Bill Grace, whose family formerly owned the Mound House, recently referred to Mayor Anita Cereceda “as the First Lady of Fort Myers Beach.” On the campaign trail a few months ago, then candidate and now Town Vice Mayor Ray Murphy called her “the heart and soul of Fort Myers Beach.” Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of The Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, commented that “when you think of Fort Myers Beach, you think of Anita Cereceda! She cares about this community as if it were her child, and helped it grow from infancy through adolescence into young adulthood.”
Anita last month became the first person in the Town’s 23-year history to serve as its Mayor on three different occasions. She was the initial Mayor, from its December 31, 2015 Incorporation through its first four years, then held the top spot again from early 2014 through early 2016. Following the March 5 Town Council election, her Council colleagues on March 18 unanimously elected her Mayor once more.
“My first time as Mayor, I left Council to run unsuccessfully to be a Lee County Commissioner,” she recalled. “My second time, I stepped aside again – but remained on Council – after the March 2016 election, because it was clear that the electorate wanted a different direction. Following the recent March 5 election, however, things seemed to swing back in the other direction, so I had an inkling my name might come forward. I however hoped that whoever Council chose would be by a unanimous vote, as I thought that important, as that did not happen for several years. When Council unanimously selected me, it was a joyful moment, but I had trouble expressing that, as I suffered from horrible laryngitis that day!”
While Mayor Anita is the voice of experience today, that certainly was not the case when she became the first Town Mayor! She was the only woman on the original Council and its youngest member at age 34. “I think they selected me because I tend to be a consensus builder. That was important then, because two of the other original Council members were big Incorporation supporters while the other two were not, and I was in the middle, so they saw me as the peacemaker and that was a good role for me in those early days.”
Anita, Take Two!
After being away from Town Council for almost a decade-&-a-half, Anita ran again in 2014. “I was the Chair of the Local Planning Agency during that period, and that was a great experience, as we dealt with several controversial issues, like the Environmentally Critical Zone and elevated pools, and I attended Council meetings to address those issues, and it just sort-of hit me one day that the nature of our Town was changing, one thing at a time, like a row of dominos falling. This shift was very visible to me, where we were transitioning from little beach cottages to 20,000-square-foot mansions, so I thought, ‘if there was ever a time to run for Council again, it is now!’ I quickly found myself saying, ‘Oh, God – you already did this once,” but there were big projects on the horizon, like the Estero Boulevard Projects, that I wanted to make sure were done correctly, as the Town was no longer about development but redevelopment.”
While some folks told her that horse was already out of the barn, she stated, “but people also said that 23 years ago, after incorporation. I however do not dream about the ‘Good Old Days’ but look forward to the future, while remembering how we got here, so that 20 years from now, when another Mayor is speaking to another reporter, they will appreciate the things we do and accomplish today. The funny thing is, when I was younger, I always worried about the past, and now I only think about the future, so maybe I got that out of my system!”
People often ask Anita what is the difference between being the Fort Myers Beach Mayor of 2019 versus 1996. “The biggest change isn’t political but that I was 34-years-old then and today I am 57, so I have over 20 more years of personal, professional and political life experience that hopefully I put to good use, so I don’t get rattled or lose as much sleep over things like I did back then. I also thought my point-of-view was always right, but now I am more open-minded and realize there are other solutions and points-of-view that might be correct, like with the recent Connecticut Street sidewalk issue.”
Anita called the best thing about being Mayor, “whether in 1996, in 2014, or today, is being of service to the people of this Town. I feel like I have 8,000 children, as Fort Myers Beach is my family; my feeling for this community runs that deep! Your problems are my problems, and I want to help you, although another thing I learned 23 years later is often there is no perfect solution, and sometimes all you can do is the best you can. That would have been a bitter pill for 34-year-old Anita, but I appreciate that now.”
Passion Burns Bright
Anita is now in the last year of her second consecutive three-year term, meaning she is ineligible for re-election in 2020. So is this the Anita Cereceda Fort Myers Beach political swan song? “If I follow the same formula as last time, I will be in my early 70s when I run again,” she said with a laugh! “I would Never-Say-Never, but I hope we are on the verge of a new generation of Fort Myers Beach political leaders, as that would be wonderful! I think Dan Allers, who ran a terrific campaign this year, is a perfect example of a young person who is excited about the future of Fort Myers Beach, and I hope he runs again in 2020. Council members Bruce Butcher and Joanne Shamp can both run for reelection next year, and each brings unique skills – Joanne knows the Comprehensive Plan inside-out and Bruce has such a strong business background and analytical skills that the Town badly needs. We also have terrific people on the Town volunteer committees, and perhaps several of them will soon throw their hats into the ring, as I would happily share any wisdom I have with any of them.”
The future of Fort Myers Beach is important to Anita “because this is my home and always will be! I hear that from so many people, whether they were born here, relocated here, or is that family who vacations here that same week each April and already feels that way, as that is the kind of emotion Fort Myers Beach naturally brings out in us. You are passionate about your home and those you share it with, so while my political career may be winding down, that passion for our home burns as bright as ever!”
With tears in her eyes, Anita spoke to the citizens of Fort Myers Beach. “It is an honor serving you, and I hope I make as much of a positive difference in your lives as you make in mine!”
By Gary Mooney