TAMPA, Fla. — On a Wednesday morning in Indian Rocks Seashore, out-of-state automobiles line the car parking zone of a public seashore entry level. They bear license plates from Wisconsin, Kentucky and Georgia — a tiny sampling of the hundreds of thousands of vacationers who go to Pinellas County yearly for the tender and sandy shores.

Not more than a five-minute stroll from the water — the place households pitch umbrellas and children play tag with the tide — a gaggle of native residents collect at metropolis corridor for a joint assembly with the 11 mayors that govern Pinellas County’s seashore cities.

Their ask? Make the seashores accessible to all.

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In a area largely outlined by its shoreline, billions of tourism {dollars} are pumped into the native financial system by visiting beachgoers annually.

However for an estimated 117,000 Pinellas County residents with a mobility incapacity — outlined by the Facilities for Illness and Management and Prevention as somebody who has severe issue strolling or climbing stairs — the coveted seashores in their very own backyards stay largely inaccessible.

The sand may be treacherous terrain; tough for the injured or aged and even worse for folks in wheelchairs, when wheels sink into the sand and lock up.

Advocates for folks with mobility challenges say it doesn’t should be that approach.

Mobility mats, nonslip pathways made out of recycled materials that assist people keep away from getting caught within the tender, uneven floor, could make it potential for folks with mobility challenges to entry the seashore. The semi-permanent mats act like a boardwalk anchored to the sand and may be eliminated at any time.

At the moment, solely two mobility mats are put in alongside Pinellas County’s barrier island seashores — one in Treasure Island and one in Indian Rocks Seashore. Now, an area nonprofit is partnering with the cities and the county in hope of seeing extra positioned at seashores round Tampa Bay.

St. Pete Seashore Mayor Al Johnson mentioned that one obstacle to including these mats has been the related prices — a single mat can promote for as a lot as $20,000, and the environmental research and permits required earlier than set up create further bills.

However on the assembly, Ashley Richmond stood earlier than the mayors, holding an enormous verify. In massive textual content, it learn, “FREE MONEY” — greenback quantity: “infinity.”

“We’re right here with what we hope is a proposal you may’t refuse,” mentioned Richmond, a consultant of the incapacity advocacy group Assist Us Collect. “If in case you have a seashore in your neighborhood, and also you need to be extra inclusive and accessible, we’d like to fund it.”

In partnership with the Ahead Basis, a non-public basis primarily based in Clearwater, and the Incapacity Achievement Middle, Richmond mentioned the nonprofits will fund the total price of the mats, the allowing course of and set up for as many seashore entry factors that native cities wish to make extra inclusive.

Richmond mentioned the hope is that funding will take away a layer of crimson tape for native governments who need to transfer ahead with these initiatives — and thus far, it’s working.

“We have to begin speaking once more,” Johnson replied to Richmond through the Wednesday assembly. “With 4 of the highest 20 seashores within the nation alongside Pinellas County, they must be ADA accessible, and it is a large a part of that.”

‘It’s why folks transfer to Florida’

During the last a number of years, in an effort to make Pinellas’ seashores extra accessible, many seashore cities — together with Clearwater and St. Pete Seashore — have acquired specialty wheelchairs with huge ballooned tires that make it potential to roll over sand.

However residents who’ve family members with disabilities, like Marilyn Brettner, mentioned that the wheelchairs are higher in concept than in apply. Brettner’s son, Andrew, has cerebral palsy. He wants specialised lateral help, which he will get by way of a custom-made chair that helps maintain him upright. Switching to a seashore wheelchair isn’t an possibility — mobility mats are the one approach he’ll ever achieve entry to the sand.

And even for folks with mobility challenges who’re ambulatory and will make the change, pushing the chairs over sand is less complicated mentioned than performed, mentioned 61-year-old Tracy Hoel. They’re heavy, and never at all times positioned close to handicap parking or the seashore entry factors.

When Hoel moved from Missouri to Pinellas County along with her daughter Caitlin, she dreamed of watching sunsets over the gulf and time with household and mates on the seashore. However since relocating to Florida about two years in the past, Hoel mentioned that dream has but to be totally realized.

“It’s why folks transfer to Florida, for the seashores,” Hoel mentioned. “However we simply don’t go.”

Caitlin, 30, has Aicardi syndrome, which impacts tissue improvement within the mind. She’s nonverbal and makes use of a wheelchair, however she’s social and adventurous and enjoys time with mates out within the open air. Hoel mentioned the set up of mobility mats at close by seashores would give Caitlin the chance to get pleasure from nature’s choices identical to everyone else.

In Florida’s most densely populated county, the place open house is uncommon and undeveloped land is tough to return by, seashores present a respite from closely trafficked cities. That’s essential for each psychological and bodily well being, mentioned Jody Armstrong, the director of outreach for Incapacity Achievement Middle.

“Once I moved right here in 1999, I moved right here for the sand,” Armstrong mentioned. “There’s only a peace and heat that comes over you on our seashores, and we wish all of our residents to have entry to that.”

Armstrong mentioned she’s been working with the cities and the cities to get mobility mats put in for the final two and a half years. Now that funding is taken care of, she’s seeing extra municipalities transfer ahead with plans.

However the course of shouldn’t be so simple as being greenlit by an area fee, Armstrong mentioned. To put in mats at most places requires a allow from the Florida Division of Environmental Safety. It’s a obligatory step to make sure the mats don’t intrude with seashore wildlife, like sea turtles, however the course of may be tedious and roadblocks can come up.

Indian Shores, for instance, has had mats bought for the final two years. However the city’s allow course of stays incomplete, so nothing has been put in, mentioned info officer Darlyn Stockfisch. In Madeira Seashore, Mayor John Hendricks mentioned he’d just like the city to maneuver ahead with mobility mats, however the Florida Division of Environmental Safety requires they finish 175 toes from the excessive tide water line.

“Nicely, our seashore is just 115 toes extensive, in order that in itself prohibits you from placing one down,” Hendricks mentioned.

Nonetheless, Armstrong mentioned she’s assured there are workarounds, and her group will help the municipalities each step of the way in which. To this point, there are at the very least 10 places across the county, starting from Tarpon Springs to Move-a-Grille — that she mentioned are being thought-about by native officers for mat set up. She’s hopeful extra will comply with.

“With all of this advocacy, with all of this help, we’re seeing that individuals need this,” Armstrong mentioned. “We’re making huge strides.”

An info hole

Past a need for the widespread set up of mobility mats, is a necessity for elevated details about the place current mats are positioned, mentioned Indian Rocks Seashore resident Terry Boatner.

Assist Us Collect estimates there are 30 mobility mats put in in the complete state of Florida. However there isn’t a checklist or map for residents that present the place the mats are positioned in Pinellas County or the broader state. Which means individuals who depend on them for entry, don’t at all times know the place they’re.

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

Boatner and Caulfield moved to a home in Indian Rocks Seashore in 2014. Regardless of dwelling three minutes from the seashore, Caulfield — who has cerebral palsy — has solely been two instances within the final seven years. Each instances had been when a stronger member of the family came over and carried her out to the sand.

“It’s simply unimaginable, in case you have mobility challenges, to entry our seashores,” Boatner mentioned. “It’s such an attractive a part of dwelling in Florida, however folks with disabilities don’t have any entry.”

Boatner, 67, and Caulfield, 46, are lively in incapacity advocacy in Pinellas County. Caulfield was one of many first members of Assist Us Collect when it was based in 2017, and now serves on the board. If there’s a difficulty round accessibility, she’s sometimes on the entrance strains, combating it. They’re folks within the know.

However for the final 4 years, Boatner and Caulfield have lived blocks from one of many solely mobility mats put in in Pinellas County — and neither knew.

Not stunning, given {that a} fast Google search returns no point out of the mat, positioned on the seventeenth Avenue entry off Gulf Boulevard.

“I suppose it wasn’t nicely publicized or I missed the memo,” mentioned Boatner, who realized of the entry level following the assembly with the native mayors. “We gave up making an attempt to go about that point, so we by no means knew about it.”

Boatner mentioned studying concerning the mat was thrilling, however she challenged the Metropolis of Indian Rocks Seashore to make its seashores much more inclusive.

Proper now, the mat put in is sort of a runway, extensive sufficient to roll a single wheelchair down at one time. And sooner or later, the runway all of the sudden ends — there’s nowhere for folks to cease and sit with out blocking the trail out to the seashore.

It may be awkward, Boatner mentioned. If Caulfield had been to exit with a number of mates, they wouldn’t have the ability to sit subsequent to at least one one other. They’d should squeeze in tight collectively or stay in a single-file line.

Boatner mentioned that may be solved by including an extra mat, perpendicular to the one which’s already there, which might permit for small gatherings.

As a result of to Caulfield, entry isn’t nearly time on the seashore.

“It could imply I could possibly be unbiased,” Caulfield mentioned. “I could possibly be on the seashore with my mates.”

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