Visiting Clearwater Beach in the 1990s: You drive your family down from Michigan or Ohio, and stay a week or two in your favorite little mom-and-pop motel, renting a room with a kitchenette for $60 a night.
Visiting Clearwater Beach today: You jet in from London or Berlin or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You check into a $600-a-night suite in a luxury high-rise resort. What to do first? Book a massage in the spa? Grab a cabana on the pool deck? Dine on lobster in the four-star restaurant?
Okay, so the difference isn't quite that stark for every visitor. But the face of Clearwater Beach continues to change, and not everyone likes it.
Two more upscale resorts for affluent travelers are under construction, adding to the beach's roster of high-end properties. The old-Florida-style mom-and-pop motels that once dotted the shoreline have largely disappeared.
Some complain that the working- and middle-class tourists who built this beach destination are being priced out of it. They fear that some other Pinellas County beaches could go down this path someday.
The changes are partly due to economics — namely, the price of land on a world-class beach. But they're also the direct result of Clearwater's long-standing plan to modernize its tourist district.
"There are going to be questions that are asked: Why are we doing this to Clearwater? Why are we no longer the sleepy town?" Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos told a crowd during a recent groundbreaking ceremony for a Wyndham Grand luxury resort. The mayor answered his own question: "It's progress."
That resort's owner, Tampa philanthropist Kiran Patel, spoke of a five-star resort luring travelers who now flock to Naples, Marco Island or Miami. He predicted it would boost the local tax base.
"Will everyone appreciate the development impact? I am sure some will not," said Patel, a native of India. "There will surely be a change in the general feel of the beach. There will be many more new accents heard in the shops and restaurants — accents like mine, for instance — as new international visitors begin to come here."
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On the flip side, some of Clearwater Beach's dwindling number of 1950s-era motels are struggling to survive. Most vanished a decade ago because of rising property taxes, insurance costs and a condominium boom.
Take the New Yorker Motel, a two-story hideaway on Hamden Drive with 16 rooms and a pool. Efficiencies there rent for as little as $80 a night. It's in the shadow of the massive Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach, which looms over it like a 17-story pink castle and charges $350 to $700.
Edward and Bozena Czaicki, the motel's owners for 15 years, can barely pay taxes and utilities. They can't afford flood insurance. They do everything themselves, from cleaning rooms to making repairs to staffing the front desk.
"It's getting harder and harder. We had much more clientele when we got here," Bozena Czaicki said. "Clearwater Beach is so famous. The guests that used to come here say it's too crowded. They go to Sarasota or farther south. We are the ones who are feeling the pressure."
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Clearwater Beach's march toward modernity began in 2007 with the Sandpearl Resort, which boasts a lagoon-style pool, therapeutic spa treatments and crushed pearls in its walls.
In 2010 came the Hyatt Regency, a 1-million-square-foot resort with air-conditioned pool cabanas. Movie stars stayed there to shoot the Dolphin Tale films.
Opening next year is the Opal Sands Resort, owned by the company that owns Sandpearl. By 2017 it will be joined by the Wyndham Grand, which is to be the largest structure ever built at Clearwater Beach.
This redevelopment was sparked by a city strategy allowing taller hotels and by BeachWalk, a $30 million landscaped limestone promenade. Clearwater installed it to replace beachside parking lots and to boost the beach's curb appeal.
Clearwater's leaders say these changes were necessary to rejuvenate what had been an outdated tourist destination. Visitors who aren't wealthy still have places to stay, they add.
"We felt the beach could be better served with high-end resorts that would bring a more upscale clientele," said Clearwater's longtime city manager, Bill Horne. "Not to exclude the mom-and-pop crowd. The most well-managed mom-and-pops would remain, and those that weren't doing so well would make room for new limited-service hotels."
He noted that Clearwater has been dangling incentives to bring in more mid-priced hotels.
"We have a nice variety of accommodations and a lot of smaller properties that stay full all the time," said Darlene Kole, director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Some of the remaining mom-and-pop motels are thriving. Kole also points to a selection of mid-range chain hotels. Rooms in those can rent in the mid $100s to low $200s per night.
And while more Europeans are visiting the beach, she said the ongoing tourism boom is also fueled by Midwesterners booking cheap flights on Allegiant Air, a budget carrier that flies into St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
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Far from the swanky resorts and their valet parking stands, a group of gray-haired vacationers gather on a sunlit dock to fish for their dinner at the East Shore Resort, a 14-unit motel on the Intracoastal Waterway in north Clearwater Beach. They prefer to stay in a place like this.
"It's a very homey atmosphere, more of a family. We have cookouts," said Leo Miller, a 75-year-old from Michigan. "If you're in a high-rise, sometimes you never know your neighbors."
The resort's owner, Billy Day, hates to see the character of the beach change. "The people that came and built this whole beach and brought it to the level that it's at — many of them can't afford to stay here anymore."
Nevertheless, tourism officials praise Clearwater Beach's transformation. In their view, BeachWalk and Pier 60 Park make the beach publicly inviting.
"Clearwater made a decision years ago to reinvent their beach, and what they did is commendable," said David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas' tourism marketing agency. "The market is going to control what's built out there."
That's cold comfort to someone like Marlyn Tracey, who runs a 45-year-old convenience store next to the Wyndham Grand construction site. The Anchor Mini-Mart is so old-school that it won't take debit cards.
Tracey has lost business to more-modern competitors like Walgreens and Surf Style, and might have to sell. She does have a backup plan, though.
"I'll put in a Harley-Davidson club. We'll have 50 motorcycles coming in and out every day, revving it so loud that the cherries in their martinis rattle."
Contact Mike Brassfield at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.