FMB Chamber in Tallahassee
While water in and around Fort Myers Beach remains mostly clear of the Red Tide and Blue-Green Algae that plagued the region last Summer, the topic remains close to the minds and hearts of the local business community. Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, joined six other Southwest Florida Chambers and fifty business professionals in meeting with State legislators, including newly-elected Governor Ron DeSantis, in Tallahassee to discuss clean water and other issues from February 10 to 12.
Joining Liszak in representing Fort Myers Beach were FMB Chamber President John Gavin of Gavin’s Ace Hardware and acknowledged water expert Dr. Mike Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University and the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station. In addition to the FMB Chamber, representatives from Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples, Sanibel, and the Chamber of Southwest Florida traveled to Tallahassee.
The combined Chambers trip occurred from a newfound unity from last year’s water crisis, explained Liszak. “The Alliance of Southwest Florida Chambers would meet every so often, but after the events of last year, we now meet monthly, as a coalition for regional action, representation, and cooperation, because it is critical we speak with one voice. In addition to the various Chamber representatives, people from Captains For Clean Water, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and the Everglades Foundation joined us, so we were a well-rounded group.”
Water was the Number One topic, Liszak related. “The last time a similar group like this made a similar trip to Tallahassee, getting Senate Bill 10 approval for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee was the prime initiative, and this year, our main focus was to ensure that the State funds the EAA. What was encouraging was that while getting the EAA approved was a political struggle, this time around, the legislators was all positive, across the board, Democrats and Republicans, and not just our Southwest Florida delegation but those from all around the State, as other areas of Florida now encounter water issues of their own and everyone knows that all our water is interconnected, and we must protect our water for clean water.”
We All Said “Wow!”
Another major difference in Tallahassee, Liszak said, is strong environmental support from Governor DeSantis, a clear delineation from the previous administration. “It is evident that the Governor is holding everyone’s feet to the fire, and they are all moving together as one at warp speed! All we kept hearing is the Governor is doing this and the Governor is doing that, and we all said, ‘Wow!’”
While the 51-person Chamber delegation met with all the legislators as well as with Governor DeSantis as one, Liszak explained they put their broad regional appeal to good use. “Those of us from Lee County used our personal relationships to open doors to our area Legislators, like Senators Lizbeth Benacquisto and Kathleen Passidomo, and Representatives Dane Eagle, Heather Fitzenhagen, Spencer Roach, and Ray Rodrigues, and the other members of our party did the same with their regional representatives. We spent time with the new House Speaker, Jose Oliva, who was so impressive, and of course our own Dane Eagle is Majority Leader.”
They spoke briefly as well with Governor DeSantis. “It was in his office and very fast,” related Liszak, “but he was so gracious! He thanked us all for taking time out of our busy lives to travel to Tallahassee, saying how important it was for legislators to hear from and see us face-to-face, as meetings like this with familiar faces of constituents from back home makes a huge difference, rather than just sending out some group email where the only required effort is hitting a computer button.”
In addition to Governor DeSantis and legislators, the Chamber group also spent time with Nikki Fried, the State Agriculture & Consumer Services Commissioner; Noah Valenstein, the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection; and representatives from the Department of Transportation and Florida Tax Watch. “Commissioner Fried told us it is all about the ‘3 W’s – Weapons, Weed, & Water!’ Concealed carry is a big issue for her, as is getting medical marijuana to more Floridians. She obviously campaigned on water quality, as she understands that clean water impacts everyone, and that all Florida businesses and residents must be part of the solution to the puzzle, whether it be agriculture or livestock or tourism or runoff or septic tanks; she was 100% on-board with our requests and concerns.”
Liszak stated that “DEP Secretary Valenstein has become a good friend – at the peak of last Summer’s water crisis, he personally came to Fort Myers Beach and traveled the entire island with me in a rainstorm because he knows water to us is everything. The Department of Transportation is crucial to Fort Myers Beach because traffic is constantly an issue here, and though we will never completely solve it, we must work together to find ways to make it flow more smoothly. Finally, I constantly keep Flood Insurance on the radar of everyone in Tallahassee because it is again increasing significantly each year, by as much as 25% on some properties, as that is money we should be investing back into our businesses and nest eggs rather than on insurance.”
Our Team In Place
She wished that every Floridian went to Tallahassee at least once, to experience their government in action. “The democratic process is amazing, and it is a privilege and honor to see it up close, to know you really can personally affect change. So many people are negative about government, but I am 100% optimistic that through our efforts, water especially will drastically improve. I am not naïve, though, as it will not take a day or even a year to get it right, but we seem to have our team in place, in a cooperative approach, pulling together and moving in the right direction, and that was not true just a year or two ago. Even the new South Florida Water Management District Board seems focused to the task at hand, through Governor DeSantis’ efforts to remake it. Congressman Francis Rooney is working hard for us in Washington, DC, and even President Donald Trump now seems to be pushing hard for clean water.”
No Tallahassee success is possible, Liszak stressed, “without the support of the fifty people who went up there with us, as many took time off work and rolled up their sleeves to take care of important issues for us all, with a hyper-focus on what is best for our island and the Southwest Florida community. It all starts with each of us, as little things all add up in big ways! What made our Tallahassee trip even more meaningful is that, at the same time, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and Councilperson Holly Smith were in DC advocating for clean water on the national level, so we nicely bookended these trips in a united front.”
While the legislators were all in Tallahassee, “they were just doing their Committee work,” explained Liszak. “I will return in March, when the Legislative session begins in earnest, this time traveling with realtors, as that will be another opportunity to not only speak up for but keep our community informed, because that is when the actual votes occur, and everything in session happens fast, so that is the perfect time to be there to advocate for us. It comes down to each of us acting locally to improve things globally.”
With Spring Training games beginning this weekend and Spring Break right around the corner, Liszak reported that Fort Myers Beach business is nearing its peak! “Most hotels and rentals are close to full capacity, and it is nearly impossible to find a weekend room. Traffic is heavy, but after what we all endured last Summer, I don’t hear anyone complaining about that, so we are cooking with gas right now!”
FMB Chamber meetings continue the second Thursday of each month, with a breakfast event on March 14 with the speaker from Stokes Marina, then on April 11 with Captain Daniel Andrews of “Captains For Clean Water.” “The annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year is Saturday, March 16,” reminded Liszak. “The Chamber is moving its ‘Mini-Masters Golf Tournament’ from its traditional April timeframe to October, to ease things for our businesses in the heart of season. ‘Taste of The Beach’ is May 5, when locals have some time again to enjoy their own fun, and the Chamber Golf Outing will be June 7 at Spring Run. The Town hosts The Fourth of July fireworks, and our ‘Bowling Bash’ is July 18.” For more information, see www.fortmyersbeach.org or call 239-454-7500.
“Finally,” concluded Liszak, “the Town election for two Council seats is Tuesday, March 5, and the Chamber encourages all residents to vote, as the next year will be crucial for the Town and we need warriors there acting for us!”
By Gary Mooney