TAMPA, Fla. — On a Wednesday morning in Indian Rocks Beach, out-of-state cars line the parking lot of a public beach access point. They bear license plates from Wisconsin, Kentucky and Georgia — a tiny sampling of the millions of vacationers who visit Pinellas County annually for the soft and sandy shores.

No more than a five-minute walk from the water — where families pitch umbrellas and kids play tag with the tide — a group of local residents gather at city hall for a joint meeting with the 11 mayors that govern Pinellas County’s beach towns.

Their ask? Make the beaches accessible to all.

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In a region largely defined by its coastline, billions of tourism dollars are pumped into the local economy by visiting beachgoers each year.

But for an estimated 117,000 Pinellas County residents with a mobility disability — defined by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention as someone who has serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs — the coveted beaches in their own backyards remain largely inaccessible.

The sand can be treacherous terrain; difficult for the injured or elderly and even worse for people in wheelchairs, when wheels sink into the sand and lock up.

Advocates for people with mobility challenges say it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mobility mats, nonslip pathways made from recycled material that help individuals avoid getting stuck in the soft, uneven ground, can make it possible for people with mobility challenges to access the beach. The semi-permanent mats act like a boardwalk anchored to the sand and can be removed at any time.

Currently, only two mobility mats are installed along Pinellas County’s barrier island beaches — one in Treasure Island and one in Indian Rocks Beach. Now, a local nonprofit is partnering with the cities and the county in hope of seeing more placed at beaches around Tampa Bay.

St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson said that one impediment to adding these mats has been the associated costs — a single mat can sell for as much as $20,000, and the environmental studies and permits required before installation create additional expenses.

But at the meeting, Ashley Richmond stood before the mayors, holding a giant check. In large text, it read, “FREE MONEY” — dollar amount: “infinity.”

“We are here with what we hope is an offer you can’t refuse,” said Richmond, a representative of the disability advocacy group Help Us Gather. “If you have a beach in your community, and you want to be more inclusive and accessible, we would love to fund it.”

In partnership with the Forward Foundation, a private foundation based in Clearwater, and the Disability Achievement Center, Richmond said the nonprofits will fund the full cost of the mats, the permitting process and installation for as many beach access points that local towns would like to make more inclusive.

Richmond said the hope is that funding will remove a layer of red tape for local governments who want to move forward with these projects — and so far, it’s working.

“We need to start talking again,” Johnson replied to Richmond during the Wednesday meeting. “With four of the top 20 beaches in the country along Pinellas County, they ought to be ADA accessible, and this is a huge part of that.”

‘It’s why people move to Florida’

Over the last several years, in an effort to make Pinellas’ beaches more accessible, many beach towns — including Clearwater and St. Pete Beach — have acquired specialty wheelchairs with big ballooned tires that make it possible to roll over sand.

But residents who have loved ones with disabilities, like Marilyn Brettner, said that the wheelchairs are better in theory than in practice. Brettner’s son, Andrew, has cerebral palsy. He needs specialized lateral support, which he gets through a customized chair that helps keep him upright. Switching to a beach wheelchair isn’t an option — mobility mats are the only way he’ll ever gain access to the sand.

And even for people with mobility challenges who are ambulatory and could make the switch, pushing the chairs over sand is easier said than done, said 61-year-old Tracy Hoel. They’re heavy, and not always located near handicap parking or the beach access points.

When Hoel moved from Missouri to Pinellas County with her daughter Caitlin, she dreamed of watching sunsets over the gulf and time with family and friends at the beach. But since relocating to Florida about two years ago, Hoel said that dream has yet to be fully realized.

“It’s why people move to Florida, for the beaches,” Hoel said. “But we just don’t go.”

Caitlin, 30, has Aicardi syndrome, which impacts tissue development in the brain. She’s nonverbal and uses a wheelchair, but she’s social and adventurous and enjoys time with friends out in the open air. Hoel said the installation of mobility mats at nearby beaches would give Caitlin the opportunity to enjoy nature’s offerings just like everybody else.

In Florida’s most densely populated county, where open space is rare and undeveloped land is hard to come by, beaches provide a respite from heavily trafficked towns. That’s important for both mental and physical health, said Jody Armstrong, the director of outreach for Disability Achievement Center.

“When I moved here in 1999, I moved here for the sand,” Armstrong said. “There’s just a peace and warmth that comes over you on our beaches, and we want all of our residents to have access to that.”

Armstrong said she’s been working with the towns and the cities to get mobility mats installed for the last two and a half years. Now that funding is taken care of, she’s seeing more municipalities move forward with plans.

But the process is not as simple as being greenlit by a local commission, Armstrong said. To install mats at most locations requires a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. It’s a necessary step to ensure the mats don’t interfere with beach wildlife, like sea turtles, but the process can be tedious and roadblocks can arise.

Indian Shores, for example, has had mats purchased for the last two years. But the town’s permit process remains incomplete, so nothing has been installed, said information officer Darlyn Stockfisch. In Madeira Beach, Mayor John Hendricks said he’d like the town to move forward with mobility mats, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection requires they end 175 feet from the high tide water line.

“Well, our beach is only 115 feet wide, so that in itself prohibits you from putting one down,” Hendricks said.

Still, Armstrong said she’s confident there are workarounds, and her organization will assist the municipalities every step of the way. So far, there are at least 10 locations around the county, ranging from Tarpon Springs to Pass-a-Grille — that she said are being considered by local officials for mat installation. She’s hopeful more will follow.

“With all of this advocacy, with all of this support, we’re seeing that people want this,” Armstrong said. “We’re making big strides.”

An information gap

Beyond a desire for the widespread installation of mobility mats, is a need for increased information about where existing mats are located, said Indian Rocks Beach resident Terry Boatner.

Help Us Gather estimates there are 30 mobility mats installed in the entire state of Florida. But there is no list or map for residents that show where the mats are located in Pinellas County or the broader state. That means people who rely on them for access, don’t always know where they are.

Such was the case for Boatner and her daughter Melissa Caulfield.

Boatner and Caulfield moved to a house in Indian Rocks Beach in 2014. Despite living three minutes from the beach, Caulfield — who has cerebral palsy — has only been two times in the last seven years. Both times were when a stronger family member came to visit and carried her out to the sand.

“It’s just impossible, if you have mobility challenges, to access our beaches,” Boatner said. “It’s such a beautiful part of living in Florida, but people with disabilities have no access.”

Boatner, 67, and Caulfield, 46, are active in disability advocacy in Pinellas County. Caulfield was one of the first members of Help Us Gather when it was founded in 2017, and now serves on the board. If there’s an issue around accessibility, she’s typically on the front lines, fighting it. They’re people in the know.

But for the last four years, Boatner and Caulfield have lived blocks from one of the only mobility mats installed in Pinellas County — and neither knew.

Not surprising, given that a quick Google search returns no mention of the mat, located at the 17th Avenue access off Gulf Boulevard.

“I guess it wasn’t well publicized or I missed the memo,” said Boatner, who learned of the access point following the meeting with the local mayors. “We gave up trying to go about that time, so we never knew about it.”

Boatner said learning about the mat was exciting, but she challenged the City of Indian Rocks Beach to make its beaches even more inclusive.

Right now, the mat installed is like a runway, wide enough to roll a single wheelchair down at one time. And at some point, the runway suddenly ends — there’s nowhere for people to stop and sit without blocking the path out to the beach.

It can be awkward, Boatner said. If Caulfield were to go out with multiple friends, they wouldn’t be able to sit next to one another. They’d have to squeeze in tight together or remain in a single-file line.

Boatner said that can be solved by adding an additional mat, perpendicular to the one that’s already there, which would allow for small gatherings.

Because to Caulfield, access isn’t just about time on the beach.

“It would mean I could be independent,” Caulfield said. “I could be at the beach with my friends.”

© 2021 Tampa Bay Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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