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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2019 3 years ago

David Miller: A Longboat Linchpin

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The quintessential local looks back on 64 years in town.
by: Sten Spinella Staff Writer

David Miller is taking a call from a customer trying to rent a boat. It’s a typical Monday, and he’s spending it at the same place he’s spent most of the past 64 years: Cannons Marina in Longboat Key.

Miller probably doesn’t need to be taking this call. He could have one of his employees do it. But for him, life, Longboat Key and Cannons are one and the same.

It’s never been more complicated than that. Even when Miller went to school at Georgia Southern in Statesboro, Georgia and Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, he said he “didn’t have to sit in the classroom very long” to determine he wanted to work at the marina.

Purchased by his father, Paul Miller, with a handshake in 1955, Cannons Marina has grown into a respected boat dealership after starting with approximately a dozen rowboats.

“I enjoy what I do. If I didn’t enjoy what I do, I’d do something different.” – David Miller

“What he has done here in this business has been remarkable,” Miller’s ex-wife and Cannons co-owner Lucille Capo said. “He has taken this business to one of the top Grady-White dealers in the world. And he’s humble about it, understated about it. Part of his success is just showing up here every day.”

Around 1978, Miller bought the marina from his father and continued to expand the business as Longboat’s population expanded. Capo said Cannons started as “basically a remote fishing camp.” But even though, as Capo said, this business is his life, Miller is more than the company he built. On Longboat, a town with an often-transitory population, he is the de facto historian.

Keeper of the scrolls

“I don’t think there’s anybody around who knows as much history about Longboat as he does, or is as accurate, for that matter,” Eric Bell, Miller’s longtime friend (and bartender) said. Those who know Longboat well echo the sentiment.

Miller admits he knows a lot about Longboat, but he hesitates to say he knows the most. Then again, Miller is soft-spoken, and hesitates to say much of anything before he can be sure of it. People like Capo and Bell frequently do the talking for him.

“I look at him as a history book as far as I’m concerned,” Bell said. “He’s just a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the island, and there aren’t that many people around anymore who have the accurate knowledge of what really went on. His father came here, he looked at a hotel on 41, he looked at Cannons Marina, and he said, ‘I’m buying Cannons Marina.’ Probably a good choice.”

David Miller surveys part of his marina.

Miller likes to point to Longboat’s loss of “rattlesnakes and rats and raccoons and rabbits” to illustrate how it has evolved. Except it’s not that simple.

In 1958, Miller noticed the first major change on Longboat: the bridge that opened on the north end of the Key. Before then, Miller said, there were virtually a handful of people on Longboat. “We’re talking about hundreds.” The bridge didn’t affect the number of residents as much as it did the traffic. And up until the bridge came, “the north end of Longboat Key was the end of the road. Once you got there, there was nowhere else to go except to turn around.”

In 1968, Miller detected another serious transformation on Longboat. For a large part of 1967, he could drive fairly fast on the island. He was driving to school in Sarasota for his senior year, and near the start of the year, there was a parade of people and contractors coming to the island to build. Miller acknowledges the Arvida Corporation’s buying of property as when many indicate a sea change on Longboat Key. Sarasota Magazine wrote in 2005 that in the early 70s, Arvida “descended on the isolated island community and tipped everything upside down.” But, Miller said, “the actual building seemed be around 1968.”

“David is kind of like the keeper of the scrolls,” Capo said. “Like the wise. He’s seen a lot.”

When he was young, Miller saw famous astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, at Cannons.

On Longboat, a town with an often-transitory population, Miller is the de facto historian.

“Over the years there’ve been tons of well-known people all over the island,” Miller said. “I was still fairly young, and my father said go tie up that rental boat that’s coming in, and I came back and I said, ‘Dad, that’s John Glenn!’ And it was, and it was his wife, and he was probably senator by then.”

As opposed to the sometimes-irritable attitude toward development adopted by longtime Longboat residents, Miller believes the town has done well to keep the island a community rather than purely a tourist destination.

“They’ve done a fairly good job of controlling growth,” Miller said. “You don’t have to go far to see the difference. Go to Siesta Key, go to Anna Maria Island, not that they’re not both nice, but you feel a huge difference.”

Miller thinks the town could’ve done better with creating a community center, “A place that people could do things on this island that they have to go to town to do,” he said.

A quiet giant

Hoping publicly for a community center is Miller’s most political statement. When asked what he liked and disliked about Longboat, he immediately said, “We certainly aren’t going to get into anything political.”

“He’s a pretty neutral dude," Capo said. "If he has an opinion, he typically will keep it.”

David Miller stands in front of the marina's main office building and adjacent to the marina's initial structure.

Again, what matters most to Miller is his business. And it doesn’t seem he’ll be stepping away from it soon.

“David enjoys what he does, and he’s here almost every day, he keeps regular hours, pretty consistent, and the day that he doesn’t want to show up, we’re all in place to run it, we all take over the majority of the roles,” Capo said. “He reminds us of the little things. We got the big stuff covered, but it’s the little things.”

Bell speaks to a different side of Miller. Bell bartended at The Pub in 1980 (before it was Mar Vista), a place locals liked to gather and where he met Miller and found friendship with him.

“He likes vodka on the rocks,” Bell said. “It’s either vodka on the rocks or a really nice bottle of red wine. He likes the classy stuff.”

As far as stories about Miller, well, “Probably none that I could really relay,” Bell said, laughing. “I am a bartender, and there is a certain code. Off-hand, he’s a man a few words, but he’s a very good friend.”

Bell noted that Miller loves concerts, and he recently returned from seeing Lady Gaga live.

Miller has lived an uncomplicated life on Longboat. Each role he’s played – be it son, boat guy, historian or friend – has been a natural one. As the island has grown, he and his business have done the same. He is intertwined with its shores and waterways. That’s why when people who’ve long known Longboat think of the town, they think of him, too.

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Sten Spinella is a Town Hall Reporter for the Longboat Observer. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut and his master's degree from the University of Missouri. 

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