“My son always said I would be at the Emerald Grande. Well, he got me under it.”
DESTIN — Wanda New and her niece, Summer Walter, enjoy the picture-perfect sunsets beyond Crab Island, the summertime Thursday night fireworks shows and an ideal fishing spot.
Stefan Kumm likes the convenience of living a few blocks from his job at HarborWalk Village.
And for Jerry Lebakken, the sight of pretty women in bikinis walking by his front door is a highlight of his day.
New, Walter, Kumm and Lebakken are some of the folks who live part- or full-time in a dozen mobile homes and campers that hug the sides of the unnamed road to Destin Marina at 7 Calhoun Ave. in Destin.
They’re part of a small marina culture sandwiched between Dewey Destin’s Seafood Restaurant and the Sides Moreno Point West condominiums just north of U.S. Highway 98 and the looming, castle-like Emerald Grande.
From the camper owned by New’s son, Rob Hacker, New and Walter can see the traffic on the Marler Bridge. They can also look up at Destin’s most well-known landmark.
“My son always said I would be at the Emerald Grande,” New, 61, said with a laugh recently. “Well, he got me under it.”
She said she feels safe in the marina community and enjoys sitting outside the camper.
“But I need to have my fan going,” she said while her son’s dog, Ozzie, chewed on a wooden door stopper on the patio.
New, who is from Whitley City, Kentucky, helped her son move into his camper back in March. She and her niece now are enjoying spending part of the summer there. Like some of his neighbors, Hacker works in Destin’s fishing industry: He’s the captain of “The Reel Call” charter boat.
While noting there are many positive aspects of living next to the marina and near HarborWalk Village, some residents said they realize they could be asked to leave at any time.
They know they live on a slice of prime real estate.
For example, New said Destin Marina owner Bill Ming has often been offered “a ton of money” from developers for the property, but has refused to sell thus far.
“A lot of these properties are owned by old-timers,” she said as a Newcastle Brown Ale truck motored by. “It probably won’t change until they leave, and then it will probably be bulldozed. If we have to leave, it’ll be easy to go with the camper.”
New said that on most days, marina traffic is bumper-to-bumper from daylight to about 1 p.m.
“Then, about 5 or 6, I guess they want to go home,” she said. “We see the sunset at about 7:30. And fishing at the marina is the bomb. It’s peaceful.”
Her niece is from Winfield, Tennessee, which has fewer than 1,000 people.
“It took me awhile to get used to the traffic (in Destin), but I learned the back roads,” said Walter, who has a summer job at Pelican Adventures and wants to become a music teacher in Destin.
New said she’d like to live in Destin full-time.
“Why would I not?” she said. “They’re good to their old people. There are a lot of old people programs.”
A superior spot
“What’s the old saying? Location, location, location,” said the 46-year-old Lebakken. “I got it! There’s not a very much better spot to be for a commercial fisherman.”
He moved into a 1978-model mobile home at the marina in 1998. That same year he planted a century plant that now stands more than 6 feet tall in his yard, which also contains a pineapple plant and several pieces of driftwood.
“It’s old school,” Lebakken said of the community. “So is Dewey Destin’s. I like it here, man. You get a (HarborWalk Village-hosted) fireworks show every Thursday. You see airplane shows. Parties, boats, music, shopping. It’s all there, man.
“It’s convenient; no taxi needed. You can walk across the street, do your drinking and stumble back here.”
And it’s cheap. Lebakken said he paid $100 a month in rent when he moved in 19 years ago. He pays $250 per month today.
“Not all of us here are poor. I’m half-retired because of living here” and being able to save money, Lebakken said. “But it’s coming to an end. I think (Ming) would be better off tearing all these (residences) down and using it for parking.”
Motioning to the Emerald Grande, Lebakken said, “The only problem I have with those condos is I don’t own one of them.”
Because of a lack of parking, many boaters who launch from the Destin Marina park their vehicles and boat trailers at nearby sites, he said. Not that he’s complaining.
“I see a lot of girls in bikinis” walking down the marina road, Lebakken said with a laugh.
He added that he can read people’s lips, and that some of those girls and other visitors say less than flattering remarks about some of the older mobile homes and campers. But when they reach a newer, sleek camper, they perk up, Lebakken said.
“They say, ‘Oh, I’d live there!’ ” he said.
He said Ming is “a good guy” who would “do anything for the people here.”
New agreed. She said when Tropical Storm Cindy struck the area in June, Ming offered his home nearby for some marina residents to hunker down.
Next door to Hacker’s camper is an RV with an “I love Destin” sticker on one of the windows. It’s the home of Kumm and his dog, Chewy.
Kumm, 52, washes boats in Destin Harbor for a living and has lived in the RV for about a year.
“I work at night and sleep most of the day,” he said. “You can’t beat the location. It’s quiet except for the boat traffic in the morning. I have good neighbors.”
Not long ago, Chewy took the place of Kumm’s old pooch, which died after being hit by a truck speeding down the marina road.
“People who aren’t local don’t see that 10 mph sign” posted by the road, Kumm said.
Another sign, posted in a neighbor's yard, announces a 5 mph speed limit and declares, "We love our animals."
Chewy barked at a passing truck while Kumm proudly showed his hibiscus and roses growing near his clothes line and American flag. He said that even though his A/C runs all day, his monthly power bill is only about $40 because the recreational vehicle is in the shade most of the day.
“Hopefully, it’ll last,” Kumm said of the small residential part of the marina site. “I’m sure a lot of people want to buy this place.”
Ming, 89, said he bought the marina site in 1970 from a man who had opened it about five years earlier. When Ming purchased the property, it had only one mobile home on it. While folks occupy the residences that were later set up nearby, the original mobile home is now reportedly vacant.
Ming grew up in Graceville northeast of DeFuniak Springs. He attended the school now known as Troy University, where he played football and basketball. Ming also served in the Army and later worked as a mathematician at Eglin Air Force Base.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said.
He said he’s received many offers — the first coming from Emerald Grande developer Peter Bos — to buy the property.
Bos “sent me a big check and said, ‘Do you agree with this?' ” Ming said.
Ming did not.
“I have no reason for selling it,” he said. “I don’t need the money.”
Ming’s wife of 60 years, Weleska, died last year. He said he visits the marina nowadays just to get out of the house.
“My grandson, Christopher White, runs the property,” Ming said. “I just own it.”
Glancing back to his early days as owner, Ming noted with a chuckle that “everybody didn’t have two boats back then.”
He also looks to the future, at least when it comes to the mobile homes that continue to endure at the marina site.
“They’re going to rot away one of these days,” Ming said. “Eventually we’re going to get rid of them. We need the parking space here at the marina.”