ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. - St. Pete Beach is more accessible to people with mobility challenges thanks to its newest addition "Mobi-Mat." The city installed a mobility mat at Upham Beach and are installing another at 22nd Avenue in Pass-a-Grille next week.
Jody Armstrong, the director of outreach at the Disability Achievement Center, said the non-slip mats allow equal access to the beach. She said once the mats are down there will be a total of 21 in Pinellas County.
"Now we can put our toes in the sand because that’s what this is about: Equal access," she said.
According to Armstrong, the project has been in the works for four years. Monday marks four years since the Pinellas County Council for Persons with Disabilities met for the first time. It’s an advisory council to the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners.
At the meeting, Armstrong said Treasure Island officials unveiled their plans for mobility mats, and the council decided they needed them across the county. COVID-19 prolonged the plans, and initially, they ran into a funding issue, she said.
The project in St. Pete Beach is a partnership between the Disability Achievement Center, the city, the non-profit "Help Us Gather" and the Michael and Robin Lally Forward Foundation, that paid for the mats. It cost just under $20,000 for the two mats on St. Pete Beach, Jennifer McMahon, the chief operating officer for St. Pete Beach, said.
Northside Engineering out of Clearwater also did the engineering designs for free, Armstrong said.
"It benefits everyone, so we’re just absolutely thrilled that this happened," she said.
There are also mats in Treasure Island, Indian Rocks, Gulfport and the St. Pete Pier. Armstrong said there are others in the works across the county.
"It's not just necessarily people with wheelchairs," McMahon said. "It's people who have difficulty getting around. So, it's for our senior population. If you're going out to the beach, and you're dragging a bunch of kids with you in a wagon, this is great to not have to go through some of the sand, so I think everybody can get a benefit from it."
Kim Dittman, an independent living facilitator with the Disability Achievement Center, uses a wheelchair and lives by the water on St. Pete Beach. She said even with living on the water, she couldn't get on the beach, but the mobility mats give her access.
"For my mental health as well as for my mojo, it’s just the best thing that could ever happen," Dittman said. "If I didn’t have this opportunity, I wouldn’t be able to be with everyone else. I wouldn’t be able to experience the gloriousness of the gulf."
McMahon said they had to get approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the project. She said they can’t extend the mats closer to the water, because of other parts of the beach that need protection — like sea turtle nesting areas.
At both locations on St. Pete Beach, you can also rent a beach wheelchair for free that can go in the water.
According to the CDC, one in seven adults in the United States struggles with mobility. The Forward Foundation has offered to write a check to any beach-facing city in the Tampa Bay area that is interested in a mobility mat, a spokesperson for Help Us Gather said.
"Coming from a family with a sibling who has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair, I can vividly recall many weekends out at St. Pete Beach as a family," Brian Rothey, the assistant vice president of adult community programs at the Parc Center for Disabilities, said.
The official ribbon cutting for the Mobi-Mats is Monday on Upham Beach.