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Shrinking slice of old Florida

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Kappy Kirk remembers the week her town was born, in the summer of 1949. To make way for an upscale development at Caxambas, at the southern end of Marco Island, the Collier Corp. jacked up the bungalows that were there and hauled them 4 miles west, from the edge of the sparkling Gulf of Mexico to an Indian shell mound in the mangroves called Goodland.

"We had breakfast at Caxambas and dinner that night right here in Goodland," Mrs. Kirk, 86, said Tuesday as she sat in the living room of that very same home.

Caxambas is now a manicured Marco Island neighborhood called the Estates, where waterfront mansions on generous lots sell for $6-million.

Goodland evolved, too, but in a slower and vastly different way. Most of the original wooden bungalows are still here. The lots are tiny, and many of the waterfront homes are single-wide mobile homes.

It's 1 square mile but boasts five bars. It was built on commercial fishing and has just about 400 full-time residents. Goodland is an outpost of fast-fading Old Florida, where everyone seems to know each other and the most common business sign is an old boat on blocks with its name on the side.

But change is coming, fast.

The sign on the main road announcing 52 new luxury townhomes, selling for up to $600,000, attests to that. Goodland is just too cute, too close to the water and too close to the swanky enclaves of Marco Island and Naples to stay the same.

Somebody dies or moves, and somebody rich buys her place. Locals lament that you can hardly look at a lot for less than $100,000 these days, even a 50-by-100-foot lot away from the water with a scrubby mobile home. Empty lots on the water sell for up to $400,000.

It's an old Florida story: a charming village, discovered and gentrified till the charm is gone.

Goodlanders hope to be the exception. They won new restrictions on building height and density, and a new land use plan protects some of the Goodland touches that would be anathema in most of Collier County. Crab traps are okay in front yards. Boats and trailers are welcome in driveways. So are commercial vehicles.

Still, many residents lament the little change they've seen already, and they fear what's coming. Several mobile homes and small houses have been razed to make way for large, three-story homes. As he worked shirtless on the roof of a bungalow last week, carpenter Jared Kelley said he has watched property values soar, and he worries that Goodland will evolve into a place of "haves, and the have-nots . . . and that it will all eventually just go."

"A lot of the old-timers are dying, and the developers, they don't (care)," said Kelley, 43, a 23-year resident. "Used to be a lot of them were afraid to come because there were a lot of rough goings-on. Rough fishermen, the real have-nothing type of people. But most of those people are gone."

A friend, Jeff Baggett, wandered by as he spoke. Baggett fished commercially here until the net ban in 1995. Now he cuts fish at Paradise Shrimp Co. on Marco Island. He wore a white T-shirt proclaiming, "Goodland, Fla. A drinking village with a fishing problem." He is 38 and has lived here 15 years.

"It's coming. It's already coming. There's no way to stop it," Baggett said. "People pay us good money, and we get to wake up here. That's a good thing at least. At least I got to see it before."

But there's another side, too. "Some of the old-timers," said Elhannon Combs, 79, a resident since 1955, "they're sitting back and smiling, saying pretty soon I'm going to get some money out of my place."

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It's only 2 miles from Goodland to the nearest gated condo complex in Marco Island, but it's a long 2 miles. As you leave Marco on State Route 92 heading west for the Tamiami Trail, Goodland is to the right just before the bridge, down a narrow, windy road flanked with mangroves.

A visitor to Marco Island is greeted by perfect green lawns dotted with crinum lilies and pastel, stucco homes with barrel tile roofs and screened pool decks, and a bank of high-rise hotels and condos that hides the gulf beach from view.

The visitor to Goodland is greeted by a mural of endangered Florida species on the water tank and a sign warning drivers to watch out for bicyclists.

Marco Island sips cocktails and perspires in the July heat. Goodland slugs beer and sweats. In Marco, it's taboo to park a boat in a driveway. In Goodland, boats seem to outnumber cars.

The Marco tourist has a choice of luxury hotels owned by national chains. The Goodland tourist can choose between the Village Inn Motel and the Pink House Motel.

Guests who need to make a call can use the pay phone out front.

The people are friendly and everything is within walking distance. "Hell, you can't get lost in Goodland," said Combs, owner of the Mar-Good Resort, an RV park and marina. "Unless you get real good and drunk."

Goodland is a half-hour south of Naples, where Southwest Florida disintegrates into the 10,000 Islands. Its watery location and clannish nature made the area a haven for smugglers through much of the past four decades, and commercial fishermen occasionally came home with "square grouper" _ bales of marijuana found floating in the maze of mangroves.

Fishing sustained this village until the net ban of 1995. While crabs and grouper remain important, residents increasingly include artists, tradesmen and retirees from up North.

Land prices have steadily risen in the past decade, and the wintertime population swells to about 1,000. But Mike Barbush, president of the Goodland Civic Association, said the first sign that big change was afoot came six years ago, when a crabber was cited for storing traps in his front yard.

"You know that something's happening when we get code enforcement," Barbush said.

Goodland is an unincorporated area of Collier County, and the civic association is the closest it has to a government. When members poked around, they learned a developer had all but received county approval for a four-story condominium complex on the largest undeveloped lot in town, a 5-acre jewel called Dolphin Cove.

Residents protested, and the county decided some of the permits had been granted prematurely. The developer threatened to sue, so the County Commission eventually bought the land _ for $4.5-million _ for a park.

Connie Stegall-Fullmer, secretary-treasurer of the civic association, said the experience taught many residents Goodland was just as vulnerable as Key West or Marco or Coconut Grove once had been. Many also realized upscale developers, or the people who bought their property, might not stand for the wacky yard art, the smelly crab traps and the eclectic appearance that gives Goodland much of its charm.

"We can't walk around with blinders on, thinking that development is not going to occur here," Stegall-Fullmer said. "But we're hoping to be able to work with and encourage people who are going to develop here to develop in a style characteristic of . . . the old fishing village and not to overdevelop."

Over the next several years, the civic association pushed the county to restrict new residential construction to just two habitable stories. Meanwhile, all existing houses and mobile homes and businesses were deemed "in compliance" with county regulations, regardless how out of compliance they were before.

Even with these protections, many residents worry the high land prices will attract people who will want to change them. Invariably, the character of the town will change, too.

"Our old folks are dying, our friends are passing. And not only are they passing, they're changing the economy of the village as they pass," Barbush said Monday night, as he sipped a drink at Little Bar, a village favorite. "We're at the end of a 40-year cycle.

"It's hard to say goodbye, but you know things are going to change. Love don't mean nothing when it comes to money."

After all, that's what started Goodland.

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Betsy Perdichizzi, a local historian and author of an upcoming book on the early settlers of the area, said the big Goodland migration, back in 1949, wasn't as unpopular as people might expect.

Most of the original residents of Caxambas were renters, and Barron Collier, the Florida land baron and namesake of Collier County, promised his company would give them their homes and move them for free, she said.

Collier also sold them the Goodland lots for $300 to $1,500, with no down payment and three years to pay, at no interest. Tuesday, as she considered the growth to come, Kappy Kirk considered her own past. "You cannot deny people a place to live just because you don't want to share. That's not right."

Like many of the original families, Kirk is more philosophical about change than newer neighbors. They chafe at telling people what to do with their land and say Goodland has changed for the better over the years.

"The way it was, we caught our rainwater in buckets and the phone went out when the tide came in," said Kenneth Eugene Moss, Kirk's son-in-law, who runs Kirk's Fish Co. "They're against change?"

Kirk's daughter, Tommie Kirk Moss, who will retire this summer after 17 years as the Goodland postmaster, said change is as much a part of Goodland's history as the oldest people here.

For as long as she can remember, whenever she drove over the Goodland Bridge, she has taken note of a picturesque wooden boat grounded in the marsh. For years it was always visible; now she can see it only at low tide, and then only barely, Tommie Moss said. "And I've seen others rot down you can't even find anymore."

A sailboat drifts among the mangroves near Goodland. To the west are the high-rises of Marco Island. Goodland residents have won restrictions on building height and density. Their land use plan allows crab traps in front yards.

Kappy Kirk is one of Goodland's oldest residents and s when the bungalows were moved there.

Wayne Ethier, left, tosses a grouper as Mike Hennessey, the Captain of the Ginger, digs for another on the fishing boat. Ethier, 30, who was born and raised in Goodland, has never been outside Florida. "I have no desire to go up North. There's nothing there for me," he said. Hennessey, 37, originally from Massachusetts, says of Goodland: "Five barrooms and one fish house. It's all we need."

Gerald Nicks, left, of Goodland listens over his morning coffee to Marco Island residents Steward and Elaine Bakley, who often visit Goodland's Mar-Good Resort for breakfast because it's fast and inexpensive. Nicks is a retired commercial fisherman.

After Hennessey returns from a week of fishing, he is greeted by his girlfriend, Kristin Burgess, 27, who is originally from New York but has settled in Goodland. Behind them are Burgess' sister, Jennifer Mee of Naples, and Goodland resident Chris Combs.