TREASURE ISLAND — Beach bums and retired bankers once had a half-dozen bars right on the sand on the south end of this island where they could drink and watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico.
Today on Sunset Beach, there’s only one place where the party still spills out from bar stools directly to beach chairs.
Although it’s had many names through the years, the owner of Caddy’s on the Beach says his two-story restaurant and drinking joint on Gulf Boulevard is the longest continuously operating beach bar in Florida.
But the run that began in the 1940s could be coming to an end with a possible legal settlement that would turn the popular bar over to the state and transform the site into a public park.
Tony Amico has been battling the state — and the city — for years as Caddy’s has grown from a seedy, one-story watering hole to a tourist attraction, even a magnet for crowds of rowdy spring breakers at one point.
Managing that popularity, particularly by enforcing rules to keep the drunken masses from bringing their own booze onto the beach directly behind the bar, has been an ongoing source of tension with residents and state officials who maintain the sand isn’t Amico’s to control, despite a previous court settlement that he insists proves otherwise.
Some in the neighborhood would just as soon mosey on over to the thatched-roof bar across the street from the beach, Ka’Tiki, which might enjoy betterwater views from a distance if Caddy’s were turned into a park.
Still many thousands of fans around the Tampa Bay area and visitors from across the globe would feel a sense of loss from seeing this beachfront institution vanish like so many other low-key haunts along the water where bathing suits and bare feet are the customary fashion.
“It’s just a relaxing atmosphere. It brings something special. It’s like taking Old America away, a little more of it,” said Glenn Benthin, a part-time Sunset Beach resident who was convinced he should buy a condo here after whittling a day away at Caddy’s four years ago.
“I could see myself coming back here and sitting all day long.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Residents with a longer history in Sunset Beach have mixed feelings about the bar that at times has been overrun with rude tourists, leading to rules restricting the locals from bringing their own beverages to the surrounding beach during high season, a policy that doesn’t apply elsewhere on the island.
“As far as a bar, Caddy’s is more of a touristy restaurant; it’s not really a restaurant or a bar to hang out at,” said Eric Corson, president of the Sunset Beach Civic Association.
“The locals just go hang on the beach. They bring their own chair and cooler.”
While Corson is no regular at Caddy’s, a part of him still would be sorry to see it go. He hopes the building at least would remain as a public snack shack should the state end up buying it from Amico.
Corson remembers visiting Sunset Beach back when Caddy’s was called the Driftwood Inn.
“It was more of a seedier, biker bar type. It wasn’t as touristy,” he said.
“I guess back then the tourists were all kind of seedier themselves.”
Before skyrocketing land values drove construction of luxury waterfront mansions, beach residents could hoof it over to a variety of bars such as Beach Nutts, The Penguin and Hank’s Seabreeze.
Those shacks that once lined the beach in the 1960s slowly went extinct between the mid-1980s up until the recent real estate boom, longtime resident Allan Sansotta says.
“It’s a crying shame that the character of Sunset Beach must change. We who have been spectators to that change for nearly 50 years remember, fondly, the Sunset of our youth,” Sansotta said.
“Price per foot on the Gulf made the small beach bars impossible.”
Still, Amico, who also has a large stake in the historic Janus block in downtown St. Petersburg, saw profits to be made at one of the old shacks when he bought it and the surrounding lands in 2001.
Initially, neighbors and city officials praised him for overhauling the faded bar at 9000 W. Gulf Blvd. with new upper and lower decks, beach picnic tables, landscaping and a host of other improvements that made his renamed Caddy’s on the Beach into a unique, all-day attraction.
Amico’s claim on the beach behind the bar clashed with officials at Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, who insisted portions that had eroded into the Gulf of Mexico and later were restored artificially with offshore sand were public property.
After this dispute spoiled Amico’s first attempt to sell the property to Pinellas County in 2005, he sued the state, arguing that the historic construction of jetties to the north at Johns Pass had altered the natural flow of sand and starved his beach, necessitating those frequent restoration projects.
The ensuing settlement clearly spells out the owner’s rights to the beach behind and adjacent to Caddy’s — even the sand replenished every few years with state and federal funds, Amico says.
When Amico again looked to sell in 2012, DEP officials suggested the beach wasn’t part of his private property and he filed another lawsuit seeking damages from the state.
Now the state agency is considering just buying Caddy’s to settle the dispute.
In February, officials at the city of Treasure Island and Pinellas County got a letter asking if either government would object to such a sale.
Treasure Island would be out about $11,000 in annual property taxes, City Manager Reid Silverboard told commissioners at a recent meeting, but the state likely would turn over the land to the city to operate as a park.
“What they’re talking about when they purchase that property is actually tearing down all the buildings, clearing that property,” Silverboard said.
“If the city acquired the property, we would want beach parking as well as a restaurant facility, maybe pavilion rental.”
❖ ❖ ❖
Commissioners voted unanimously not to object to a possible sale.
“It’s nice to be asked, but in the long run, it doesn’t matter if we have an objection or not. If they’re going to settle, they’re going to settle,” said Alan Bildz, a city commissioner who represents Sunset Beach.
“I’m sure some people are going to have a half a tear in their eye,” he added.
When Amico mentioned the prospect of a sale, there was an outcry among the bar’s 28,000 Facebook fans, many of whom said they plan vacations around hanging out there.
Benthin wrote a letter to the city saying Treasure Island itself might “fade away”’ should Caddy’s disappear.
A world traveler who was born in Germany and now lives in Oklahoma, Benthin says Sunset Beach’s last bar on the beach is unlike any other place on the globe.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, have money, young, old, whatever — if you go there, you’re going to see a little bit of everything,” said the 54-year-old. Benthin knew nothing about the Tampa Bay area when a friend invited him for a visit four years ago and took him to Treasure Island.
“We had breakfast on the picnic table and I looked across there, I looked at a shack across the street from Caddy’s and I said, ‘I could live right there,’ ” said Benthin, who ended up buying a condo rather than a shack.
Many locals have resented Amico for turning their chilled-out neighborhood beach into a raucous tourist party zone, and the Caddy’s owner has had his share of conflicts with the city about parking, rules on the beach and other issues.
But the spot that had become spring break central has calmed down considerably in the last couple of years.
“He’s been pretty cool about it. He’s definitely enforced the no-coolers-on-his-beach policy and I don’t blame him, but I don’t know how it all became his beach so fast,” Corson said.
Amico says he has turned a shabby bar into a business that grosses $5 million a year by offering visitors and locals a place on the beach where they can get cheap beer, food and free beach chairs all day.
“A family can come there and they can feel like they went on vacation and spend $60,” Amico said.
Despite all the ongoing legal wrangling, Amico says the bar is still very profitable.
He’s not sure when or if the state will make him an offer or if that’s how the case finally will be resolved.
If the price is right, though, Amico is ready to get out of the business and experience a little bit of the lifestyle Caddy’s patrons come out to enjoy.
“I’m too old to get beat up anymore. I’ve been fighting my whole life and I’m too old to keep fighting. I want to relax and enjoy my life,” he said.