Saturday, November 17, 2018
Business

One year later, owners bringing order to the party on Beer Can Island

TAMPA — Weeks after four friends finalized a deal to buy 11-acre Pine Key, known by locals as Beer Can Island, a boater approached them on shore.

He said he represented a Tampa Bay Buccaneers player, their story goes, willing to pay $1.5 million for the property.

They had spent only $63,650 to buy the popular boating and camping destination, bereft of roads, drinking water, electricity — everything, really, except bushes and trees.

Still, they declined.

"We told him to add another zero," said Cole Weaver, 33, who would not reveal the player’s name. "We have plans."

It’s been a year now since Weaver, Russell Loomis, James Wester and John Gadd acquired their island from a nearby marina that used the property for dumping dredged spoil. It’s also been a year since their story began to spread, bringing a wistful look to the eyes of tropical dreamers everywhere.

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Since then, they have made a few changes.

They’re still committed to turning the island into a place for fun while protecting it from degradation and they still face a host of regulatory hurdles to make that happen.

But they’ve put in a temporary 20-by-10-foot concert stage near the beach, along with some portable toilets. They’re offering limited alcohol sales. And they’ve cleaned up, coast-to-coast, while establishing some rules of behavior for the once-lawless island.

They’ve even brought in two security guards, one of whom is on the island most nights.

"I’m living the life," said one of them, Robert Taylor, 38. "Sunrise to sunset is what I live for. I camp out or just sleep in a hammock."

The owners have made a few changes in their own lives, too.

Loomis, 40, left his career as a software designer to focus on the venture. Wester, 41, who was a subcontractor and a night club promoter, did the same.

To remain close to the island, Wester and Gadd, 41, purchased an Apollo Beach home with a boat dock. It’s a 15-minute boat ride away. In the months to come, Gadd will move permanently from Denver to Tampa.

Weaver spends the most time camping on the island, three straight months during one stretch.

"I have a volleyball named Wilson," he quipped.

Still, he remains a Denver real estate agent who fixes and flips homes. He returns to Denver to earn cash when they need it.

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Initially, the men bought the island between Apollo Beach and MacDill Airforce Base as a place to park their tiki-bar barge and the catering business that comes with it.

They had attracted a lot of complaints in the more-urban areas where they anchored.

"Then ideas started flowing," said Loomis, 40, of St. Petersburg. "We have a whole island. What are we going to do with it? The ideas didn’t come before the island. The island came first."

It carries no zoning designation, so Hillsborough County authorities have informed them they can’t build permanent structures there.

The tiki bar remains a barge, but they’ve positioned it so it’s aground for part of the day as the tide ebbs and flows. The same goes for a chickee hut under construction, Loomis said.

The center of the island where they camp is the only place the water never reaches.

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They say they’re working within the restrictions of all applicable government regulations.

One attorney informed of their strategy says the owners could be on solid ground if they are "moored in" and "anchored to the bottom of the sea versus attached to the upland. It is a legitimate question of whether or not the county takes jurisdiction over that," said Julia Mandell, with the GrayRobinson law firm.

The jury is still out as far as Hillsborough County authorities are concerned.

Said spokeswoman Michelle van Dyke, "Whether a floating chickee hut can be considered a ‘boat’ in this particular case, and whether alcohol can legally be served from the present floating tiki bar or new chickee hut, are technical questions that Code Enforcement will look into."

Someone from the Code Enforcement Department will be heading to Beer Can Island to have a look, Van Dyke said, presumably by boat.

Still, the owners hope eventually to gain some type of zoning designation for the property.

"It’s not cheap, but it is in the plans," Loomis said. ""We’re not trust fund babies."

And they’re still debating their endgame for the island.

A camping resort with bungalows? A party venue? A place for corporate team-building events?

"This is a big enough piece of property that I think we can do it all," Loomis said. "Above ground is 11 acres, but the property line is 23.6 acres."

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They recently obtained a license to operate a food truck.

"We need to barge it out," Loomis said. "Logistically, that is always a problem — physically bringing and removing things."

To serve alcohol, the partners set up two corporations.

One is a catering business, Tiki Bay Island LLC. The other, Beer Can Tampa Bay LLC, manages the property and sells a variety of pass options that range in price from $10 for an annual to $1,500 for a lifetime.

Anyone can hang out on the island for free, but membership provides access to the camping, bathrooms and tiki boat. On weekends, the boat hosts members-only events.

To date, they say, 415 memberships have been sold.

They recently threw a free concert with nine bands that drew a crowd of 3,000. Only those with member identification were allowed into the tiki bar.

The owners have added an investor — Gary Ramos, a 44-year-old world history teacher at Newsome High School who owned the trademark rights to "Beer Can Island" long before they bought the property.

Ramos brought along his friend Matt Billor, 22, who three years ago wrote a song called Beer Can Island, performed at events there. They recently filmed a music video to promote the island.

Still, to all those dreamers feeling a stab of jealousy at seeing a tropical island sell so cheaply, the men who landed it have a message.

"People have no clue what it takes," Wester said. "We have fun. But we work harder. This is not easy."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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