Last Updated: Monday, May 21, 2012
“There was a huge seahorse, a concrete seahorse, out front,” said Tom Winter, whose parents owned the old building. “They would sell conch shells, and I guess today you’d call it a tourist trap. It was a very popular place.”
Winter said years ago, before I-75 and U.S. 301, the only way to go south toward Sarasota was through the city of Palmetto on U.S. 41.
During that drive, motorists would pass the Seahorse, which was owned by Winters’ parents, Ed and Evelyn Winter.
They opened the Seahorse Gift Shop in 1953. No one traveling over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, built in 1954, could miss it.
It was marked with a giant statue of a seahorse to attract visitors.
Specializing in converting shells to gifts, the employees designed anything from earrings to table lamps.
Families from all over came to not only shop, but to also see exotic pets, which included alligators, rattlesnakes, monkeys and a macaw named Scarlett.
Ed Winter baffled tourists by milking rattlesnakes in the parking lot. The Winters operated the Sea Horse Gift Shop until 1966, when it was sold to R. Daniel Harrell. Harrell owned it until 1976.
When the bridge approaches were being prepared for a highway expansion of the new bridge, the building was torn down.
City officials are now hoping to bring the Seahorse’s memory back to life, along with the excitement that attracted so many to the section of town. The new building will feature a seahorse as the wind vane.
Palmetto mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said it’s part of a big plan to improve the area.
“This has become obsolete,” she said. “It needs replacing. It’s part of a bigger picture.”
Bryant said they’d like to remove the bait shop currently located on the property, and replace it with a small café that will be repositioned near the seawall. The current bait shop has been vacant for over five years and attracts loiters in its existing dilapidated condition.
Half of the building is located on state property, while the other half is situated on a parcel owned by the city. This has caused issues for people wishing to lease the property in the past.
After the CRA razes the building, the new café will be repositioned on city property near the seawall with seating overlooking Regatta Point Marina and the Palmetto Boat Ramp.
“This piece of property is one of the most scenic in the city,” CRA Director Jeff Burton said. “We want to partner with the private sector and turn it into something more; we will be looking for the right candidate to lease the building.”
The new building has tentatively been named “The Seahorse,” as homage to the old gift shop by the same name that once stood on this land. Winter, said hearing this news, made him happy.
“To keep that heritage of Palmetto, it’s quite an honor,” Burton said. “I’m very honored that’s being done.”
“The Seahorse” will have approximately 3,200 square-feet of available space for concession, indoor and outdoor dining and a retail establishment designed to sell bait and tackle.
Appropriately, a seahorse will be on top of the new building, for all to see.
Charlie Ugarte, the architect working on the project, grew up going to the old store. He said he’s thrilled to be working on this project.
“The building will be done in a style that we think has traits that will respect the history of Palmetto,” Ugarte said.
He used a compass as inspiration for The Seahorse building design. The structure will have a tin roof and a cupola that will allow for natural ventilation.
“You can approach this building from four directions and each one of them seemed to be equally important,” said Ugarte. “There isn’t a front or back, instead the building needed to be aesthetically pleasing from the river, pier, parking area and the Green Bridge. That is where the four compass points came in.”
Over the next few months, the city will issue a request for proposal, or RFP, through a bidding process to operate in the new building.
Interested businesses are encouraged to submit an offer on a specific commodity or service they plan to provide.
Ugarte said that while the shell of “The Seahorse” will be undeviating, he is open to working with a potential renter to adapt the interior plans to better suit their business.
“We recognize that the organization of the floor plan is important and understand that it will most likely evolve,” said Ugarte.
The issue will go before the Palmetto City Commission today for approval. If approved, construction will begin in August or September.
The project will cost an estimated $350,000. The city’s CRA is paying for it.