For many years now, Island Sand Paper readers have enjoyed “The Year in Review,” where local happenings trump all the noise in the national and international media. What we always find when we take a painstaking look back at ourselves is that no matter what, we still come out and help each other in need, we survive together despite our often passionate disagreements, the sun still comes up over the back bay and sets over the Gulf of Mexico. And after a long day of appointments and errands on the mainland, and when we reach the high point of Matanzas Pass Bridge, after a million times already, we still take a deep breath and say, “Aah….”
There were several major issues or events that captured our attention, some of which will continue to do so for several years to come. The Town’s reFresh waterline replacement and storm water projects, and Lee County’s long overdue Estero Boulevard Improvement Project, will keep the only road on or off the island torn up, with lane reductions and lots of idling in traffic, well into the next decade. After some kinks were ironed out, our big dig is progressing, and for the most part, we have resigned ourselves to the necessity of getting these important upgrades done to our infrastructure, although some who live and work here year-round were truly robbed of our off-season traffic respite, when we all look forward to a break from the seasonal onslaught, which itself seemed to last well beyond Easter the last few years.
Our construction blues began to fade when islander and developer Tom Torgerson bought up contiguous beachfront properties spanning all the way from The Mermaid to The Salty Crab (formerly Nemo’s), including Helmerich Plaza across the street. He revealed his intentions and his vision first to the Town Council and the County Commissioners at the first formal presentation of the project late last month at the Florida SouthWestern State College campus, then followed it up with a presentation to the people of Fort Myers Beach at Chapel by the Sea. With plans for a seawall and boardwalk, walkovers, a parking garage, and a string of hotels, with the intention to also reroute Estero Boulevard traffic, many fear it will change the community in ways contrary to the spirit in which the town was founded.
In late 2014, Council created an ad hoc committee (AHC) made up of resident and business stakeholders in the neighborhood abutting the massive project, tasked to identify what they did and did not want to see happen downtown. The committee presented its recommendations in March 2015. AHC Chairman Hank Zuba summarized the report, “The majority of the AHC concur that ‘what is most needed downtown’ include: improved traffic flow, an understanding that any future development must be elevated, a way to separate pedestrians from cars, additional public parking and consideration for the use of ‘air rights’.
Island homeowners for twenty years, snowbirds Jim and Lana Bailey feel the most important event of the year was the announcement of the Torgerson project. “Its impact on the character of our island will be felt for years to come.”
But Mayor Anita Cereceda put it all in another perspective. “I remember when they took the swing bridge out and built what we have now. At the time, everyone was sure this was going to destroy the character of the town. Now, the view from the “new” bridge is an iconic experience for all of us.” She mentioned Publix, and DiamondHead, whose very construction inspired the town to incorporate, and who many believed would ruin the town. “They’ve both turned out to be great neighbors and assets to the Town.” Asked what her biggest take-aways from the year might be, Anita said she had learned to appreciate ‘now’, and to stop worrying about what might happen or what already did happen. “Our community is us. Regardless of any changes, we will still be the same community because of who we are.”
Massage therapist and owner of Healing Harbor Massage Corri Francisco has lived on Fort Myers Beach since 1990, and she echoed the mayor’s sentiments. “No matter what happens, we gather. We get together. We help each other,” Corri said with quiet passion. “All that stuff doesn’t matter. The heart of the island has not changed, and we should focus on the good.”
The PTO hosted their Flip Flop Ball at Junkanoo to raise funds for school activities and events. Even Principal Wood and his wife Terri got up for a few turns around the dance floor.
What We Do Best
It should come as no surprise that our many service club members were at full tilt all year, raising money for local and regional causes. The FMB Lions Club put together another awesome Shrimp Festival and Parade, their 57th. The FMB Kiwanis Club, which celebrated its 47th anniversary, funded yet another season of their “Every Child a Swimmer” swim lessons at the community pool, and raised money for many local groups like the Boy Scouts and the God’s Table program. The FMB Community Foundation partnered with the Town and Keep Lee County Beautiful to clean up after all of us on the shorelines and in the water, and raised money for the Beach School, the Beach Library, the Beach Historic Society and others at their ‘Beach Ball’ and ‘Fashion Show’ events.
The Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve began their once-a-month “Moonlight Walks” through the preserve, in addition to their education programs and historic enactments. The FMB Friends of the Arts sponsored, funded and volunteered at many music and fine art events including the plein air ‘Paint the Beach’ festival, the Boat Barn Concert Series, and the award-winning 9th Annual FMB Film Festival and its education program. The Estero Garden Club continued their work all around town, and assisted the town with its tree sale in honor of Arbor Day. The First Annual Mike DeCarlo Rocks! event was a big hit, raising money for the Lee County Sheriff’s Youth Activities League. The Beach Kids Foundation, in partnership with Beach Fire Control District personnel held their “Spirit of the Holidays” events, including toy collection, wrapping and distribution, and Pancake Breakfast served by the Beach School K Kids Club members, for the benefit of needy beach community families, but not before they held their annual Easter Egg Hunt on the Bay Oaks grounds.
The FMB Yacht Club held a solemn service at Buoy #3 on Memorial Day, and held their annual Membership Appreciation Day at Bowditch Point, with the Coast Guard Auxiliary on hand conducting free boat safety checks. The Church of the Ascension Knights of Columbus celebrated their 25th anniversary. FBM Relay for Life teams were out on the beach in front of DiamondHead, raising awareness and lighting up the beach with luminaria dedicated to lose loved ones.
The Estero Island Historic Society‘s island native Jo Hughes was honored as a Community Partner of Excellence at FGCU’s 5th Annual Community Engagement Day. Then FMB Chamber of Commerce hosted their 20th Annual ‘Taste of the Beach and Bayfront Blues Festival’, co-hosted, with Wyndham Garden, the American Sand Sculpting Championships, held its 3rd Annual Mini Masters Golf Tournament, hosted the 2nd Annual Beach Bowl Bash, staged the 27th Annual Christmas Boat Parade, and initialized a fun program to boost local businesses affected by boulevard construction, “Cash Mob Thursdays”. “The construction and the Torgerson Redevelopment Project are going to have long-term impacts,” Chamber President Bud Nocera said, which is most likely the inspiration for the Chamber’s initiative in helping their members find creative ways to drive business through the trenches and in the door. The Chamber also bid long time staffer Jane Ross a fond farewell as she made plans to get married and relocate to Sanibel.
The Ostego Bay Foundation, which celebrated its 24th birthday this year, offered another round of summer camp sessions for children of all ages, in addition to its ongoing programs that serve to heighten awareness and generate good stewardship of our local marine environment. With the same purpose, only directed specifically to Lake Okeechobee water releases into the Caloosahatchee River and the restoration of the Everglades, the FMB Clean Water warriors led by John Heim, joined hands on the beach for their annual Clean Water Rally, and for 30+ days, took to Matanzas Pass Bridge for a month of peaceful morning awareness events.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had nothing on the dozens of islanders who donned red noses to benefit FMB Little League and Youth Soccer, as well as a local food pantry. These same two organizations were also the beneficiaries of the 6th Annual Popeye-Palooza raised a record-breaking $5,712 at the Beach Pub extravaganza. Everyone was tickled pink at the 6th Annual Walk for Breast Cancer. The folks from Florida Helps Foundation pulled out the stops for their first Back Bay Bash to raise awareness and funds for the PADLS (Persons with Autism and Disabilities Learn to Swim). VFW Post 10097, American Legion Post 274 and the Veterans Club of America all celebrated Memorial Day and Veterans Day with Color Guards, the raising of the flag, and gun salutes.
It’s important to acknowledge the many Beach businesses that open their facilities and their wallets for our many good causes, or just to show their patrons a very good time. Throughout the year, Santini Marina Plaza was the site of a string of annual events including art shows, music events, marketplaces, the popular Doo-Wop and Classic Car Show, Smokin’ in the Mangroves, the Howl’oween Pet Parade. The folks at Fish Tale Marina hosted a Community Day to introduce the town’s service organizations, celebrated National Marina Day, co-staged the Monofilament Madness clean up event, hosted a free Community Holiday Concert, and the FMB Friends of the Arts Boat Barn Concert Series, several fishing tournaments, and a pancake breakfast or two. Many of these events serve to raise awareness about waterway issues on the south end of the island, and raised funds for our Beach School, for area veterans, and for individuals in need. The realtors at Beach Realty and Century 21/TriPower hosted art shows.
The Gulfshore Grill and Cottage held their annual Fat Tuesday event, benefitting the American Cancer Society. Junkanoo on the Beach brought back the Florida Snowbird Polka Band for their hugely popular Polka Tuesdays. Health and Harmony, the oldest yoga studio in Fort Myers, celebrated its 25th anniversary with an open house, where locals Dorothy Rodwell and Laurie Nienhaus helped introduce the studio’s new owner, Cindy Carfore, and unveiled the new business name, Aha! Castaways hosted the morning mayhem at the Santini Marina Plaza staging area for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade brought to the beach every year by Ray Murphy. Shell Point Retirement Community offered concerts and art shows open to the public.
Matanzas on the Bay Manager Glen Petrarca brought back the Annual Bluegrass, Brew and BBQ event for the second year, to benefit Operation Open Arms, a local charity dedicated to the care and treatment of PTSD in military personnel and veterans. Matanzas was also the host to the 2nd Annual Lionfish Derby, where 3 teams caught over 450 of these invasive fish that devour everything in their path. Wanda Lanatsas, owner of Royal Scoop Ice Cream partnered with Pastor Shawn Critser at Beach Baptist to raise funds for an impoverished village in Guatemala, and joined forces with Beach School PTO members to create ‘The Beach Kids Littlest Library’ in the shop.
The Beach Pub held its annual Christmas fundraiser, the Patrick Stott Memorial Bike Run, collecting hundreds of toys and needed funds to make sure all the kids in the community have a happy holiday. Pierside Grill, Yucatan Beach Stand, SOB’s, DiamondHead, Nervous Nellie’s and Matanzas by the Bay all stepped up to host visiting performers for the Island Hopper Songwriting Fest. With the Surf Club an icon of the past, its former owner joined forces with the good folks at Junkanoos on the Beach for another Turkey Testicle Festival, with all proceeds going to the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Pink Shell Beach Resort and Marina hosted their annual Chili Cook-off, and all funds raised also went to the Harry Chapin Food Bank, and their Wounded Veterans Regatta served to enhance the lives of wounded veterans and their families. The Beach Movie Theater staff pulled out all the stops to help host the 9th Annual FMB Film Festival. The new Wal-Mart in Summerlin Square opened.
Town Hall News
Town Council was busy all year, shepherding a number of projects and programs through the layers of steps required to get them to full fruition. After leasing a portion of the building for twenty years to house Town Hall, the entire building and the grounds it stands on was purchased for $1.2 million. Bringing the building up to code, accommodating the needs of the Town staff, and sprucing up the exterior, cost an additional $1 million or so. Everyone in Town was invited for a tour of the new facilities.
Council also adopted a new Noise Control Ordinance, approved rezoning of the parcel on Connecticut Street to be used as a parking lot for the Mound House at the bay end of the residential neighborhood. Council adopted an ordinance that allows historic structures on the island to be recognized by the Town’s Historic Preservation Board and the Estero Island Historic Society without having to comply with Lee County’s criteria. They approved the ‘Adopt-a-Beach’ Program designed by the Marine Resources Task Force (MRTF). They decided to move forward with the planned passive parks at the bay ends of Gulf Beach Road (behind Topps) and Del Mar Avenue. Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater gave a presentation to the Council to remark on what, if anything, he thought could be done to address the excessive airplane noise documented and repeatedly presented to town councils and administrators by members of Aircraft Intrusion Relief (AIR), a group of concerned islanders.
After the raised pool and big dock woes riled the Primo/Palermo residents, Council directed staff to make some recommendations on ways to tighten up the Town’s Land Development Code, as it seemed to have some contradictions and vagaries, especially when lawyers and developers read it. Mayor Cereceda began conducting a monthly “Town Hall Chat” where her constituents could come talk in a relaxed, informal setting about Town issues important to them. During budget talks, the Coconut Telegraph sizzled with rumors about defunding Bay Oaks and the Town Pool. “Not so,” said the Council members when asked about it.
After a year and a half of work done on designs for beach accesses, Council decided to concentrate on bringing all accesses into ADA compliance, with an eye to making cosmetic improvements. A decision not to entirely fund the 4th of July and New Years Eve fireworks programs sparked its own fireworks in the business community, prompting Silver Sands Resort Owner and Fireworks Champion Andrea Groves to personally go out and collect donations from other business owners in the downtown area. “There will be fireworks,” Groves was heard to say.
Town Manager Don Stilwell hired some new folks to fill key positions on staff. Senior Planner Megan Will and Principal Planner Matt Noble were hired. Kara Stewart, a 17-year veteran of the Lee County Community Development Department, was brought on board with the hopes that the beleaguered permitting process in place at Town Hall could finally be streamlined. Also new to Town Staff is the energetic and highly qualified new Environmental/Storm Water Technician Rae Blake, who ably picked up where Keith Laakkonen left off when he accepted his dream job as Director of the Rookery Bay Estuary Research Program. Also new to Town Staff is Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert.
Town Staffers hustled this year, too. Administrative Specialist Chelsea O’Riley and Maintenance Crew Foreman Shawn Mills explained the operation of the new parking fee collection machines, which they called the “Pay and Play” system that replaced parking meters in town. The Newton Park seawall was finally completed, giving the property much better storm protection. The Mound House and grounds were finally completed and islanders were invited to an Open House to view the facility, including the 1909 Room whose furnishings were paid in full by former Mayor Dan Hughes, in memory of his late wife Anne. New beach access signs were installed.
Bay Oaks offered new programs to its members; Toddler Tuesdays, and two new clubs for BOSS participants. The Beach Pool added a new inflatable obstacle course that runs the entire length of the big pool. They hosted their 2nd Annual Craft Beer Festival, the 4th Annual Poker Crawl, a Football Skills Camp, the Town’s Birthday, New Year’s and Fourth of July celebrations, The 25th Annual Bay Oaks Fright Night was a huge success.
All the Town’s advisory committees worked diligently through their many responsibilities and tasks. The Charter Review Commission was tasked to look at all 17 articles of the Town Charter, with special attention to the section dealing with town debt. With the water line replacement and storm water system projects, the three-year limit on borrowing severely limits the availability of low-interest loans. The Downtown Redevelopment Ad Hoc Committee was tasked by Council to bring recommendations as to what stakeholders in the Time Square neighborhoods would like to see, and what they would not, as the massive Grand Resorts-FMB vision unfolded. The Anchorage Advisory Committee hosted another successful Cruiser Appreciation Day in the Matanzas Inn parking lot adjacent to the Town’s dinghy docks. The Community Resources Advisory Board held their popular Leadership Conference for 19 participants, with help from Truly Scrumptious and Topps. The Local Planning Agency honored member Joanne Shamp for her seven years of service as Chair, Vice Chair and also Chair of the Historic Preservation Board.
The Beach Fire Control District saw the end of Darren White’s tenure as Chief. They honored the First Responders who fell in the Twin Towers 9/11 disaster with a ceremony at Station 33 on Lenell St, where a piece of the fallen towers is installed in a 9/11 memorial. When the firefighters took to the streets for their “Fill the Boot” campaign on behalf of Muscular Dystrophy, they were mistakenly told they could not take their customary places at the foot of the bridge, and moved to the corner of Buttonwood and San Carlos Boulevard. The beach fire district also took delivery on three new ambulances. Members of the Beach Fire District received Phoenix Awards for contributing to the resuscitation of someone in cardiac arrest – Congratulations Seben Tezyk, Hernan Segovia, Terry Brunson, Paul Russell and Tom Deslaurier.
Friends, family and community members gathered at the Page Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center to honor Betty Goodacre, who retired from the Fire Commission after 18+ years of service on the board due to health issues. Another longtime fire board member, John Scanlon, tendered his resignation. The two vacancies were filled by Beach School Principal Larry Wood, and John Pohland, both beach residents, joining already seated board members Bob Raymond, Ted Schindler and Carol Morris. After a long, rocky road, the fire commissioners and the International Firefighters Union Local 1826 reached a state of harmony and agreement, settling long-held grievances.
An explosion on Memorial Day weekend in a residential duplex at 3749 Estero Boulevard caused a fast-moving, devastating fire that quickly engulfed and leveled the house. Residents Paul Harmon and Carol Wilkins barely escaped with their lives, suffering debilitating burns on their feet and legs. Sadly, neighbor Joanne “Jo” Finney, known to all for her loving care of the animals at the Key Estero pond, did not survive. Candles and other memorials lined the sidewalk where the house once stood,
as friends and acquaintances honored Jo’s memory. Within a week, an all-day/all-night fundraiser was co-hosted by The Beach Whale and The Cottage, raising over $6000. Collection jars could be found in local businesses, and yoga instructor Cristina Denegre and her students donated over $500. But this tragedy inspired the Fire District Fire Prevention personnel to create a program that promotes fire safety steps that could be taken by residents and business owners alike, to ensure this never happens again.
Fire survivor Paul “Pauly” Harmon has been a full-time islander for 15 years, working at the Cottage and now the Beached Whale as a parking lot attendant. “Everything’s been tough since the fire,” noting that the lack of affordable housing for working class people has forced him and his partner Carol to relocate off the island. He says the new construction and the coming redevelopment of the downtown area are pretty worrisome. “But I can’t blame anyone. It’s just the way it is.” Still, he loves coming to work at ‘the Whale’ where he sees his friends every day. “That’s a good thing.”
Fort Myers Beach Elementary‘s popular teacher, Heather “Coach” Lodovico, received the Golden Coconut Award from the Beach Kids Foundation. A team of students from the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades brought home top honors in Lee County School District’s annual Book Battle, besting all other 35 teams. The PTO hosted their Flip Flop Ball at Junkanoo to raise funds for school activities and events. Even Principal Wood and his wife Terri got up for a few turns around the dance floor. Incoming kindergartners and their parents were invited to meet their new teachers, see their new classrooms, get a tour of the school and then join the students for lunch in the Dolphin Cafe. All students entering school this past August were invited with their parents to attend an Open House as well, followed by a pool party at the community pool. Students from the school appeared before Town Council to thank them for having the new 10 MPH signs installed in front of the school. We were reminded that Renee’s Closet – literally a closet where donations of clothing, personal grooming items, shoes, and socks are kept for any of the Beach students who may need them – can always use a refill. “Miss Renee” Mulloy created the program in response to school benefactors who were looking for other ways to support the school. Beach School students and staff opened their hearts and the Dolphin Cafe to honor local veterans. Congratulations to 5th grade graduates Barrett Ahlemeier, Laura Atwood, Katelyn Cherry, Madeline Cutler, Alayna Drummond, Bo Dwyer, Katie Florell, Mattison Fodero, Lainey Frana, Hunter Fry, Bobbi Leonard, Alex Lin, Alyssa Mason, Dylan Monroe, Lillian Quaintance, Herimar Ramos-Martinez, Isabella Reimann, Matthew White and Alison Williams.
And so, we prepare to ring in 2016 with enthusiasm and, maybe, just a tad of trepidation. But we will make merry. We’ll gather in Time Square on New Years Eve day as we have every year since the town’s incorporation. From noon until 2 PM, Town Staff will be on hand to give out 1,000 cupcakes donated by Cupcakes in Paradise to passersby. We will get out the noisemakers, the glow sticks, the libations, and we will congratulate ourselves on having survived yet another year on our little island, and we’ll make our resolutions – we will always try to do better, and if we can’t do better, then we will always try to do some good.
That’s who we are. That’s what we do.
Happy New Year!
Photos by Sarah List.