Torpedoed on the Tamiami Trail

Long a staple of the Everglades tourist's itinerary, the airboat tour takes a direct hit from the feds

Kennon won't divulge the amount of the park service's initial offer but says he has heard nothing further from them. Three months ago the government reappraised his property, and he's expecting a second offer any day. "I'm assuming it's not going to be much better," he muses. "And if they're not going to offer me a concession, I'm not accepting."

Kennon is hoping to win through sheer obstinacy. It worked before. Coopertown was founded by his cousins in 1945, after they moved down from Missouri when World War II ammo plants started to lay off workers. Three brothers by the last name of Cooper pitched tents on the site of an Indian camp and lived in the open for the first two years. "You had to be a tough individual to survive out here," Kennon comments.

In 1975 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to blow up a bridge that John Cooper had built to get his clients across the Tamiami Canal. Cooper's girlfriend took her rocking chair to the bridge and sat there for ten days until the government gave up. The bridge still stands.

So far two of Kennon's neighbors have sold their properties. The owner of Frog City, which also offered airboat tours, moved up north. Ned Williams, who owned the bait and tackle shop up the road, is now a hardware salesman at Home Depot.

Williams bought his store in 1967 and kept it until last June. He remembers the hunters setting up camps along the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley a week before the season opened; they'd pitch tents along the levees and there would be bonfires as far as the eye could see.

"It was wonderful," he recalls. "It was fresh air and no problems and everyone was in a good mood." People came for weekend recreation, to hunt or fish or cruise the shallow canals, or they came for months at a time, secluding themselves on hammocks and constructing rustic campgrounds and elaborate hunting lodges. During the good years, Williams says, he grossed $250,000.

But toward the end of the Eighties, business began to fall off. There was the mercury scare -- scientists warned that Everglades fish were dangerous to eat. "That was the beginning of the end," Williams says. "It just changed. There weren't as many animals. Not so many birds came south. The tree snails weren't as plentiful."

When the government made him an offer -- $180,000 for a little over half an acre -- he was relieved. "All I could see was more people leaving and more regulations," he says. Even though the National Park Service refused to compensate him for his business, he figured their offer was the best he could do. "If I had chosen to go to court, I would have had to pay lawyers' fees. It would have been a two- or three-year battle, and I would have lost anyway."

Richard Farace, Jr., whose father owns the Everglades Safari Park, the largest airboat establishment on the Tamiami Trail, didn't want to discuss his family's negotiations with the government. But he says he's hoping to remain in business.

"Who wants to work in the city?" he grins. "It's a rat race.

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