Daytona Business Owners Fight Eminent Domain

For years, some say, the ocean front section of Daytona Beach Florida has been in steady decline. Empty storefronts, bars and strip clubs now dot the area. City officials say the only way to turn things around is a large scale re-development. And they say they have the right, under eminent domain, to force property owners to sell out to the project's developer.

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In today's business news, redevelopment in Florida. Over the years, the oceanfront section of Daytona Beach, Florida, seemed to be declining. Empty store fronts, bars and strip clubs now dot the area once touted as the world's most famous beach. City officials say the only way to turn things around is a large-scale redevelopment, and they say they have the right, under eminent domain, to force the property owners to sell out to the project's developer. As NPR's Luke Burbank reports, not everyone on the boardwalk is ready to leave.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

As far as ramshackle beachfront restaurants go, Captain Darrell's Oyster Bar sure has a lot of fine print when it comes to the menu.

Mr. DARRELL HUNTER (Captain Darrell's Oyster Bar): Hot sauce is $2 a bottle. Do you want a bottle or do you want the cocktail sauce?

BURBANK: A handwritten sign instructs patrons that the place is cash only. Hot wings do not come with dressing--that's an extra dollar--and a bucket of oysters comes with exactly five packets of crackers.

Mr. HUNTER: So you have to limit what they get with them, because if you don't they'll eat $10 worth of crackers and they'll use $6 worth of Tabasco sauce.

BURBANK: These are principles that Darrell Hunter, also known as Captain Darrell, has learned firsthand during his 50-plus years working Daytona Beach's boardwalk.

Mr. HUNTER: Well, I started out as Bozo the Clown, where you throw the balls and knock the guy in the water. There's a difference between getting a person ball-throwing mad and fighting mad. You got to get them ball-throwing mad.

BURBANK: And Hunter knew how to get lots of people ball-throwing mad, eventually saving up enough money to open his own restaurant, Captain Darrell's.

Mr. HUNTER: I love it and I don't get tired of it. You never know who you're going to meet. You never know what the situation's going to be. You never know what somebody's going to say.

BURBANK: But city officials have a very different view of the boardwalk. Jon Kaney is an attorney representing Daytona Beach.

Mr. JON KANEY (Attorney for Daytona Beach): Were you hit up for a quarter while you were talking down the boardwalk? It's a miracle if you weren't. I was the last time I was down there.

BURBANK: Starting in 1981, when the city commission declared the area blighted, officials have been trying desperately to renovate the waterfront. But the owners of three small boardwalk properties--a go-cart track, a game arcade and the spot where Captain Darrell's sits--say they have no intention of selling.

Mr. KANEY: Silly games like dunk the clown and shooting galleries and such things. This city, this community, cannot escape the reputation as the summit of sleaze unless the owners of those boardwalk properties will cooperate by selling.

BURBANK: But they won't. So the city has gone to court to exercise its right of eminent domain, the law that says governments can force the sale of private land when it's in the public interest. If the city has its way, the property will be sold to a Los Angeles developer who already owns the sparkling new Ocean Walk shopping center just north of Captain Darrell and the other holdouts.

Unidentified Woman: All right, everybody. I'm looking for Alexander(ph), party of four, Briggs(ph), party of three, Knight(ph), party of two, and Callenade(ph), party of two.

BURBANK: At the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, there's an hour-long wait to get a table. The mall's courtyard is filled with middle-class families, many of whom are staying in the adjoining condos. Susan Railey(ph) of Bowling Green, Kentucky, says she used to go to the boardwalk.

Ms. SUSAN RAILEY (Bowling Green, Kentucky): It was beautiful when I was a kid. We came back in the '70s, spent one night and left because it was just filthy, nasty. It was just horrible. It was scary.

BURBANK: Railey sits on a bench in front of a soaring modern Hilton hotel. It casts its shadow over the low-slung boardwalk arcade. Over there, roving groups of teen-age boys and girls eye each other nervously from across the walkway. Compared to the new buildings, the arcade has a distinctly blue-collar feel, which his how Danny Poth, a locksmith from Atlanta, likes it.

Mr. DANNY POTH (Atlanta): I've been coming down here for the last 10 years every year. I set at the same part--unless the women are on that side. I mean, I would have changed my seat. But still, it's a good area, good little community here. They shouldn't be able to push them away.

BURBANK: Much of the case turns on a 1981 study that found the area blighted. Darrell Hunter and others say the study is outdated. They say the city's real motivation is greed. A new development will generate more taxes. And, they say, the developer is using the loophole of eminent domain to trample their rights. Bill Geary is that would-be developer.

Mr. BILL GEARY (Developer): You know, there are the rights of the majority.

BURBANK: He says this is not about a land grab, it's about improving the city of Daytona Beach.

Mr. GEARY: Remember, this is at the city's doorstep. This is a tourist town. I mean, how can this be?

BURBANK: Geary's also quick to point out that back in the 1990s when Darrell Hunter was himself a city commissioner, he voted to use eminent domain to make way for the Ocean Walk complex. Hunter now says that was a mistake, one he doesn't want to see repeated.

Mr. HUNTER: Daytona Beach is a place where the working-class people could afford to come to. Now is it that they want big fancy hotels? Do they want to have to pay $35 for a bucket of oysters? Is that what they want?

BURBANK: Attorney Jon Kaney says the goal isn't to fashion Daytona Beach into something it's not but rather to turn it back into something it was.

Mr. KANEY: When the ideal American family would drive to Daytona Beach in a woody Ford station wagon, kids' little legs sticking out the back window, and it was safe and clean and happy.

BURBANK: During the trial, Geary testified he could build around the boardwalk arcade if he was forced to, but it would be a hardship.

Meanwhile, back at the boardwalk, another long sweaty night of selling gator nuggets, oysters and cold beer is drawing to close for Captain Darrell.

Do you worry that you could be shutting it down for the last time?

Mr. HUNTER: We don't want to think that way. I mean, it's like, you know, if you die, who do you want your wife to marry? Do you want to think about that?

BURBANK: Hunter may need to give it some thought, though, soon. The matter now rests with a Florida judge who's expected to rule on the case sometime in August.

Luke Burbank, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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