20 years go by in the blink of an eye.
I can remember, like it was yesterday, the day our Town celebrated its incorporation. December 31st 1995 feels like it was just 5 minutes ago! Incredibly enough, I’m standing in the same exact spot 20 years later. During the incorporation there was so much anxiety about what would happen, did we wait too long to do it, would we be successful, such great uncertainty and of course, a lot of change. One of my favorite things people would say was “Why bother, we’re built out anyway!” What they didn’t see then was the flood of redevelopment that would challenge every Mayor and Council member, staff and volunteer over the last 20 years and continues to do so with vigor today. The worries I had then, the sleeplessness over doing the right thing, is just as intense as it was so many years ago.
I’ve prayed every day that I would find the words to say to calm the anxiousness that exists in our Town right now. So many things are happening all at once from the road project, waterline replacements, and new homes taking the place of old charming cottages, redevelopment everywhere we look, plans proposed that make us fearful our community will change forever. It’s hard to drive down a street on this island without seeing the sign of “progress” knocking at our door.
But “progress” is relative isn’t it? Sort of like taste or judgement…it’s different to each of us.
I remember when the swing bridge came down and the sky bridge went in. I was a senior in high school. It was 1979. The profound effect of that project was no doubt lost on me at the time but the impact of that first trip to the beach when the arches were down and the new bridge was up, well, it just didn’t feel like the beach to me anymore. For the newer, safer, stronger passage to the island, “progress” and change cost one of my very favorite memories of this island. The creaky, always breaking down, ‘best excuse to be late home’ bridge was gone and the new big bold expansive view had taken its place. It took a while for me to get used to it but before long, the view we all love now as you drive over the Matanzas bridge became the next beloved version of “the Beach.”
Ted Fitzsimons, the gentleman who championed our incorporation along with others, had a campaign slogan in 1995 that my mom actually painted on signs for him and it read, “Preservation is Progress.” That expression seems to best sum up what I think we all feel at this turning point in our Town’s history. The thought behind it was that if we were able to preserve the character of our community that would be the “progress” we were looking for with incorporation. That sense of preserving the small town feel of our island was an important part of our incorporation 20 years ago and it’s equally important today.
I like looking at the Facebook pages titled “You know you are a beach kid if…” and “You grew up in Lee County if…” Going down memory lane in my mind is great but I like most the comments from people who grew up on the island in the 50’s and 60’s. It was definitely a different place then and those that write often lament the “loss” of the Fort Myers Beach they knew. The island I loved in the late 70’s is certainly not the island I love now. “Progress,” change, has effected this little strip of sand many times and for many generations. I suspect at each turn this community has been right where we are now, weighing the cost of those changes and struggling to hold on to who we are. They managed to succeed, and so will we.
I believe our incorporation was the best thing that ever happened to this community. It gave us the power to manage and control the “progress” and the changes that effect our everyday lives. So many positive things have happened over the last 20 years. So many extraordinary people have served this community with equal amounts of challenges and successes and through it all, to quote my friend Corri when she was talking about the town, “When someone needed something, we were there. We stand together, always.” Isn’t that what being part of a small town is all about?
2016 will have many challenges but I have no doubt that in the end we will do just as she said and stand together, because that’s what we do. Over the next year I will continue to hold an open house at Town Hall the first Wednesday of the month from 5-7pm in the hopes of being able to address any concerns you have or ideas you wish to share. January’s meeting is on the 6th. These evenings are casual conversations and the topics are set by you, whomever attends. Keeping the dialogue open is critical to keeping our community together and getting answers straight from the source is far more valuable that the latest breaking news on the coconut telegraph.
I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year and look forward to seeing you soon.
Mayor, Town of Fort Myers Beach