s boom; mom and pop stores and restaurants, lodgings for retirees and tourists overlooking intracoastal waters, sunbathers sprawled out in the city beach park.
At the 80-year-old Gulfport Casino, older couples, and some young, gather on evenings to dance the waltz, fox trot and tango on an original 5,000-square-foot ballroom floor. State historians have recommended the casino to the National Register of Historic Places.
A jumble of dinghies, canoes and small john boats are tethered to a wooden dock behind it. Some of the vessels look nearly as old as the casino, but possibly worse for the wear.
The town that once aimed almost exclusively at retirees — for a time, it was named Veteran City — has broadened its demographics over the years with a mix of artists, holistic medicine practitioners, craft brewers and many, many cats and dogs. Most establishments welcome well-behaved animals.
Members of the merchant’s association proudly wear t-shirts with the slogan “Keep Gulfport Weird,” which many residents, though not all, have embraced, said Marsha Warner, an active member of the association.
“It means we accept everybody, we accept things, we want new things,” said Warner, who helps manage the year round Tuesday Fresh Market, a draw for thousands in high season.
That offbeat reputation has been growing for a while and gradually breaking into the consciousness of visitors from around the Tampa Bay region and beyond.
The downtown business district, though, has seen ups and downs, and a fair amount of turnover, especially since the 2008 recession.
“We pushed through that period, but it was a struggle,” said Alexandra Kingzett, who runs the Historic Peninsula Inn & Spa, built in 1901 on Beach Boulevard. “It seemed like there would be no end to it.”
About midway through last year, the city reached a turning point. In the past few months, new, business-savvy restaurateurs have reopened several bars across the street from the water on Shore Boulevard, Newcomb said.
In the large downtown space where the fine dining establishment Bellini’s has been empty for more than two years, a new restaurant is moving in that will feature cuisine inspired by the Pan American Highway from Canada to Argentina.
When painter August Vernon decided to move his gallery downtown, he had to bid against another interested party, Newcomb said.
“There’s nothing available and when it becomes available, boom, it’s gone,” he said.
Marketing efforts by the chamber and merchants’ association, combined with Pinellas County’s broader success in bringing in record tourism dollars last year, appear to be paying off.
“We have people staying here almost on a weekly basis that are coming from somewhere else looking for property to buy here,” Kingzett said.
“We seem to be growing by leaps and bounds,” she said of her city.
City leaders are seizing this momentum to invest in the downtown waterfront.
The city is investing $800,000 in the marina with new facilities, hydraulic lifts for larger boats and spaces for live-aboards who may wish to spend a few nights here sleeping atop the water. Another 25 mooring balls are planned just offshore for sailboats, and federal grant money is paying for a new floating dock to accommodate more day trippers who want to stop in for lunch or a beer.
For land lovers, there will soon be a bicycle trail spur directly connecting downtown to the Skyway Trail and Pinellas Trail.
The city also is considering a partnership with local business groups to pay for a shuttle service to move locals from their homes to downtown and to free up parking for visitors, Newcomb said.
Mayor Sam Henderson is lobbying the county to chip in, too, with bed tax money to renourish the city’s beach, which is only a few feet wide in some places. “We’ve always been a waterfront town. We want to take advantage of the fact we’re one of the few communities in Pinellas that has a very active waterfront that’s not on the Gulf or on Tampa Bay,” he said.
The arrival of bigger, swankier vessels on Gulfport’s shores bodes especially well for business near the water.
The hope is that the city being “discovered” by more and more people won’t diminish the authentic “Old Florida” spirit that beacons both yacht club members and shaggy boaters looking to live off the grid.
“You have boaters, you have fishermen, you have artists, you have rich people, poor people,” said Stacy Purcell, a local Realtor and avid boater.
Charging people to moor their boats offshore and regulating them more carefully eventually could drive away some of the more colorful characters who have dropped anchor here over the years, she said.
She fondly recalls townspeople working together during a storm a few years back to keep a dilapidated old boat from washing onto a sandbar, the home of a man known locally as “The Captain.”
When The Captain’s ship finally did wash ashore, there turned out to be others aboard, including rats, she said.
Whether or not the boating scene continues to go upscale, though, residents and city leaders seem intent on keeping this community of 1,200 low key, the kind of place where it’s easy to bump into a neighbor at the bar or get free fishing advice from a local angler.
With all the city’s big plans, maintaining Gulfport’s small town integrity is still at the top of the mayor’s agenda.
“We want to bring people in, but at the same time, we don’t want to do what other cities have done where you end up abandoning what brought people here in the first place,” Henderson said.