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Hubbards try to keep John's Pass Village afloat in face of money, vacancy, oil worries


As oil washes onto Pensacola beaches, Patricia Hubbard is everywhere: a town hall meeting called by a state lawmaker, a visit from Gov. Charlie Crist. Her plea: Help me save my family's business.

Out of the spotlight, she has lost her condo, given up her hairdresser, shut down the office and slashed her own pay. She moved in with a son; two of her siblings have moved in with Mom.

She's trying to keep Hubbard businesses from foreclosure, under the weight of loans that financed a $19.5 million redevelopment just before the economy took a nosedive.

She was supposed to be retired by now.

Eighty years ago, the Hubbards leased a pier in Pass-a-Grille, sold bait and took tourists out to fish in rowboats. Now they own a prominent 2 acres of John's Pass Village, with the Friendly Fisherman restaurant, a marina, a parking garage and shops.

Through the decades, they've been savvy, scrappy and driven. They've worked hard and played harder. When they failed, they often did it publicly. Among Wilson and Lorraine Hubbard's eight children, there have been 11 divorces. Two went to prison on drug charges. One died of an overdose.

Patty, 62, is the oldest daughter. She has clashed over the years with her brother Michael, 63.

They agree on this: The pressures on the business have never been this bad.

They also talk like this: You must stand up straight, pull your stomach in and shoulder through.

• • •

Fifteen years after his death, family lore still revolves around Wilson Hubbard. Born in 1916 to carnival workers, he was the flashy patriarch who made the Hubbard name. Even in a tux, he wore two different colored socks: red for port, green for starboard. Though his father ran the pier business while he was in school and off at war, it was teenage Wilson who had started it one summer, buying rowboats and poles off a local fisherman.

He brought a carnival barker's sensibility to the task of parting tourists from their money. When Pass-a-Grille wouldn't let him build a hotel and John's Pass beckoned with its quicker access to fishing grounds, he moved the business — and cut prices to break his 1970s competition.

He was 6 feet 3 and tan in his khakis and captain's hat. His wife, Lorraine, from Chicago, was 5-10. You never saw her without makeup, crisply dressed.

"They were something to behold," Patty says.

Between 1946 and 1963, they had eight kids. The first four lived in a rustic prefab house on Pine Key, the island since dredged and filled and reborn as Tierra Verde. The second four knew only two homes on Casablanca Drive: the first 1,400 square feet of squat stucco, the second twice the size across from the Don CeSar.

Patty remembers helping to sell shrimp when she was 5, and later handwriting checks for her mother to sign when she paid bills from the dining room table.

• • •

Now the Hubbard children — seven since they buried Jimmy in 1977 — have 22 children themselves. A dozen family members work for Hubbard Enterprises, Hubbard Properties and Hubbard's Marina. The companies employ 100 people.

Lorraine is chairman of the board. Patty runs the finances, and several of her siblings are involved: Mark is president and owns the marina; Kathleen runs the restaurant; Jacqueline is corporate secretary. Michael, who ran the companies for 11 years, is retired.

Hubbards ebb and flow from the business. All the kids worked there at some point, and many of the grandkids. The redevelopment project was supposed to be their passage to retirement. One day, they would say, their ship would come in.

They would rebuild, pull out of day-to-day operations of the marina and restaurant, and become landlords.

"Land barons!" Jacqueline jokes.

But it was one thing to say that, and another to imagine other people in their kitchen, or running their marina.

They built, they fought for each piece. One running battle with the city over construction on the first floor of the restaurant spanned two decades.

It was hard to imagine Hubbards outside Hubbard Enterprises.

"It's something that defines us," Patty says.

But any retirement plans imploded with the economy. Tenants left, money got tight. Instead of less work, it was more, for less pay. No family member has seen a dividend since 2006.

The family had taken out loans, commercial and personal, to redevelop, even mortgaging their mother's home on Casablanca Drive. The math would have worked out fine with a healthy economy, a temperate winter, a construction-free John's Pass Bridge, an oil-free gulf.

In the end, their ship came in — but, a grandson said, full of pirates.

"We could not grasp that these series of things — one after another — could happen," Patty says.

So she's talking with tenants. Two up for renewal. Two new national chains. Three more businesses with serious interest. No actual negotiations yet for a new gaming boat, but discussion.

One of those national tenants has its own local ties. Michael says Hooters, born in Clearwater, may lease the whole upper level boardwalk, 6,000 square feet.

"You have to hold yourself together, and you have to keep plugging away," Patty says. "There is no alternative. This is our family."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at

Through the years

1916: Wilson Hubbard is born "on the road" in Memphis. His mother was Madame Anna, a carnival fortune- teller. His cardsharp father, George, handled the carnival's bookings.

1929: The Hubbards decide to stay in Pass-a-Grille after the carnival closes against the backdrop of the market crash.

1930: The Hubbard family leases Hubbard's Pier in St. Pete Beach, now Merry Pier, selling bait and taking out fishing parties.

1941: Wilson, a graduate of St. Petersburg High and St. Petersburg Junior College, flies in World War II. His dad takes over the business until his death in 1945, when Wilson gets home from war with $20,000 in poker winnings and buys his first charter boat.

1946: Wilson marries Lorraine Walls. They pay $500 for two lots on Pine Key, now Tierra Verde, and carry prefab house pieces over by boat.

1952: The Hubbards, with four children, move to Pass-a-Grille. Gulf Boulevard was two lanes — "idyllic," their oldest daughter says.

1954: Wilson buys a 65-foot charter boat he renames the Miss Pass-a-Grille.

Late 1950s: At Shell Island, Hubbard begins one of the west coast's first porpoise shows.

1976: The Hubbards leave Pass-a-Grille for John's Pass in Madeira Beach, where Wilson launches a price war with rival boat owners: "I'll hold them down as long as I have to. Until I go broke, if I have to."

1977: The Hubbards' 23-year-old son, Jimmy, is found dead after a night of drinking and drugs. He's described as the "good-looking, popular son of a widely known beach charter boat captain."

1978: The family opens the Friendly Fisherman restaurant.

1980: Madeira Beach builds a boardwalk at John's Pass.

1985: Mike Hubbard, one of five Hubbard children involved in the business, credits the John's Pass location for the family's success. "We can't do anything wrong," he said. The restaurant grossed $1.6 million in 1984, up from $150,000 in 1978.

Dec. 1, 1994: Wilson Hubbard dies at 78.

1998: Hubbard Enterprises gets permission to use the bottom floor of the restaurant as a tavern, a battle with the city since the early 1980s. "I remember Capt. Hubbard," board member Robert Fedor said. "You gave him an inch and he took a mile. He had a pirate's mentality about that. But this is an era of compromise."

2003: Hubbard Enterprises plans a multimillion-dollar redevelopment on nearly 2 acres at John's Pass Village that will include a five-level parking garage, restaurants and new retail space.

February 2008: A grand opening celebration is the culmination of the $19.5 million project that includes 40,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

November 2009: The economy hits the project hard, and tenants fail. Ninety percent occupancy drops to 60 percent.

June 2010: In the wake of the gulf oil spill, Patricia Hubbard bemoans a 32 percent drop in sales. She predicts her business, family-run for four generations, might not survive. "We were making it, we were surviving, but we were surviving on a wing of prayer," she said. "And BP has clipped our wings."

Hubbards try to keep John's Pass Village afloat in face of money, vacancy, oil worries 06/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 9:58am]
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