Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the July 5 issue of Autoweek.
When we last left Florida artist Frank Bates (“Betting the Ranch,” Autoweek, April 7, 2008), he was in trouble. Some of his neighbors did not like his art project, and the county government was fining him $100 for every day he left it up – not enough to send him to the breadlines, because besides being an artist, he also owns a couple of RV dealerships that reportedly take an as much as $35 million in a good year. But it was the principle of the thing, you know!
The back story: Bates likes Airstreams, those moderately kitschy silver aluminum trailers owned by everybody form Matthew McConaughey to Sean Penn to Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/DC, who lives just down the road. Even Sandra Bullock has one; maybe that’s where Jess James is living now.
Airstream had recently celebrated its 75th birthday, so just after Christmas 2007, Bates conceived and executed Airstream Ranch, where he buried 7 1/2 1957-94 vintage Airstream trailers in a vacant lot next door to the dealership in Dover, Fla., on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa. He buried seven and a half trailers because that’s 7.5, as in 75, the Airstream anniversary. One of them caught fire while he was burying it. In another, he forgot he had left a valuable little vintage trailer he bought at auction, and it was too late to dig it up. With art comes sacrifice.
Bates is a native of Texas, and he says everybody in Texas knows about Cadillac Ranch, the site where 10 old Cadillacs are buried nose-down in the ground along Interstate 40. Conceived by Stanley Marsh “3,” a flamboyant Texas millionaire of the sort they don’t seem to make anymore, Cadillac Ranch is widely regarded as art, particularly since the sad, rusting, graffiti-covered cars are supposedly facing west at the same angle as the pyramids in Egypt.
“The guy who did that, Marsh, is recognized as something of an eccentric,” Bates said. “I thought it might be nice to be an eccentric too.”
Actually, Bates was pretty well on his way even before Airstream Ranch. He has been known to dress up as a black-and-white cow for his TV commercials, dancing and holding up a sign proclaiming that Bates RV can save you “MOO-lah” on a trailer. He takes almost anything in trade, including a moose pasture in Alaska, two mausoleums (apparently vacant), a stuffed marlin, a handful of sapphires, a jukebox, player pianos, a seat from a B25 bomber and the 1960 Cadillac from the movie “Mad Dog and Glory.” He commutes to work in a red Robinson R44 helicopter, which he lands on the dealership’s roof.
Shortly after the construction of Airstream Ranch, things got interesting. Several residents of the neighborhood right behind the ranch were not amused and went to the Hillsborough County Enforcement Board. At a hearing, one of the neighbors called Airstream Ranch a “dirty deed” and a “cheap roadside attraction” and then cried on cue, so Bates knew he was in trouble. Others testified in favor of Airstream Ranch, including Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, who said that in his “expert opinion, this constitutes a piece of art.”
Bates was told to dismantle Airstream Ranch or face that $100-a-day fine. In March 2009, Bates appealed the decision. This February, a three-judge circuit court panel finally overruled the board and reversed the fines. In March, county commissioners declined to appeal the ruling. Now, after several months of waiting to see if there were any additional legal challenges, Bates has officially declared victory.
“People say we fought city hall, and we won,” Bates says. “They think it’s a victory for the little guy.”
The eight silver Airstreams seem quieter now, smug. Freed from two years of litigious squabbling, the gigantic upended RVs are open for fanfare.
And here it comes.
Plans for spotlights, walkways, gazebos and a full-length documentary film are in the works at the Airstream Ranch along Interstate 4 near Dover, Fla., according to the St. Petersburg Times.
A three-judge panel ruled the conspicuous attraction legal in February after the Hillsborough County Code Enforcement board deemed the site a nuisance. County commissioners decided in March not to fight the decision.
“I’m excited,” said Frank Bates, who installed the Airstream Ranch near his business, Bates RV, in 2007. “There are not very many things you can build in your life that might be there forever — things that make people smile and make people happy.”
Bates remains adamant in calling the Airstream Ranch a piece of art. Built to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Airstream Inc., Bates said he hopes the work inspires thoughts of travel and freedom.
His first order of business? Lighting up the attraction at night, pending permit approval.
As a class project, about a half-dozen Tampa Bay Technical High School architecture students planned further improvements, including a walkway made of recycled tires, pagodas for picnic lunches, a projector to cast images onto the trailers and possibly a playground.
“It deserves being beautiful now,” said teacher Bryant Martinez, who assigned the project before the county challenged the ranch. “I’m appreciative Frank stuck it out.”
Martinez and his students went to the hearings to defend Bates’s vision. Surprised by neighbors’ objections to the display, he said their arguments offered the students a useful lesson.
“In architecture, not everyone sees something in the same way,” Martinez said.
Brian Connell, who lives directly behind the ranch, was one of the more vocal of the peeved neighbors.
“How would people like it if it were in their back yard?” Connell asked recently, looking toward the gleaming recreational vehicles from his driveway. “What can I do?”
Connell said he’s most bothered by the sight of the RVs, but the increased traffic along the quiet Castlewood Road is a major annoyance, too.
Tourists often park in Connell’s front yard to pose for pictures. He said they’ve knocked his fence down three times.
But visits from tourists may not stop anytime soon with a new documentary about the ranch preparing to debut.
The film follows the ranch’s planning, building and county battle and will soon be pitched to major networks, said executive producer Ashley Gracile, from GPI Content Corp. in Los Angeles.
(Bates isn’t expecting any profit from the film, just publicity.)
Gracile, who has a nationally syndicated RV show, became fast friends with Bates in the early 1990s at a convention. Making a film about Bates’s roadside display was a no-brainer, he said.
Filming halted, though, when the ranch was tied up in legal proceedings. Gracile said producers wanted the story to have a happy ending before airing it.
“It was that David and Goliath thing,” Gracile said. “In a certain way, Frank Bates is a throwback to a time when individuals had the guts and courage and foresight to stick to their values.”
Bates’s lawyer, Luke Lirot, gave one of the last interviews for the documentary.
“It’s certainly creative,” Lirot said. “And it’s got a clear message — the ideals of freedom and the open road.”
He said the ranch victory is one of his proudest. Not only because he says he believes in Bates’s artistic message, but because the case clarified legal issues about land development codes.
He said other lawyers frequently call asking how he won and what he learned.
Last month, county officials lifted a lien on the ranch — imposed after Bates RV incurred $100-a-day fines during the code violation battle. With that last step, Lirot said, it seems the attraction is here to stay.
Jim Blinck, operations manager for county code enforcement, disagrees.
“We haven’t forgotten about the Airstream trailers,” Blinck said.
Blinck said he plans to call a meeting with representatives from the county’s code enforcement, billing, zoning and attorney’s offices to determine how to further fight the ranch. “It’s never going to be over,” Blinck said.
Bates said he’s not worried.
He’s fielded calls from mapmakers, such as Rand McNally, and creators of online road trip guides who are ready to include the Airstream Ranch in attraction resources.
“They didn’t want to put it in their maps until it was permanent,” Bates said.
He looked up at his creation and smiled. “It’s really becoming a landmark.”
Frank Bates says he will take anything in trade at his RV dealership at McIntosh Road and Interstate 4 in Dover, Fla., according to the Tampa Tribune.
Over the last five years, he’s taken in quite a collection – from slot machines to a stuffed marlin – and now it’s time to unload it all, he said.
On Saturday, auctioneers will offer the merchandise to the highest bidder. The preview starts at 9 a.m. and the bidding at noon at Bates RV, 4656 McIntosh Road.
Bates said with the exception of some guns from his personal collection, all the 300 items were taken in on trade from customers who bought recreation vehicles.
If a customer haggles on price, “we say what else do you have to trade,” he said.
That’s how he ended up with items ranging from the practical, such as cars, to the offbeat, such as a Corona bar clock.
Everything is on site, except for two unused mausoleums and a 41-foot boat.
Bates expects a camera crew that will film the auction for a new reality show.
Bates is perhaps best known for his Airstream Ranch, a collection of travel trailers buried nose-first off I-4 west of his dealership. He created Airstream Ranch two years ago to emulate the more famous Cadillac Ranch in Texas.
The Airstreams that make up the ranch won’t be part of the auction, he said.
For information call (813) 659-0008. A complete list of the auction items is at www.batesrv.com.
Airstream Ranch, a row of partially-buried travel trailers that is a favorite spectacle among highway sightseers, does not violate Hillsborough County, Fla., codes, a three-judge panel has ruled, according to the Tampa Tribune.
The panel last week overturned a Hillsborough County Code Enforcement Board determination that the trailers constituted junk and off-site advertising for the adjacent Bates RV dealership at Interstate 4 and McIntosh Road.
Assistant County Attorney Nancy Y. Takemori, who is handling the case, said she was reviewing the judges’ order and had not decided if she will suggest an appeal.
Lawyer Luke Lirot, who represents Airstream Ranch owner Frank Bates, said he was elated at the decision by three Hillsborough circuit court judges.
Bates said he was “tickled to death” about the victory.
“It’s not every day that you can fight city hall, so to speak, and win,” he said.
Bates, who also owns Bates RV, contends the two-year-old display is art. He said it has been featured in calendars, travel magazines and music videos.
Nearby residents have complained of motorists crowding their neighborhood while using Castlewood Road to get a better look at the creation.
The judges found there was no “competent, substantial evidence” to support the 2008 code enforcement board’s findings that the display either was junk or any type of nuisance, that it was “open outside storage,” or that it was an improper “off-site sign” advertising Bates RV.
Lirot said his client feels the decision celebrates the freedom of the open road.
The Airstreams emulate the more famous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
The code enforcement board had ordered the removal of the RVs and levied a fine.
Seven full-sized Airstream trailers and one smaller trailer make up Airstream Ranch. Bates said he may add lighting, possibly with colored lights, and a walkway made of recycled tires now that he’s won the appeal.
The second anniversary came and went recently for the so called Airstream Ranch near Dover, Fla.,with no resolution of the owner’s court battle with the county, according to the Tampa Tribune.
The county wants Frank Bates, who also owns an adjacent recreational vehicle dealership, to remove the eight aluminum-plated trailers partially buried off Interstate 4 near McIntosh Road.
The Hillsborough County Code Enforcement Board ruled that the tilted trailers installed Jan. 4, 2008, constitute four violations, including accumulated junk, trash and debris and illegal off-site advertising for Bates RV.
The upside down RVs emulate the more famous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, featuring partially buried Caddys.
Bates argues that the Airstream Ranch is art, and said it has been featured in calendars, travel magazines and music videos.
Nearby residents have complained of motorists who use Castlewood Road to get a better look at the creation, crowding their neighborhood.