Graphic illustration by Mason Guttery/Gulf Breeze News ¦ 50 years of growth, development, perseverance make our community special
I t was a warm, somewhat humid Thursday evening when Dr. C.J. Heinberg stood on the grounds of the town’s elementary school and raised his right hand before Judge Woodrow W. Melvin and was sworn in as the first mayor of Gulf Breeze.
The Aug. 10, 1961 outdoor ceremony atop a flat-bed truck trailer in front of hundreds of well-wishers marked the birth of a city destined to become a robust commercial and residential suburban community with a major, four-lane U.S. highway bringing new residents and visitors from across the country.
Five decades after Heinberg’s induction, Gulf Breeze has grown to a city of 5,763 residents with a world-class medical complex, a rising international Internet security company, a highly successful financial bonding company, first-class educational opportunities, and some of the world’s most beautiful bays and beaches.
Dr. C.J. Heinberg (left) is administered the oath of office as Gulf Breeze’s first mayor by Judge Woodrow Melvin on Aug. 10, 1961. University of West Florida archives Gulf Breeze is blessed with a low crime rate, outstanding recreational facilities, affordable taxes and Santa Rosa County’s most affluent citizenry. Residents stroll the streets and ride their bikes in relative safety, and neighbors still speak to one another under canopies of twisting live oak trees and draping Spanish moss.
“I’ve lived in New York and Los Angeles and traveled around the world,” beloved resident Ann Martin Brodie recently said. “The best living, without a doubt, is right here in Gulf Breeze.”
Brodie visited the peninsula as a young girl as early as 1933 and officially became a resident of Eufaula Avenue in 1960. she attended the 1961 swearing in of Heinberg and four other founding fathers – Allan Davis, Wayne Lee, Michael Batz and John Schilf. she watched the year before as a new four-lane bay bridge replaced the old, two-lane bridge that had been in service since 1931.
Brodie shopped the stores of the Benson Complex – stores like Bokas Pharmacy, which opened in 1956, the Friendly Service grocery store and, in later years, Greenfield’s clothing store and the Tastee Freeze ice-cream shop, just to name a few.
Ironically, the first vestige of Gulf Breeze’s commercial growth from the 1950s will be demolished within mere days of the city’s 50th anniversary to make way for more modern development.
The city has weathered many storms – including Hurricanes Elena, Opal, Erin, Dennis and the granddaddy of them all, Ivan – through the years. The area was greatly affected by the recession of 2009 and the Gulf oil spill of 2010. The economic picture appears to be brightening with several new businesses in various stages of opening here.
The next 50 years hold as much promise – if not more – than the first 50 delivered.
“I’m gratified by the progress the city has made,” said Ed Gray III, a former four-term mayor and nine-year member of the Santa Rosa School Board.
“We’ve maintained our quality of life and our close-knit community despite the transition and growth of the area including the fact that U.S. 98 has gotten even busier. more than 50,000 cars a day pass through our city.
“There was a time when I worried about our area developing a ‘we versus they’ mentality with the growth to our east,” Gray added. “But that hasn’t happened. There’s a homogenous feeling between Gulf Breeze the city and the areas through Tiger Point and Midway because so much involves the two areas and activities overlap.
“You might not live within the city limits of Gulf Breeze, but you probably are happy to claim Gulf Breeze as your home, and that’s good. That’s the way it ought to be.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 23.5 square miles that includes a mere 4.8 square miles of land contrasted with 18.8 square miles of water in Santa Rosa Sound, Pensacola Bay and East Bay. with the federally preserved Gulf Islands National Seashore to the city’s east, expansion in the city is stymied.
Census population figures have remained remarkably consistent since 1970, when 4,190 residents lived here. By 1980, that figure had grown to 5,478; in 1990, it was 5,530; and in 2000 the population was 5,665. Numbers appear to grow by about 100 residents per decade.
As some of Gulf Breeze’s older generations make other living arrangements, Gray expects more homes to go on the real estate market in the city. that should result in a new influx of younger couples with children and spending power.
“I see the tide turning back where the emptynester households are becoming homes that people are buying because the empty-nester numbers are dwindling or moving into smaller dwellings,” Gray said. “I think you are going to see our population numbers rise, maybe not dramatically but noticeably. we have great schools here and fabulous recreational facilities. It’s a safe community to live in. It’s family oriented. As more houses become available, I see more relocation back into the city.”
Brodie has witnessed the city’s growth and marvels at the fact that cows and goats once used to be the area’s most entrenched residents. she saw the first roads dug out of thick pine woodlands, and she recalls the city’s first significant residential area – the Casa Blanca neighborhood – rise from the sand-based soil.
“Gulf Breeze started to become a community after World War II with the influx of industry like Chemstrand in Pensacola,” she said. “William Coe and Millard Gilmore saw the impact that would have and bought tremendous acreage and they developed Casa Blanca. that was 1950, the ‘beginning’ of Gulf Breeze.”
Brodie still lives in the same elegantly decorated concrete-block home on Eufaula Avenue that she first occupied with late husband, Scott, in 1960. There, she heard the terrible news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. she also watched from her living room television as man first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Ditto for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Those events, however, occurred far away from Gulf Breeze. Brodie feels safe here with several military bases in the area. she remembers the alleged unidentified flying object phenomenon that enveloped the community in the mid 1980s. she, like many others, spent many nights peering into the skies overhead in search of alien spacecraft.
“we would run out and look at the heavens,” she recalled. “we were amazed and amused. The ‘Sentinel’ (newspaper) had front-page photos of UFOs, and other newspapers tried to discredit the people who thought they were visited. I still don’t know what to make of all of that.”
Adefining moment in the city’s history came in 1985 when the Gulf Breeze Hospital opened its doors. in June 2010, the hospital celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“This hospital has certainly been a blessing to this community,” Monsignor Luke Hunt of St. Ann Catholic Church said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since this wonderful hospital started here in Gulf Breeze. It’s been my privilege to see it start here and see it celebrate 25 years. You see so much good that has happened in our community and to our people over the past 25 years because of the foresight of Baptist Hospital.”
Brodie called the hospital’s arrival as a landmark establishment for Gulf Breeze.
“Hospitals,” she said, “give their communities a base point. it benefitted not only us but Pensacola Beach as well. You see what it did for them; they no longer had to cross two bridges to get to a hospital.”
Within the next half-decade, the state will start to replace the aging Pensacola Bay Bridge. Gray and Brodie agree that the new, wider bridge will have a major impact on the city for decades to come. both fear that even more traffic through the city will be a detriment to our quality of life.
“I’d like to see another facility that takes traffic out of the mainstream we see now,” Gray said. “we get a tremendous amount of traffic and probably 25 to 30 percent of it on any given day is not coming to Gulf Breeze; it’s going to Fort Walton, Destin or Panama City.
“we need to create a new pathway for that traffic to go. some businesses worry that if you create a different traffic pattern, it’s going to hurt them. But I submit that they are hurt by too much traffic rather than (the prospect of) too little.”
Brodie said businesses have long appreciated beach-bound travelers who stop in Gulf Breeze to buy snacks, sun-tan lotion and other supplies.
“But this community as it stands today is not able to truly accommodate that amount of through-traffic we have going back and forth. it divides what we have in a very marked way. Very few people stop.
“I don’t know the outcome of the bridge debate, but I do wish they would consider all the alternatives.”
Although Wednesday officially and quietly marked the city’s 50th anniversary, events celebrating the occasion are planned in the days and weeks to come. Asemi-formal gala honoring individuals who have significantly impacted the area will be held at St. Ann Catholic Church on Saturday, Aug. 20.
After the weather cools, a community picnic featuring fun for the entire family will be held Oct. 22 at South Shoreline Park. There will be musical entertainment, fireworks and lots of food.
The Gulf Breeze Historical Society has produced a keepsake picture book that will be available to the community, and Gulf Breeze News will published a commemorative magazine on Oct. 13 to coincide with the city’s picnic celebration.
2010Population . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5,763Men . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2,794 (48.5%)Women . . . . . . . . . . . . .2,969 (51.5%)Caucasian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5,518Latino/other . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .143Asian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .82African-American . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20