TREASURE ISLAND — Surfers and paddle boarders will soon have a more efficient way to check on whether the surf is up.
A webcam will soon be installed on the city's newly renovated Sunset Beach pavilion and shown on Suncoast Surf Shop's website. Instead of driving to the island to check out the swells, surfers will be able to just switch on their computers.
City commissioners have given the go-ahead for a six-month trial to see how installing a private webcam on its pavilion will work. Commissioners are hoping initial concerns about privacy and traffic won't result in any problems.
"Let's see how it rolls out," said Commissioner Tim Ramsberger, a surfer who sees advantages to a panning webcam that monitors surf activity. "We hope our concerns don't become problems."
Joanna Braddock, manager of Suncoast Surf Shop, thinks the webcam will be a win-win for the shop and the community.
"We don't see this as a way to generate money," she said. "We see this as a community service. Surfers want to know what is going on and this could provide residual benefits to hotels and shops on the island."
The shop, which opened its doors in 1966, now has a dedicated phone line — (727) 363-7873 (363-SURF) — that people can call to check on beach conditions. Often serious surfers and paddle boarders make quick trips to the beach in their cars when the wind is up in hopes of finding rideable waves.
A webcam would make those trips unnecessary, Braddock said, along with daily trips to update the phone line advisory.
"The swells in the afternoon or morning are so short-lived and the window of opportunity is so small, that's why having a webcam is so important," she said.
The $3,000 cost to install the webcam will be shared between the shop and Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that protects shoreline activity. Advertising will be sold to help cover the costs, Braddock said.
Commissioners have gotten calls from residents worried the webcam will attract more traffic to the island and could pose privacy concerns, photographing people on the beach or nearby private property as it scans.
But city attorney Maura Kiefer told commissioners that as long as the webcam is located in a public place there should be no expectation of privacy.
Braddock had hoped the city would consider linking to the webcam on its website but Mark Santos, information technology director with the city, said that won't happen.
He has no objection to a straight feed from the camera, but the link would go to a Web page with advertising, something the city couldn't control.
"We don't want people to think we sponsor the businesses," he said. With taxpayer dollars at stake, the city can't take the chance that a business that might be controversial would be included, Santos said.
The shop will pay a $35 monthly fee through the licensing agreement with the city and Braddock is hoping enough money will be made through advertising to cover the costs.
Despite the city's refusal to link to the webcam, Braddock says other businesses will be offered free access to the nonaudio camera feed.
"It makes sense. Who doesn't want to see how beautiful the beach is?" she said.
Braddock and shop owner Joe Nuzzo think city leaders aren't realizing the potential of the webcam as a tourist draw.
"It could be a valuable marketing tool for the city," Braddock said. "Everybody wants it. I've had zero negative feedback. Literally everybody I talk to thinks it's great."
"People like the idea of being able to sit home in Canada and watch the beach in Treasure Island," he said.
Commissioner Alan Bildz, who represents Sunset Beach, was originally wholeheartedly in favor of the idea but now wants to review the situation after the camera has been working for six months.
"Boy, did I get an earful," he said of the calls he received when residents learned of the webcam. Many were concerned about increased traffic.
But Ramsberger actually thinks the webcam could reduce trips to the beach.
"This could help us notify surfers that the beach is closed during storms," he said. "It might help us manage the situation better."