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Could rebuilding ruin ‘mom-and-pop’ Florida beach town?

Posted at 10:51 AM, Oct 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-16 11:51:04-04

By RUSS BYNUM Associated Press
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Hurricane Michael swamped Dena Frost’s mobile home and obliterated the shop where she sold pottery beside the main highway running through Mexico Beach. Most of her neighbors saw similar destruction.

The monstrous storm wrecked the mayor’s hardware store and the only grocery in this Gulf Coast town of about 1,000 people. It splintered beachfront condos and smashed the inn that has welcomed tourists for four decades. It reduced seafood restaurants to rubble and literally broke the bank.

As Frost, 62, searched on Sunday among the large clay pots lying scattered among her shop’s ruins for undamaged inventory she might still sell, how soon – or even if – she might be able to reopen her business of 12 years was a question too painful to bear.

“It is so devastating right now that you can’t think about,” Frost said. “Mexico Beach was the loveliest place on Earth. And now it’s gone.”

As they face rebuilding a town that Michael practically wiped off the map, Frost and others worry about what Mexico Beach might become.

For decades, the town has persisted as a stubbornly middlebrow enclave on what residents proudly refer to as Florida’s “Forgotten Coast.” Businesses are locally owned. The closest thing to a national franchise is Mayor Al Cathey’s Ace Hardware store. While some locals owned posh homes that overlooked the beach on stilts, many lived in mobile homes.

The spring-break influx of college students that fuels neighboring Panama City Beach’s economy bypasses Mexico Beach. High-rise condos and resort hotels have been kept at bay by local ordinances that restrict building heights to 48 feet (14 meters).

“We’re one of the most unique coastal communities left,” said Cathey, a Mexico Beach native. “We’re not commercialized. We’re mom-and-pop businesses. There’s no corporate America here. There’s no Walmart. There’s no Pizza Hut.”

But the mayor, like many of his constituents, is concerned that could change. Many property owners in Mexico Beach are older retirees who may not want to rebuild. They and other owners might opt to sell rather than start over, Cathey said. And the new owners will probably want to build bigger.

“Families passing beach cottages along over three or four generations, that’s over,” Cathey said. “I think the pressure will come to want us to be something that we aren’t.”

Bill Shockey, 86, said he plans to sell his Mexico Beach home of more than 40 years after the hurricane battered it with storm surge and peeled off much of the roof.

Earl Boyett of Bainbridge, Georgia, has owned a condo for vacations and weekend getaways in Mexico Beach for 16 years. It’s still standing, but with the side of the building facing the beach largely torn off.

The 60-year-old contractor isn’t looking forward to rebuilding, and he is not sure what the four other owners who shared the building will want to do.

“Lots are going to be for sale now, point-blank,” Boyett said. “I would sell, probably, before I build.”

After falling in love with the small beach town during a decade of vacations, Hilary Davidson and her husband built a home two years ago and moved in permanently. Her stepson built the house to withstand a big storm, and it held up admirably during the hurricane. The only water that got in, she said, came up from the shower drain.

She describes Mexico Beach as a place where her daughter can ride a bike without worrying about speeding traffic. When she returned home after the storm, Davidson slept with the windows and doors open.

“We don’t want our community to change,” she said. “I’m afraid a lot of the people who have been devastated are going to give up. There are a lot of older people who aren’t going to have the resources.”

Many residents who also worked in Mexico Beach no longer have jobs. Tom Wood and his wife employed about a dozen people at the Driftwood Inn, which they opened more than 40 years ago.

The hurricane’s storm surge nearly demolished the side of the 24-room inn facing the beach. Three of the four rental homes Wood had across the highway got smashed. Wood said he will keep workers on the payroll as long as he can afford to. But he also has to refund thousands of dollars in deposit money from guests who had booked vacations through next summer.

“The plan right now is I’ll build it back bigger and better than it was,” Wood said. “But it’ll take me two years to rebuild.”

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