Heart of The Island
The “Heart Of The Island” (HOTI) neighborhood organization met in Tuckaway Café on Wednesday, May 29, with roughly a dozen members in attendance. Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda joined them for this meeting to provide insight and guidance. The HOTI neighborhood, as defined by the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, spans from roughly Pearl Street to Donora Boulevard, and is home to the Fort Myers Beach Public Library, Beach Elementary School, Bay Oaks Recreational Center, Fort Myers Beach Community Pool, Matanzas Pass Preserve and numerous businesses, institutions, hotels and restaurants, as well as residential homes.
“It is so cool to see so many folks in the room today,” said HOTI President Beverley Milligan. “To all the new people here today – welcome! If you are at your first meeting, we have been getting together for well over a year to discuss steps to promote our neighborhood as the next tourism destination on Fort Myers Beach, as envisioned by the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. We have a logo for you all to review, in the hopes that your businesses and organizations will use it to help brand our community.”
Milligan addressed the group’s potential incorporation, saying that “to get this done, we have two options. We can incorporate as a 501c3 entity or a 501c4, but realize that these are quite different. A 501c3 is for charitable purposes, while a 501c4 is more of an agenda-driven group. We need to discuss this, to achieve the objective of bringing the ‘Heart Of The Island’ neighborhood to life, as set out in the Comp Plan over 20 years ago, to be a tourism region of engaged stakeholders, in an area known for its beauty and culture, to educate our fellow residents and visitors about HOTI. We must promote our neighborhood, in a proactive manner, to encourage and engage people to walk down here from Times Square, to visit and stay for a day and night or longer, to enjoy all of our magnificent facilities.”
Barbara Hill, representing the Bay Oaks Recreation Center Advisory Board (BORCAB), suggested the group compose a Mission Statement, and warned that they must select the correct 501c designation to be eligible to receive grant funding and Tourist Development Council moneys. Jan Fleming of the Fort Myers Beach Library felt the group “simply needs to follow the dictates of the Comp Plan; we do not need to come up with some newfangled idea but to simply move forward with that.” Milligan noted that in addition to Barbara, Pastor Ivan Corbin was in attendance to represent the Town’s Cultural Resources Advisory Board (CRAB). Milligan wondered if the next step should be to request that the Town recognize their group as another Advisory Committee, with a Town Council liaison.
Mayor Cereceda said she felt that would be a mistake. “If you become a Town Advisory Committee, you must follow the dictates of the Town, including operating under the State of Florida’s ‘Sunshine Laws.’ That means you could not have a meeting like this, where you all sit around the same table talking to each other, and Council would have to approve and appoint your members, with a finite number, like the seven each who serve on BORCAB and CRAB. I recommend you do not place these sanctions on yourself that would severely limit your communication with each other.” Milligan stated that she mentioned an Advisory Committee as a possibility “because it is frustrating to attend a Town Council, BORCAB or CRAB meeting to discuss HOTI, yet be limited to 3 minutes under ‘Public Comment.’”
Cereceda suggested an alternative. “The Town has an informal committee called the ‘Air Intrusion Relief’ group to monitor air traffic over Fort Myers Beach to and from Southwest Florida International Airport, with an official liaison in Council member Joanne Shamp. If you ask the Town to form a similar group, you will not be limited to 3 minutes, but can talk as much as you want, with a Council member present to provide guidance and advice. I understand your frustrations with the 3-minute time limit, but if you continue meeting in a forum like this today, I have you in my appointment book until 4 p.m.! When your representative comes before Council to make this request, be concisely precise!”
Fleming liked this idea, stating that “we need direction from the Town, as the ‘Heart Of The Island’ is in the Comp Plan, and a Council Liaison can help us ensure that we do not create something the Town would not like.” “This is a Town concept,” said Cereceda, “but it is up to you to define that concept, whether it is coordinated sidewalks or the same color of lighting, along with who will pay for all these things.” “This will be a public, private, municipal partnership,” added Hill. “That has to be a part of the initial conversation of what we are trying to achieve.”
Milligan felt it important that HOTI host some large-scale community activities “that will brand us as an important destination on Fort Myers Beach. It seems like every time we come up with a unique idea, people want to take it across the entire island. We need to create events specific to our neighborhood, to meet our objectives, and host them in isolation only in the ‘Heart Of The Island.’” “I don’t like the word ‘isolation,’” countered Cereceda. “It makes me go ‘EEEEEE!’” “I agree that is a strong word,” laughed Milligan. “I am just trying to make a point, but I need a gentler word!”
Do It Extremely Well
Fran Myers from the Red Coconut RV Park suggested that the entire HOTI neighborhood decorate their homes and businesses in Holiday Lights for the Christmas Season, with a contest to select the Best Decorated ones, with gifts from participating members. Hill thought that each location could sponsor some type of sculpture that represents Fort Myers Beach, then raffle them off, saying that “we did this in a previous community of mine and netted $845,000!” “Let’s pick one big event,” said Milligan, “and then not only do it, but do it extremely well.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Milligan summarized the discussions: “We will go before Council to request an informal committee with a Council Liaison, and come up with an Action Plan that doesn’t say ‘isolation!’” This will combine the efforts of our businesses and residents around a program that we can all wrap our arms around.” Cereceda thought this crucial, as the group needs to better define the “Heart Of The Island,” saying, “The Comp Plan was written over 20 years ago, so the conversation from then is much different from today. There are so many groups in this area that are planning for the future, and you need to link each one up with everything else.” “That is exactly what we have been trying to do for some time,” agreed Milligan.
“You have great support, from everything I hear throughout the community,” added Hill. “There are many moving parts, so don’t be discouraged!” “The Town wants to better brand our island,” concluded the Mayor, “to ensure that all these ideas come together.”
By Gary Mooney