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What’s going on at Sebastian Inlet?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of June 28, 2012)

Driving north on A1A over the bridge across the Sebastian Inlet, motorists see it rising along the shore – what looks like a large, oceanfront home under construction with workers currently putting on the roof. 

But wait a minute.  That can’t be an estate. This is Sebastian Inlet State Park. What gives? 

The new two-story building dwarfs the open-air bait shop next to it and looks strangely out of place among the sea grapes, the brown pelicans and the fishermen carrying buckets of live shrimp out to the park’s North Jetty to try their luck.

What’s happening here? The Sebastian Inlet Taxing District had no idea and neither did the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce. One helpful fellow who answered the phone at the Inlet Marina, after asking if he would get a prize for providing the correct answer, said, “Would you believe, it’s going to be a restaurant? With banquet facilities?”

It turns out the 2,250 square foot building is going to replace the dilapidated snack bar and gift shop, which had provided refreshment and provisions for generations of wind-whipped anglers and sun-parched beachgoers.

According to Assistant Park Manager Michael Moreno, the restaurant will have wraparound porches with outdoor seating on the north side where there will be a walk-up window. The kitchen, indoor restaurant seating for 20-to-30 people and a gift shop will take up the downstairs portion of the building.

An elevator will carry guests to a second-floor banquet hall, which will accommodate 40 to 50 guests.

“From the banquet facilities you will go out double doors onto a deck overlooking the ocean,” Moreno said.

He said park officials hope to have the venue open for season, in the hope it will attract a good number of private and corporate parties, as well as smaller weddings. The building leads out to a gazebo and a network of boardwalks and dune crossings, and eventually to the ocean.

After weddings on the beach, bridal parties and guests could simply head up the boardwalk for the reception.

No one knows what type of restaurant will be opening up in the building because it’s got to be put out for bid, and no bid information has been posted as of yet on the state website.

The current vendor, Justin Stovall, has had the contract for the snack bar and gift shop for just more than a year. He took it over from retirees Alan and Nancy French, who ran the concessions at the park for more than 15 years.

Since the old snack bar was bulldozed to make room for the new building, the snack bar and gift shop have taken up temporary residence in a light blue trailer next to the construction site. What now constitutes the food concession is a cooler full of submarine sandwiches wrapped in white paper, that Moreno says are “made fresh daily,” a cooler of soft drinks, a selection of chips and snacks and a freezer full of ice cream novelites.

Moreno said Stovall has the option to bid for the new concession contract once the building is ready, but he’s not sure if Stovall will exercise that option.

State corporate records show that Justin and Sherrie Stovall own Whitey’s Bait and Tackle and Whitey’s Too fishing charters, just north of the inlet in South Melbourne Beach.

Stovall could not be reached for comment about his plans.

While the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the Florida Park Service, was singularly unresponsive to requests for information about the project, a search of the FDEP website reveals that the new building was identified as one of several needed improvements to the park – nearly $12 million worth – in the 2008 Unit Management Plan.

“These concession buildings are showing serious signs of aging and are no longer adequate to accommodate customer growth and serve their expanding needs,” the 2008 plan states.

Other enhancements recommended for the north jetty and beach area where the building is located included  a redesign of the boardwalk system, outdoor showers and renovations to restrooms.

Moreno said some of the improvements already have been made, including a dock replacement and expansion on the south side of the park just west of the bridge.
As for the new $1.032 million restaurant, to a native Floridian, the structure looks like an awful lot of progress being thrust upon a once-untouched corner of paradise.