Under One Roof
Lovers Key State Park, just off the southern tip of Fort Myers Beach, is the second-most visited state park in Florida, averaging one million visitors annually, but it does so without a single indoor venue for exhibits, classrooms, meetings and similar opportunities. That will soon change, though, as its Friends Of Lovers Key (FOLKS) volunteer group recently spearheaded a legislative effort to garner $4 million to construct a Visitor Center, estimated to begin in 2018 and be complete in 2019.
“The process actually began last year,” explained Mark Generales, a FOLKS volunteer. “The Florida Legislature appropriated $450,000 for architects and engineers and permitting, then the remaining $3.55 million this year for the construction, to tell Southwest Florida’s ecological story. We want visitors to learn the park’s history, background, and environment, as so many just come to Lovers Key to go to its spectacular beaches, but they miss out on knowing about its various habitats.”
“For people who use, visit, and protect Lovers Key State Park, I cannot think of a better way than a first-class visitor center to educate the general public,” added park manager Bob Steiger. “Remember that most visitors and even local residents now are not Floridians, so it is crucial they know its history, and one of our missions is education.”
“Lovers Key welcomes more than one million people each year, behind only Honeymoon Island in Dunedin,” Mark offered. “Its annual revenue exceeds $1 million, with almost $89 million in total economic development, without a single indoor facility. How do you teach elementary and middle and high school kids when there is nowhere to get together, as we don’t have such a building right now, and any place that draws a million visitors annually surely deserves one. There are many state parks across Florida with far less patronage that have visitor centers, so our time has come.”
Mark call the future structure “a tremendous opportunity to do programs we can’t do now. We can’t do anything in inclement weather or at night, and that limits our ability to serve the public. Once we have the building, we can host events that will cover critters and plants and all kinds of different nature and water quality presentations in climate-controlled conditions. We have one of the longest undeveloped coastline areas left in all of Southwest Florida, with mangroves and native plants and a habitat conducive to filtration and the Bay and the Gulf, so we are much more than just a great beach. Governor Rick Scott and the Legislature and their staffs all got it, and now the public will be able to get it as well, to further realize how truly special is Lovers Key!”
The Visitor Center will have the exhibits on one side and a classroom and meeting space on the other. The state park system chose Sweet Sparkman Architects of Sarasota to design the building, “and they are good guys who are joy to work with,” Mark reported enthusiastically! “They spent time with us, walked the park and did a nice job of interpreting what we all envision. It will be 17 feet off the ground, due to floodplain regulations, but they will still use the lower level by making it an outdoor classroom, with ceiling fans and outdoor tables, to teach sessions or show off critters. When you use your imagination, you can accomplish pretty outstanding things. The building will allow us to increase the usage of Lovers Key many fold, and that is terrific.”
While the State is funding design and construction, FOLKS will raise an additional $800,000 for the exhibits. “The Friends has $140,000 to this point,” said Mark, “and we are working with Split Rock Exhibits from St. Paul, Minnesota, who will construct the exhibits. FOLKS interviewed 4 or 5 different firms and their expertise just blew us away!” Major fundraising will not occur until the Visitor Center is under construction. “It is tough to find money just talking about a concept,” Mark related, “but when you can show funders something tangible, that they can be a part of something special, with potential naming rights for rooms or exhibits, that can help to make up their minds.”
We Are Going to Win This!
In retrospect, Mark calls the legislative process to acquire the design and construction funds relatively painless: “We never encountered any pushback – not from even one single person! I stood before the congressional delegation three years in a row and there was not one! Crucially, we had unanimous Southwest Florida support, from local communities like Fort Myers Beach and Estero and Bonita Springs, to Lee County Commissioners, to our legislative delegation, and that was a real strength, that everyone was so solid with this and they were all there for us. I very early on began to think, ‘We are going to win on this!’ My understanding is Governor Scott never considered using a veto.”
FOLKS thanks several key supporters: “While we need to thank a whole bunch of people, Representative Matt Caldwell (R-79) shepherded it through the House to the full amount, and Senator Kathleen Passidomo (R-28) got it over the hump in the Senate,” Mark says. “Representative Ray Rodrigues (R-76) and Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-27) provided a great deal of assistance. When we first began the process, then when push came to shove near the end, Bonita Springs and Estero and Fort Myers Beach were critical in their support, as were the Lee County Commissioners. People tell me that made a big difference in Tallahassee and the Governor’s Office. The Town of Fort Myers Beach endorsed the visitor center early on, then again in the final push, and that was important to avoid any potential veto. Your Town Council really stepped up!”
As an aside, Mark noted that “Fort Myers Beach and Bonita and Estero are all acutely aware of our environment and its importance to our region, for quality of life and the economy, and each of those governments supported us, and that turned out to be a good thing, for when we speak as one, that has a big effect regionally, statewide, and federally. I think it would be great if those three joined together, in one common coalition, as the more they speak with one environmental voice, the more they concentrate their power, political and otherwise.”
Mark describes the moment he learned Lovers Key and FOLKS received the final funding. “One of my colleagues called from Tallahassee, saying we are done and the money was ours! I never send out emails all in caps, but I made an exception here, spreading the word to all our members in an EMAIL IN ALL CAPS! Several of our board members were pleasantly surprised and shocked that we got this done, but I can sincerely say that was everyone coming together that led to our success. In the end, that is the absolute best thing: it was just such a joy to see the whole community rally around the Lovers Key Visitor Center, proving that if we all prioritize a common goal, we can be successful to get something positive done!”