A Pier in Downtown Cocoa Beach?
The Beachside Resident - January 2013

Cocoa Beach is that rare gem — a small American town where you can watch the sun both rise and set over the water. Take A1A south past the mega-surfplexes, fast food joints and motels, and you’ll come to what the locals call “downtown,” a sprinkling of restaurants, supply stores, bars, pavered sidewalks, and ice cream parlors. Here, in the shadow of the Glass Bank, the heart of Cocoa Beach thumps along, cracked, half-abandoned by the Space Age, but still beating. It is an intimate affair. In the off-season, you can’t throw a shell without hitting someone you know… most likely he will be drunk, but never mind, this doesn’t diminish the charm of the place. It enhances it.

Smack in the center of it all is Juice N’ Java, a bistro where locals come to eat, drink and congregate. Today is Thursday, and a brain trust has convened at one of the café tables to discuss a revolutionary idea. Tim Chastain, the man who dreamed up the idea and called this meeting, runs eco tours on the Banana River. He sits shoulder-to-shoulder with a hotel tycoon, a city commissioner, a NASA scientist, a businessman, a coastal engineer, and a few other pillars of the community. It is six o’clock, still too early too tell who might be drunk.

Chastain waits stoically behind his computer screen, riding out the opening banter and one-liners, priming his thoughts. Outside, cars speed by at forty miles per hour; the Christmas lights of the Inner Room glitter on their naked flanks.

“Gentlemen,” Chastain begins, “we’re here to discuss the possible construction of a new pier near Minutemen Causeway.” He pauses to let this sink in. “At 1301 feet long, it would be the longest pier on Florida’s Atlantic coast.”

The brain trust is listening. “This is conceptual,’” Chastain emphasizes. Construction would not begin until 2017. “We don't have a name yet, but for now we’ll just call it the Cocoa Beach City Pier.”

Chastain has compiled a matrix of Florida’s piers. Jacksonville and Panama City seem to best embody his concept: a clean pier, a fishing pier––no restaurants, no structures over the ocean. A far cry from the barnacled, leaky shambles that is the Canaveral Pier (and twice as long). A place to fish the deep troughs, to catch large pompano and whiting, hit the tarpon run, snag tripletail, bluefish, sharks, black drum, redfish, even the stray cobia. All for a $5 day-pass. Walk-ons would pay less, maybe a dollar or two.

The brain trust is fidgeting. Something about it seems far-fetched. This is Cocoa Beach, after all, a year since the multi-use vote... the skyline hasn’t budged an inch, save for some spreading cracks atop the Glass Bank. Fischer’s still wallows in dust. Much of downtown remains hollowed out. Revolutionary ideas aren’t exactly credible nowadays. Then there’s the anti-development angle. Some locals would rather not draw new tourists in. Forget new construction… if they could, they would demolish all the beachfront properties, mound up the sand dunes, and restore the town to its blissful, pre-condo roots… wide beaches, morning glories and open spaces.

Every year, 3.4 million visitors come into Cocoa Beach. “If the pier gets two in ten of those,” Chastain says, “we’re talking 700,000 people.” He acknowledges the pragmatic hurdles — coastal permitting, storm surge engineering, public comment, ecological planning — but insists the project is feasible.

The pillars weigh in. So, no restaurant? How about a portable tiki bar? One suggests lengthening the pier to 1500 feet, so as to be able to launch fireworks off the end. The conversation takes on a playful, whimsical air. So far, no one has spoken about the cost. It is as if they are playing a game, juggling away the inevitable hatchet.

There is a lull in the conversation, and some devil of an urge forces me to blurt out, “It would be amazing to surf on a north swell.”

The men do a double take, as if to say, “who the hell are you, and when did you get here?” I feel gut-punched, out-of-place. I’m about to get up and slink outside when the coastal engineer pats me on the shoulder condescendingly and says, “Surfing aside, a pier provides a net benefit to coastal erosion. A salient would build up on either side.” I remain seated. It’s getting late. The vice mayor checks his watch.

“What about the cost?” someone asks.

Chastain closes his laptop. “We haven’t gotten that far yet.”

Monday, December 17th: The city of Cocoa Beach is hosting a community workshop where residents are urged to proffer ideas for public comment. Tim Chastain sits in the back row, über-casual in his T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, listening. One by one, a dedicated handful of citizens takes the microphone. The commissioners patiently deliberate the proposed construction of a new fire station, slower speed limits, the effects of lawn fertilization on the lagoon system.

Chastain leans back as an old-timer rails on about the aeration of the golf course greens. Here, a forceful woman is literally shouting at the commissioners, calling them out, asking why it is that the women have to fuss about the money when all the men do is spend it. “Instead of putting our taxes into infrastructure, you guys have the idea that if you build it they will come!” she cries.

Tim Chastain is walking into the lion’s den. Jousting with windmills. $8 million. This is what his 1301-foot notion would cost. He sits with this number, waiting out the tide, his idea heavy and golden. Soapbox enthusiasts haggle over tens of dollars and public restrooms and atrazine schedules.

When Chastain's turn comes, his presentation is clear and concise. He displays glossy pictures, municipal bond amortization graphs, describes the benefits in economic terms. He emphasizes the word conceptual. “Data is still being collected on economic viability,” he says.

Someone mutters, “Just what we need, another feasibility study.”

But we are listening, and that is all Tim Chastain wants––for Cocoa Beach to consider it. “One last thing,” he says as he packs up. “I don’t think we’re so poor and problem-plagued that we can’t look into future ideas for our community.”

Outside, after the meeting, Chastain is talking to the coastal engineer, who would love to see this new pier, if only to surf it during nor’easters. But the engineer is also a realist. “It all comes down to showing them they will make money, not lose it,” he tells Chastain. “That’s the key.”

“Is it?” Tim Chastain seems unimpressed. “Look at Titusville’s marketing campaign. They say, ‘Take a romantic walk under the stars on our gorgeous pier.’ They don’t have a pier, they’ve got a bridge!”

The symbolism is evident: a bridge takes you somewhere physically, a pier takes you there spiritually.

Think about what it means to live beachside, about what makes Cocoa Beach special, then imagine those heavenly block-long lefts, peeling off the downtown pier. Think about the pompano haul, or taking your family out to a rocket launch, about long walks over a frothing sea. Think about a hot dog shack at the premier Florida surf spot on northeast swells, about the longboards lined up, 60′s style...

Let your mind wander, and you might see that Tim Chastain is on to something.