By Charles Nelson
Sixty years ago, in April 1959, developer Paul B. Dickman opened Bahia Beach at the western end of Shell Point Rd. in Ruskin. Today, Sunset Grill and The Inn at Little Harbor occupy that site and are still popular with tourists and locals.
Dickman used dredge and fill techniques to create a quarter-mile section of white, sandy beach on Tampa Bay to support the development and sale of planned homesites. Believing that Bahia Beach could be a major incentive to attract people (and buyers) into the Ruskin area, Dickman opened the beach to the public, free of charge.
By May 1959, more than 1,000 people had visited Bahia Beach on each of the previous Sundays, and Dickman announced plans to expand the resort. In July 1959, he revealed new construction for a new building to house a snack bar and toilet facilities envisioning an eventual full-service recreation center.
Bahia Beach was formally dedicated on January 10, 1960 with an expanded half-mile of pristine beach and full-service marina. Already popular, the formal opening was a smashing success. Dickman was forced to apologize to the public for massive traffic jams created when hundreds of cars were unable to reach the new facility because of arriving crowds of beachgoers. By opening day, Bahia Beach touted a miniature golf course, boating, fishing and bathing.
The beach building had been expanded to a 140-foot, air-conditioned, full-service recreational facility. The structure included a large room called the “Coral Corral” billed as the finest square and round dancing hall in Florida. The room, with its 4,000 feet of terrazzo flooring and perfect acoustics, had been the site of a New Year’s party a few days earlier, the first of many events and dance classes in that facility.
Bahia Vista Restaurant also formally opened on January 10, 1960 and was billed as a leisurely, friendly facility where food would be long remembered. Unfortunately, demand for service on day one was so great, the restaurant ran out of food, bringing the restaurant manager to tears! The restaurant, seating 180, was fully air-conditioned and featured views of Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg in the distance as a visual treat.
A highlight for visitors on opening day activities was a colorful water ski show presented by the Ruskin-Riverview Ski-Bees (composed mostly of high school and college students from the Ruskin and East Bay area). Visitors were invited to try their skill in water skiing in the lagoon behind the beach, following the show. A mysterious ‘Invasion from Mars’ was also announced as a surprise by Tampa area papers, although just what that was supposed to be was never clarified.
“Bahia Beach was the largest and best-appointed beach in South County,” according to local resident Mac Miller.
Opening day at Bahia Beach was well-remembered by long time Ruskinites and the facility was popular for about 20 years. By 1980, however, “no trespassing” signs had been posted on Bahia Beach by its new owners: Destiny Corporation in Orlando, who had bought the property in April 1980 for further development. In its glory days, however, Bahia Beach was the place to go in Ruskin.