Daytona Beach: The Thrill is Gone

What comes to mind when you think of the Daytona Beach Boardwalk?

For most locals, there are as many good memories as there are bad impressions.

As children, my sister and I would go to the Joyland and Mardi Gras arcades whenever our grandparents came for a visit.  We would play some Skee Ball, swim by the pier, have epic miniature golf tournaments on the roof and watch the saltwater taffy being made.

When I became a police detective, my partner and I would go to the Boardwalk a couple times each week for lunch.  He had a thing for those foot-long corn dogs with mustard.

One time we solved a wandering daughter case after spotting the missing juvenile loitering beachside (I remember the three of us driving back to the police station to reunite the girl with her worried parents, all of us munching on giant cornbread-covered hot dogs. . .)

I have fond teenage memories of taking dates to the Boardwalk, riding the gondolas, then walking along with the loud ringing bells of the pinball machines singing out; surrounded by the aroma of hot pizza and the crash of the bumper cars (remember the pop of sparks flying off the electrified ceiling as the cars whizzed around the greasy metal floor?)

There was a unique feel and a great salty smell to the beach back then, a thrilling sense of something fun.

I don’t get that feeling when I go to the beach now.  Too many signs, too many rules, and too many unfriendly people who enforce them from ugly fiberglass kiosks where money-for-access is exchanged.

Today, you can visit the same arcades and gift shops – now, just a little more down-at-the-heels.

You can even play a loud game of Skee Ball on the exact same machines your grandparents enjoyed.

Literally.

Nothing has changed – except the omnipresent sense that our once venerated Boardwalk has become a blighted eyesore with all the elements necessary to kill a tourist economy.

The reason?  Well, pick your poison.

There are many contributing factors and players – all facilitated by a miserable lack of strategic vision – and elected officials who for the past thirty-years have simply ignored the most important economic engine to ever bless a resort community.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal recently reported on the convoluted lawsuit between an investment consortium of local insiders and the Paspalakis family that has allowed a key section of the area to stagnate.

The take-away:  Nothing positive is going to happen on the Boardwalk anytime soon.

As the News-Journal’s Mark Lane noted in his excellent piece on this decades-old legal mess, the lawsuit is over property that belonged to the Paspalakis family for ages but was part of a city condemnation action in 2003.

Tragically, the Paspalakis’ have been fighting the city’s condemnation since sometime in the 1980’s.

Naturally, this sordid battle has all the usual suspects that have preyed upon Daytona Beach for years:

Greedy investors, strategic bankruptcies, family monopolies, unscrupulous developers – to include convicted grifter, Bill Geary, of Ocean Walk Shoppes fame who is finishing a stint in federal prison – promises of pie-in-the-sky panacea hotels and tony shopping areas, a stubborn inability to reasonably negotiate with the best interests of the community in mind, government overreach and interference, insider maneuvering, piss poor planning, no leadership, etc., etc.

Whether we want to admit it or not, what we are collectively hearing over the roar of the surf is the sad death knell of one of America’s great tourist destinations.

The dirty little secret that most lawyers won’t tell you is that courts rarely settle anything to everyone’s liking – only reasonable people finding amicable solutions can do that.

But it requires that people care enough about the thing they are fighting over not to kill it in the process.

Like that ancient taffy-pulling machine at Zeno’s sweet shop, the wheels of justice will continue their slow churn – and the powers-that-be will keep their noses firmly planted in the backsides of their uber-wealthy handlers – while we, the long-suffering residents of the Halifax area, stand helpless as forces out of our control once again determine our collective destiny.

Keep this in mind the next time one of our elected officials tells you how great we have it here on the “Fun Coast.”

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