Jim Dolan held onto the center console of his 17-foot boat and threw the car keys to his girlfriend Jenny Fiore. Before starting the engine, he let the Aquasport drift a few yards from the boat ramp.
"Pull up and park at the easiest spot,'' he yelled. Fiore waved through the car window as she pulled the Suburban and boat trailer to an extra-long parking space. Dolan gave her the thumbs-up sign from his position in the boat. "Honey, you're becoming an expert,'' he joked.
Although the grand opening for the Belleair Beach Causeway Bridge is not scheduled until April 26, the public has been allowed to launch boats and fish off the docks and seawalls for the last several weeks. And for Dolan, who grew up in Largo, the refurbished Belleair Causeway Boat Ramp makes "being a boater totally easier,'' he said.
"And I'm hearing mostly good things about it from my friends who have used the ramp for years as well,'' said Dolan.
The Pinellas County facility, perched next to the new $72.3 million, state-of-the-art bridge, includes 108 boat trailer parking spaces, 98 passenger car spaces, a fishing pier, four docks and 10 boat launches. It will be open 24 hours.
Although Fiore believes a high point is "the fact that the county kept dog beach open,'' Dolan said it's all about "the geometric design of the parking spaces.'' "I especially like the way it is laid out with longer spaces right at the launches," he said. "We can slide ride up, hop out of the car and be on our way.''
Claudio Trebbi, a Clearwater Beach resident, believes the parking will help busy launching days run more smoothly. However, Trebbi, who has fished on the seawalls near the bridge for more than 20 years, is disappointed in the new parking fees.
According to Marq Caughell, Pinellas County spokesman, once the equipment is installed, new parking fees will indeed go into effect. Patrons will be required to pay $2 per day for passenger vehicles and $6 per day for vehicles and trailers.
"All county parks charge a fee for parking at boat ramps,'' said Caughell. "The parking fee is used to cover cost of maintenance and upkeep of the area.''
"It's tough,'' said Trebbi. "We're already paying the state for a fishing license, and now we are required to pay for parking."
Trebbi also hopes the county will install a bait house. Although the old site included a bait house, and one was included in plans for the new site, the county decided last year to cut the structure out of its three-year plan for capital improvement projects.
According to Caughell, the public can expect to see a portable concession stand set up in the coming months. "A portable concessionaire will be put in place to sell bait, beverages and snacks, but a permanent facility will not be part of the plan for at least several years,'' said Caughell.
And what about those boaters — kayakers and windsurfers — who do not require the bigger ramps to launch?
Steve LeVine, a resident of Indian Rocks Beach, is an avid windsurfer. He considers the causeway part of his family history.
"I've been to the new boat ramps, and I think they did an excellent job,'' said LeVine, who owns Watersports West in Largo. "But for over 60 years, kayakers and windsurfers had access to launch on the southwest side of the bridge, and that's gone. I hope the work will continue.''