Saving the Pelican Cafe

“Mom and pop perfection”… “Old Florida ambiance”… “a little piece of paradise.”  The Floridians assembled at the commissioners meeting in the coastal town of Stuart couldn’t be clearer. The Pelican Cafe is dear to them and must continue into the indefinite future, a treasure of the sunshine state that is hard to find elsewhere amid the speedy, haphazard development of a region that offers a respite from northern chill even if punctuated by the occasional hurricane.

The Pelican occupies a choice spot on the water’s edge near the end of town. Overhead soars the Roosevelt bridge connecting to the town’s north. Informality is the rule. It’s the only place, they say, where you can eat and drink while feeling the sand between your toes. At night under the stars, boats slowly passing, it’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting. Come to Stuart and renew.

The hang-up is a new lease for owners Paul and Linda Daly, who have struggled to make a go of a restaurant that offers inexpensive food and must shut down when there’s too much rain or wind. As they say in the trade, location is prime, traffic uncertain. The Dalys want to provide a cover for the outdoor area, but this requires an extension of the current lease, at which the five commissioners have balked.

They say, they too want to keep the Pelican forever, but they also have an obligation to the town’s taxpayers. They insist they are currently subsidizing the Pelican with a low rent on city-owned land. They want to make sure that if the Dalys should sell the cafe, that favor will not be automatically transferred to the new owner. The commissioners want the decision on that.

The Dalys, who say their hands should not be tied, are now negotiating with the clamorous support of their patrons who want the Pelican to survive at almost any cost. This conflict typifies much of Florida these days as a burgeoning population sends land values soaring with developers keen to participate and profit. Stuart is determined to preserve its old Florida character with a two-floor limit on structures and no Miami style extravagance. But the pressures are intense, says Ben Hogarth of the Community Affairs Department. A younger generation is moving into town with hardly any empty land left to live on. The only way to go is up, Miami style, though surely not so high. Stuart, insist residents, must remain Stuart.

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