By Jenni Stahlmann

“The beach is the place where the water meets the land. You’re at the edge of the wilderness, and it’s sort of mysterious. You never know what’s going to wash up. It’s very soothing and relaxing,” says David McRee, third generation Florida native and beach blogger.

A self-dubbed beach bum, McRee travels the state in search of the best beaches Florida has to offer. In his blog, Beachhunter.net, McRee focuses especially on the Gulf Coast beaches from Tampa Bay to Marco Island.

Venice beaches are unique. Primarily dark sand beaches, brimming with fossils and sharks’ teeth, they draw people to the water for a variety of reasons. “Because it’s not a blinding white sand beach,” McRee says, “you get a crowd that’s not necessarily looking for a postcard beach. A lot of people are attracted to Venice because it’s not all built up. It’s not the beach where you have to be all toned and tanned and perfect to fit in. It’s more of a regular-person beach.” And with free parking and easy access to all of its beaches, the water is the unhindered joie de vivre of the town. “Venice just keeps improving the beach access, and you don’t see that too much,” McRee said. “People don’t have to come and fight for a parking space.”

He added, “To get to most beaches in southwest Florida, you have to cross a bridge, but in Venice, the beach is right there, so you don’t feel separated.” Even man’s best friend can be himself on the Venice shores. Brohard Paw Park has been recognized by dog lovers as the best dog-friendly park in the state. With liberty to roam freely in the sand, stop for a swig in the dog drinking fountain and rinse off in the doggie showers, it’s a pooch paradise.

Beachy Business

Perhaps it’s the intimacy between the beach and the town that draws the bathing-suit-clad shoppers to West Venice Avenue. Megan Hill, an employee at Upper Crust Café and Bakery, described how the connection to the water drives Venice business. As the weather warms up, she said, people stop in to grab freshly baked snacks for the beach. “Afterwards, they stop in again for little nibbles and treats.” Families with kids in tow drop by Nana’s, a children’s clothing and toy shop, looking for hats and beach toys and swim gear. It’s a symbiotic relationship; the beach feeds people to the town, and the town feeds the beach goers. “The beach brings more visitors to town, who then take time to visit the shops and restaurants,” says Russell Pettigrove of Fifi’s of Venice.

Like a thread connecting the quaint little shops and cafes that line West Venice Avenue, beach life is woven into clothing design, knick knacks, shop décor, jewelry, and art. It’s a lifestyle. “The beach draws people to Venice,” Sandy McGowan of Sandy’s Designer Clothing, “and the tourists fall in love with it and end up living here. The beach is never crowded; there’s free parking, and it’s open to everyone. And that’s wonderful!”

On a cool, drizzling Monday morning in January, when you’d expect the shops to be quiet, Venice is alive. The sweet smell of fresh bread and gourmet coffee mingles with sea air and fills the sidewalks. Nearly every shop is busy with browsers and buyers, and the cafés hum with conversation. Venice is full of life.

Baker Brown, owner of Venice Stationers, chimed in saying that while Venice has many things to offer, “its largest asset, besides the people, is the beach.”

Keeping it Clean

If the water is Venice’s greatest asset, then protecting it should be the community’s highest priority. The Clean Beaches Coalition, a network of coastal organizations and individuals, awarded Venice Beach the Blue Wave Certification for being a clean, healthy and well-managed beach, a standard that no doubt impacts every aspect of Venice life.

Rory Dubin, president of the Venice Area Board of Realtors, agreed that the water has a strong impact on the quality of living in Venice. “As long as our beaches are maintained, we’re going to be an attractive area for people to live in. Maintaining clean beaches, countering beach erosion, and promoting the Venice beaches in publications and over the Internet will help make a positive impact on Venice property values,” he said.

“We have a very clean area, but as the population increases, we have to be even more careful,” cautioned Dr. Richard Pierce, director of Mote Marine’s Center for Ecotoxicology. The center focuses on how natural and man-made toxins break down in the environment and includes the study of Karenia brevis (the organism that causes Florida’s red tide) and most recently, the disaster caused by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig explosion in April 2010.

“For starters, the people of Venice can support the city council members in their quest to reduce land run-off,” Pierce said. Run-off comes from a variety of sources. Believe it or not, cleaning up after your dog can make a big impact. Failing to curb your dog is more than impolite; it can be detrimental to the environment.

Lawn fertilizers are another major source of run-off. Keith Wilson, 4-H Education Specialist, suggests using fertilizer alternatives or slow-release fertilizers. “We understand that the use of fertilizer is necessary in some agriculture and commercial environments,” he said. “The (4-H) extension office is teaching citizens not to use instant-release fertilizer.”

Little Things, Big Difference

“If we maintain the local parks and beaches for residents and business owners, it stabilizes and enhances the value of their properties,” Wilson continued. People look at the environment of parks when choosing a home for their family. When he and his wife were considering a move to Sarasota County, the beaches made a big impact on their decision. The beauty of the landscape and allure of the wildlife were inspiring. “This is a place where I could live and have a family,” Wilson said.

Beach erosion is another threat that residents and visitors can help prevent. “One of the most important things a citizen can do to help prevent beach erosion is to stay on the restricted pathways when visiting the local beaches,” said Wilson. “Beach grass, which grows in our dune systems, provides vital support to the integrity of the barrier against eroding winds and waves. Foot traffic on the grass can destroy the grasses, which can destroy the dune systems.”

While we’re talking about how we can make a tangible difference, “we really need to address smoking,” says Pierce. One of the largest sources of pollution in the ocean are bits of plastic, especially from cigarette filters. “Those little bits of pollution add up quickly.” For those who do smoke, carefully dispose of cigarette butts in the proper containers.

As Venetians continue to invest in the health of their waters, the water will continue to pump life into the community.

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